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Alternative laying hen husbandry – an alternative?

After decades of animal protection campaigns, many consumers rightly consider hens in cages the mother-of-all cruelty to animals. That's why the consumers chose every day more eggs from free run-, organic- or free range husbandry. Almost all discounters have banned eggs from cage husbandry and replaced them by eggs from alternative husbandry. But the reality behind in free run-, organic- or free range husbandry is shown by actual videos filmed in 7 companies that produce eggs for big discounters: hens full of parasites, sick, half naked and dying hens, hens standing on dead comrades, decayed carcasses lying in the stable, narrowness and stress, cannibalism and pulling out plumages, poor hygiene, the free runs can only be used partially or are totally closed for days.

The video documentary about the subject: Alternative laying hen husbandry

Animal protection campaigns and their consequences

Campaigns against cage eggs have been an important issue for small and big animal protection organizations for many years. It is absolutely out of question: Laying hen husbandry in cages is total cruelty. This fact has not been changed with the new regulations that demand to replace the small cages for 4 hens by big cages for up to 60 hens (space per hen 600 squarecentimeters before, now 800 squarecentimeters). The campaign of the animal protectors led to the ban of cage eggs in nearly all supermarkets (e.g. the campaign of the Tierschutzbund (humane society): http://www.tierschutzbund.de/handel_kaefig-ei-frei.html or others that copied this campaign). The decoration of "alternative" eggs in the stores with colorful pennons and information about "eggs from happy hens" has been a success: The consumer is buying, and he does so with a quiet conscience. Eggs from hens who are everything but "happy". The awarding of "golden eggs" to producers who stopped using cage eggs for their food production would affront countless free run hens, if they just understood about it.

"Alternative" = "Humane husbandry"?

Those campaigns with the simple principle of "no egg with 3" have only led to the consumer's, who believes in humane husbandry, buying eggs from "alternative husbandry". "Free run" or even "free range" don't suggest industrial husbandry with wire-frame-floor at several levels with feces conveyors and factory farming, but happy hens on straw or even green grass. Reality is, however, intensive stock-rearing to satisfy the market demand. Stables with 10.000, 20.000 or more animals are standard. The stable is mainly a steel complex, where the hens live. The animals are totally overextended by too many comrades; picking feathers, cannibalism and other abnormal behavior are a daily occurrence. The stress caused by the crushes weaken the immune system and often lead to diseases and death of many hens. You can also detect parasite infestation very often.

Free range and organic hens without free run

Access to fresh air is not taken too seriously by the alternative husbandry. A research by die Tierfreunde e.V. keeps records about one free range and several organic husbandries, where the hens were deprived of access to fresh air at least all wekeend, meaning they were locked up in narrow space from Friday to Monday. Nobody can really control, when the hens get access to outside: the access is not regulated by law, the local veterinarian are not in charge to control the compliance. The regional office or KAT (a control system for eggs) can't cover a large area, and it's evident that during the weekends there is no control at all. The bird flu hysteria can lead to the obligation to leave the hens inside the stables but anyway their eggs can be called free range or organic until 12 weeks of being locked in.

Alibi-free range

The free range areas almost always lack the necessary and claimed protection for the hens. Without cover most hens don't dare to use the free range zone, so even the biggest place has no use at all. Some breeds never go out without cover, some only when they are adults. But as the hens are only kept about one year within the different systems and then get slaughtered and replaced by younger hens (about 3 months old) because of their shrinking egg rate, the free range without cover is useless for most of them.



Organic hens, about 1 year old

Organic hen, about 1 year old

Organic hen, a short time later
(in a small organic shop)

Film footage from German bio-stables:

The following shootings of uncut footage show a representative selection of German stables for organic hens. The common idea of organic eggs coming from small farms with a few happy hens is wishful thinking: Those small farms run by idealists don't have any impact on the production of organic eggs, whereas the conditions you can see in the video are the rule. The owners of the presented farms deliver their organic eggs to local sellers, bio-chains and discounters with well-known brand names. There is only little difference between the existing bio-labels concerning the living conditions of the animals - there is no certificate that would be able to avoid such cruelty. When the stables get filled with "fresh" laying hens they are still clean and the hens look "well". Some time later the hens start losing their feathers and the stables get more and more dirty, full of excrements and dust, the animals start dying. The hens are stressed and mentally disordered because of the conditions. They tend to pick feathers and to cannibalism, they suffer under the genetic nagging breed that forces them to lay eggs almost every day and often leads to severe and fatal salpingitis. At the end of the laying period (about 12-18 months) no one should walk in those stables without wearing a mask. The hens breath with difficulties, are exhausted and without feathers. The free run zones are full of excrements and often lack in cover possibilities, so the hens only use the edge of the stables, and during the weekends they stay locked in sometimes.

The liberation of an organic hen:

Duty: Give eggs for one year

The hens are kept in the different systems for about one year. Then their laying performance is decreasing and they get slaughtered. The condition of the hens and the hygienic situation in the stable depends on their age. The stables must get cleaned and desinfected about once a year, after one laying cycle (§ 14.1.3 German farm animal act). Afterwards they bring in young hens. A recently filled up stable still looks quite clean and the hens still have a healthy feathering. But this changes rapidly after some weeks or even months. Shortly before the end of their cycle they are haggard, sick, almost naked and the hygienic situation in the stable is unbearable.

The daily dying

The death rate in the alternative husbandry systems is, just like in the cages, considerable. In a public note of the Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection called "laying hen breeding and egg production – practical recommendations" from 2008 they speak of 11,8% mortality in the different alternative systems (free run, free range, organic). That means, in a hall of 20.000 hens each day 6-7 hens die. It's therefore normal and undisputed to find dead animals between the living ones. It depends on the individual stable management if those dead hens are taken away or not. Those animals die for a reason. They are victims of diseases and injuries: Salpingitis, peritonitis, parasite infestation, breast bone distortion and -fractures, cannibalism, virus and germs infections – a woebegone, silent and often slow death as well in the alternative husbandry systems. Wards are isolated cases, not compulsory and because of the high number of animals only a pretense: Most time the animals suffer and die within their comrades in the laying area.

Hatch to die – 50 Million male chicks

About 50 Million "new" laying hens are put into the stables each year in Germany. They hatch out of 100 Million eggs that are produced in big "parenting husbandries". Half of the eggs contain male chicks: not exploitable for the egg production. These animals are only bred for a high laying rate, not for mast, so they are not profitable. 50 Million male chicks get killed each year in Germany right after birth – also the brothers of the organic laying hens.

The different husbandry systems

Numeral 3 – cage keeping: 800 square centimeters per hen. Minimal cage dimension 2,5 square meters (until 2009 in the old cages it was 600 square centimeters per hen).

Numeral 2 – free run keeping: 9 hens per square meter. In halls with several levels (which is the norm) 18 hens per square meter. Maximal group size: 6000 hens.

Numeral 1 – free range keeping: Inside like free run and additionally access to fresh air. The outside area must be vegetated and contain scrub, hedges, corn etc. as cover for the animals. The outside area must be open daily without restrictions. Size: 4 square meters per hen. Area not farther away from the stable than 150 meters.

Numeral 0 – organic production: 6 hens per square meter. In halls with several levels (which is the norm) 12 hens per square meter. Maximal group size: 3000 hens. Outside area like free range keeping. They must only be fed with organic food from genetically unaltered products.




Totes Biohuhn im Biostallnest
Dead organic hen in organic stable nest

Organic hen

Biohühner im Biostall
Organic hens in organic stable

totes Biohuhn
Dead organic hen


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