For layer hens to experience good animal welfare it is important they have enough space to express normal behaviours like nesting, perching, dust bathing, foraging, stretching, wing flapping, exploring, and resting.
The optimum space requirement for hens will depend on the management and conditions of the system (cage or cage-free) in which hens are housed. Factors such as temperature, humidity, ventilation, and litter in a shed will influence how much space hens need.
For layer hens, the minimum space requirements are provided in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Domestic Poultry 4th Edition.
What is the legal indoor space requirement for layer hens?
For cage systems, where hens are housed in cages within a shed, they must be provided a minimum floor space of 550cm2 per hen (or about 18 hens per m2).
For cage-free systems, such as barn and free-range systems, there is a maximum indoor stocking density of 15 hens per m2 in sheds. Hens in barn systems are housed in large sheds which may have more than one level. In free-range systems, hens are also housed in large sheds but have access to an outdoor range during the day.
What is the legal outdoor space requirement for free-range layer hens?
For hens with outdoor access, the Model Code of Practice recommends a maximum outdoor stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare. However, the Australian Consumer Law (Free Range Egg Labelling) Information Standard 2017 allows for eggs to be labelled as ‘free range’ if laid by hens with ‘meaningful and regular access’ to the outdoors during daylight hours and with a maximum outdoor stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare. The Information Standard also requires egg producers to prominently disclose the outdoor stocking density on the egg carton, allowing consumers to easily compare the practices of different egg producers. This legal maximum density of 10,000 hens per hectare is much higher than the maximum stocking density in other parts of the world. For example, in both the EU and New Zealand, the legal maximum stocking density is 2,500 hens per hectare.
What is important for the welfare of free-range layer hens?
Peer-reviewed scientific research is needed to understand the bird welfare implications of increasing stocking density and, indeed, what an appropriate maximum stocking density might be on the range for hens.
Additionally, range quality and access are just as important as stocking density on the range and should not be forgotten. To ensure free-range hens actually use the outdoor area, hens must be provided with easy access to an attractive range area with palatable vegetation, plenty of overhead shade/shelter, and protection from predators. To read more about how to encourage range use in free-range hens click here.