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Egg Farms: How Are Laying Hens Raised on Egg Farms?

April 12, 2022
Time to read: 8 minutes

If we believed the packaging we see on egg cartons at the grocery store we would think that the hens who lay our eggs live idyllic lives wandering around green fields and preening their full brown feathers in the sunshine. But the reality is that most chickens are factory farmed, and layer hens are often crammed into cages with wire floors, lacking even the space to stretch their wings. These conditions are extremely stressful for birds and seriously affect chickens’ behavior, leading to psychological and physical trauma, forced molting, aggression, and numerous other problems. 

Together we can end factory farming.

What Is an Egg Farm?

An egg farm is a facility that raises animals to produce eggs. Though eggs can be produced by different species and for a variety of purposes the most common are chicken eggs meant for human consumption. Though some farming systems cause less harm to animals than others, all industrial egg farms cause vast amounts of suffering due to the standards of care that are inherent to the industry’s aims and methods. 

How Are Laying Hens Housed and Raised on Egg Farms?

A hen raised to lay eggs for human consumption could experience one of a few different housing techniques. Some spend their lives crammed together with other hens in small cages while others are packed together in vast barns with thousands of other hens and no access to natural light. 

Conventional Cages

Conventional cages, or battery cages, provide less space per bird than a standard 8.5 inch by 11-inch piece of paper. The lack of space in overcrowded cages means that hens are unable to spread their wings, let alone express their full range of natural behaviors. Despite the poor conditions provided by battery cages, an overwhelming majority of birds in the United States are housed in these systems. 

Enriched Colony Housing Units

Enriched colony housing units are larger enclosures that house dozens of birds but also provide enrichment such as perches and nests. In this housing system, each bird has about 116 square inches of space and the housing frequently lacks access to sunlight, depriving birds of the natural rhythms of day and night.

Cage-Free

Hens kept in cage-free housing spend their lives in massivebarns with thousands of other birds. The tight quarters, artificial light, and lack of access to the outdoors frequently result in bullying and violent pecking among the birds, who are unable to get away or form natural social groups or live normal lives whatsoever.

Free-Range

Free-range housing systems are similar to cage-free systems in that thousands of birds are housed in a massive barn, or aviary. The key difference is that free-range systems provide access to the outdoors via portholes in the side of the building. Many birds may not actually have the opportunity to go outside, either due to heavy winds around the portholes from the fans in the building that help to expel ammonia and make the holes unappealing to chickens, or simply because of the small amount of outdoor space available relative to the amount of birds confined in the building. “Free range” is primarily a humanewashing term that carries no real meaning in terms of chicken welfare.

What Do You Find on an Egg Farm?

Life on an egg farm has a variety of common features across housing systems.  

Beak Trimmer

Beak trimming, or debeaking, is the process of cutting off up to one-third of the beak of laying hens. Beak trimming is performed using a hot blade or another cutting implement such as a laser The procedure is known to be highly painful due to the high concentration of nerves in the beak. Currently, the practice is considered necessary in the farming industry to prevent cannibalism or feather pecking brought about by the stressful conditions in which birds are housed. 

Battery Cages

Battery cages are the most common form of housing for laying hens. Typically,  around eight birds are housed in one cage. The housing is highly stressful for the birds and results in severe foot injuries from standing on the cages’ wire floors and from standing in their own waste. 

Ammonia

An especially serious problem in housing systems that use litter, such as a cage-free set-up, ammonia can cause damage to the eyes and respiratory tracts of the hens. The dangerous buildup of ammonia is due to the concentration of urine and feces in the litter. 

Industrial Macerators

The chicken industry has developed distinct breeds of birds for laying and meat. The laying birds produce a large number of eggs, while the chickens used for meat grow extraordinarily large very quickly. In this way modern industrial agriculture has created a system based on selectively bred chickens, in which male laying birds are of no use to the industry.. They cannot be raised for meat due to their small size, and they do not produce eggs. Because of this they are killed immediately after hatching, often in large industrial macerators that grind them up alive.

What Is Chick Culling?

Regardless of the type of housing used by an egg farm, male chicks are killed, or “culled,”because they provide no economic benefit to farmers. Maceration of male chicks is considered the most efficient form of culling baby birds. They are dumped onto a conveyor belt that delivers them to a machine designed to crush them. Other methods include suffocation, gassing, and electrocution. Even chickens purchased to be raised for their eggs in urban or suburban yards are unfortunately intertwined with these processes.

How Are Chicks Culled?

Suffocation

Chicks are sometimes trapped inside plastic bags where they will gasp for air until they die of suffocation. 

Electrocution

Electrocution consists of exposing baby birds to electric currents until they are shocked to death. 

Cervical Dislocation

Cervical dislocation is generally used on older birds rather than on chicks. The process involves separating the head of the bird from the vertebrae of the neck. The worker killing the bird is essentially breaking their neck. 

Gassing

Another commonly used method of killing male chicks, gassing involves the use of a mixture of gases such as argon or nitrogen.s. Ideally, the gas mixture would result in a loss of consciousness prior to death, but there are no laws that require this.

Maceration

Maceration is regarded as the most efficient methods of killing unwanted male chicks in the egg industry. Once hatched and sorted by sex, the chicks are dumped onto a conveyor belt that ends in a macerator that grinds  the baby birds up without any sedation or other pain management.

Is Farming Eggs Profitable?

Poultry farming, including both meat and egg farmers, is a profitable business if you’re a massive corporation that administers predatory contracts with farmers. Poultry farmers themselves often subsist on poverty-level wages in the United States due to the contracts that require massive investments from farmers and often pit farmers against one another in tournament-style competitions. . These contracts are written in such a way that the farmers are forced to absorb economic blows as production and the state of the market fluctuate, while the corporations are able to continuously profit. 

How Much Do Egg Farms Make?

It is difficult to pin down exactly how much the average poultry farmer makes per year. According to poultry farmers’ own testimony of their estimated income and expenses, their income sits at about negative $10,000 a year. Promotional materials from major poultry corporations estimate that the average farmer makes about $30,000 a year. In 2019, nonprofit initiative Transfarmation estimated that poultry farmers made about $17,800 a year. 

Why Are Eggs Not Good for You?

There are several health and nutrition factors to be aware of when consuming eggs. 

Cholesterol and Heart Disease

Egg consumption has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, one study found that for every half an egg consumed per day over a 17.5-year period, the risk of developing cardiovascular disease increased by 6 percent and the risk of death increased by 8 percent. 

Diabetes

A longitudinal study conducted in China found that those that consume one or more eggs daily had a 60 percent higher risk of diabetes. 

Cancer

Various studies have shown that egg consumption, especially high egg consumption, may increase the risk of developing a variety of cancers including prostate cancer in men and colon cancer

Food Poisoning

Eggs can contain Salmonella bacteria which cause symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, and fever. Those with weaker immune systems such as young children, older adults, and those that are HIV positive should be especially careful as their symptoms are likely to be much worse. 

Egg Farm Facts and Statistics

Evolution of U.S. Egg Farming

The evolution of egg farming in the United States followed the growth of markets for food products and the development of technology that increased productivity. Until  the 1930s eggs were primarily produced by backyard chickens that would supply just one family. Extra eggs would be sold to members of the local community. Emergence of a mass market and changing methods in housing and feeding led to the creation of corporate egg farms in the 1960s. These farms housed birds in cages and collected eggs using a conveyor belt. 

Egg Farms Routinely Kill Male Chicks

In economic terms, male chicks are not worth raising for egg farmers. They do not grow large enough to be sold for meat, and they do not lay eggs. Because of this, regardless of the housing system and how much space the laying hens have, male chicks are culled, usually at merely a day old. 

Farms Starve Chickens To Help Egg Production

Forced molting is the practice of denying birds food for up to two weeks and water for up to two days in order to increase the size and quality of eggs that the birds are laying. Hens will naturally reduce their food consumption during certain times of the year, which results in them laying fewer eggs. Once they do resume normal behavior the size and quality of their eggs is greater. Moltingorced upon the hens at unnatural times and for extended periods can esult in high levels of stress and a compromised immune system. 

Hens’ Parenting Instincts Are Denied

Researchers have understood the strength of the bond between a mother hen and her chicks for years. The baby birds are able to discriminate their mother from other hens. The relationship likely begins to form even before the chick has hatched, when the baby starts vocalizing through their shell the day before hatching. Hens on factory farms will never experience this natural process as their eggs are taken for human consumption.

Hens’ Bones Break Because of Intensive Laying

The demand to produce more and larger eggs has increased sharply over the last several decades. Prior to the implementation of factory farming techniques, hens were expected to produce around 20 eggs a year. Modern laying hens produce over 300. This increase in productivity takes its toll on the birds’ bodies, which often endure broken bones due to the loss of essential minerals required to produce their eggs.

Chickens’ Beaks Are Cut

Beak trimming is considered standard practice on virtually every egg farm. The procedure involves the removal of up to one-third of the bird’s beaks in order to prevent cannibalism among the flock caused by intensive confinement. Birds that have their beaks trimmed often experience chronic pain, eat less food, and are persistently lethargic. 

Farmed Birds Never Reach Their Natural Lifespan

Despite laying hens having a natural lifespan of six to eight years, hens in a commercial setting are killed and disposed of after only 18-24 months when productivity goes down. 

Food Poisoning Risks

Eggs are capable of carrying the bacteria Salmonella which live in the digestive tracts of animals and can cause food poisoning. Salmonella infection can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and cramping. Every year in the United States 1.35 million people are infected, 26,500 are hospitalized, and 420 people die from Salmonella poisoning.

Conclusion

Whatever the type of housing used by an egg farm, there are many issues with egg production and consumption. Baby birds are slaughtered by the millions, laying hens are mutilated en masse, and standard housing prevents the expression of natural behavior. Consuming eggs may also have lasting health impacts including greater risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and possibly even cancer. These are all factors that are important to consider when choosing the foods we consume. By reaching for a delicious egg alternative, such as Just Egg for scrambling or flax seeds for baking, we could be bettering our own lives as well as the lives of chickens.

Sharing this article helps raise awareness about the impact of factory farming on humans, animals, and the environment.

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