Choices in Hen Housing


Today’s housing provides hens with protection against the weather and predators, while improving food safety, the environment and hen well-being. There are a number of housing systems used for layer hens in the U.S., including cage-free aviary housing, conventional cage housing and enriched colony housing.

Conventional cage housing was widely adopted in the 1960s for its improvements to hen well-being and egg safety. Over the years, research was conducted and housing was modified to continually improve hen well-being and egg safety. In 2002, the egg industry developed UEP Certified guidelines for cage housing based on recommendations of an independent Scientific Advisory Committee. In 2006, UEP Certified guidelines for cage-free housing were implemented. The UEP Certified guidelines were last updated in 2016.

When managed properly, all housing systems provide safe, quality eggs. Each housing style has positive and negative impacts and tradeoffs.

UEP is a member of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, which conducted the most comprehensive study to date to evaluate hen housing and potential impacts on food safety, the environment, hen health and well-being, worker health, egg safety and food affordability.

The goal of the CSES research was to understand pros and cons of conventional cage, enriched colony and cage-free housing, which may help egg production stakeholders make informed decisions.

Conventional Cage

Hens are housed inside climate-controlled barns in stacked rows of cages. Each cage gives birds daily access to water and food. The cage has wire mesh floors that allow manure to drop through to a belt below – this keeps manure away from the birds, as well as their eggs, food and water. When a hen lays an egg, it gently rolls of the slightly sloped mesh flooring onto an egg-collection belt. The belt moves the egg to be checked for imperfections, cleaned and packaged.

Cage-Free Aviary

Hens are housed inside climate-controlled barns and allowed to roam freely in defined sectors of the building, with constant access to food and water. There is an open floor space as well as multiple levels for hens to display natural behaviors, like perching, scratching, dust bathing and nesting. Manure belts help keep manure away from birds, as well as their eggs, food and water though some litter is left on the floor. When a hen lays an egg, it may do so in the nest box, where it then gently rolls off the slightly sloped wire mesh floor onto an egg-collection belt. The belt moves the egg to be checked for imperfections, cleaned and packaged. Eggs can also be laid in the litter, of elsewhere in the barn. When eggs aren’t laid in the nest box, they must be collected by hand and placed on the egg-collection belt.

Enriched Colony

Hens are housed inside climate-controlled barns in stacked rows of enclosures, with daily access to water and food. Each enclosure has wire mesh floors that allow manure to drop through to a belt below – just as with the conventional cage, this keeps manure away from the birds, a well as their eggs, food and water. There is enough space for each hen to stand sit, turn around and extend her wings. Each enriched colony allows for natural behaviors, like perching, scratching, dust bathing and nesting. Nesting hens also have access to privacy curtains, which provide hens with privacy during nesting. When a hen lays an egg, the egg gently rolls off the slightly sloped wire mesh floor onto an egg-collection belt. The belt moves the egg to be checked for imperfections, cleaned and packaged.