It seems contradictory to current trends: keeping birds in cages, rather than on the floor. Or said in a different and probably better way: keeping them in a comfort colony system. Yet, practice has proved that broiler cages offer a wide range of advantages, both for the birds and for the poultry producer. Adequate management of this more complicated system is essential, however.
By Ad Bal
Growing broilers in cages is not a new phenomenon. According to poultry management consultant Frans Fransen in his column in WP nr. 10 of last year, the system was tested 30 years ago already. However, it never really took off, as there were too many complicating factors, mainly attributed to wrong flooring systems in those days. Yet, gradually it got introduced, although not in Europe. It is not even allowed in Europe nowadays, as the EU accepted a directive on the welfare of broilers.
According to this directive, the density of broilers per square meter is set to a maximum and also other demands must be met (see box). Since broilers in a cage system are kept in three or four tiers on top of each other, the allowed density per square meter will automatically be exceeded two to three times. Just in theory, this is not allowed.
However, according to Fransen in his WP column, broiler cages offer a wide range of advantages and outside Europe these advantages are well understood. In recent years quite a number of large integrators around the world have moved to growing broilers in such systems. Apart from saving space and investment in houses, the growing conditions and results also seem to be much better.
The broiler cage system is clearly different from the traditional system of keeping birds on the floor. Particularly compared to systems in the US, where they are kept with clean out only incidentally, it is a completely different concept.
If the birds are growing under good climate conditions, they will automatically feel well. Moreover, in the compartments they have permanent access to feed and water supply. Thanks to the slatted floor, the manure will drop immediately on the belt underneath and the chance of disease transmission through manure is minimal. Particularly if the slatted floor is flexible, no manure will stick on it and build up, as it is permanently moving.
Once the birds have reached their target weight, they can be loaded by using the same manure belt, which has been emptied first. The flooring elements can be pulled out from the cages and the birds will drop on the belt which takes them to the central collection belt at the rear end of the rows. From there the central collection belt takes them to the catchers who are outside the house. There, the birds are put into the crates and loaded onto the truck. Also fully automated bird harvesting systems are available.
Direct and indirect
If all measures are taken properly, broiler cages offer various direct and indirect advantages, Fransen concludes in his WP column. The direct advantages are lower mortality, lower feed intake, faster growth, better carcass quality, lower medicine use, lower incidence of Salmonella and lower cost of production. The indirect effects are lower cost of farmland for producing feed ingredients, lower need for logistics and for feed milling. Also less parent stock is needed.
The overall CO2 footprint will be lower. Moreover, bird welfare will certainly be as good as in traditional systems and most likely even better. Altogether there seems to be a good reason to consider cages as a future solution for growing broilers. Or said in a better way: in the “comfort colony” system.
“We believed that indeed it would be a profitable system. Moreover, it was the only solution in the mountainous area where we are located, to build a high capacity operation at a place where only limited suitable land is available. As a result, we invested a total amount of 1.6 million USD in two houses with a capacity of 79,200 birds each. We have chosen to build four-tier cages to fully benefit from the system. In total we have 660 compartments for 120 birds in each house. During the wintertime temperature goes down to 15 centigrade below zero in this area. For sure we will make enormous savings on the cost of energy then. During the summertime, it will be the other way around since we will then be able to use less energy per bird for cooling the houses. Moreover it is cost saving from a labour point of view. Compared to our floor housing systems, we can manage more birds with even less workers. And not just that: we have no cost for litter and litter removal”.
Strict on biosecurity
Of course such a system with a very high bird density demands proper management and excellent climate control systems. And because of the high bird density, we must also be very strict on the biosecurity measures. We are running the second round now and we have experienced the benefits already after the first round. This time we have put 94,000 birds in each house, but we will take out 24 of each compartment after 30 days. These will be sold on the domestic market, since during the summertime there is an increased demand for whole birds of a lower weight. From that moment there will be enough space in the cages again to keep them up to the full slaughter weight of 2.4-2.5 kilograms.”