What really makes a chicken happy?

MSU’s Poultry Research and Training Center has a new facility like none other in academia across the United States, according to MSU Poultry Extension specialist Darrin Karcher.

In early December birds started filling the 12 housing rooms — eight enriched colony cages and four cage-free aviaries. The goal, according to Karcher, is to gather scientific data to help address questions related to alternative housing systems, including bird density, nutrition, behavior, welfare and environment.

“Initially, the research project will be used to investigate the density of birds in the enriched colony cage and to look at floor access in birds housed in a cage-free aviary,” he says.

The facility was built in response to state legislation passed in 2009 that requires Michigan’s laying hens to have 144 square inches of space —more than double current standards — and to get it done in 10 years. The legislation was seen by the industry as the only alternative to a threatened ballot measure by the Humane Society of the United States that would have further restricted farming practices.

“I identified this facility as a need in fall of 2009 and inquired with the egg producers in Michigan if they were willing to help put alternative laying systems into MSU to do research that helps them address the move to 144 square inches per bird,” Karcher says.

Key Points

• Facility is built in response to state Legislation requiring new housing units.

• Commercial growers supplied more than 80% of the funding.

• Students will be trained to work on systems and collect data.


The industry responded, with 83% of the funding for the facility coming from commercial egg producers from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado and Washington.

Michigan Allied Poultry Industries members helped secure equipment for reduced cost or free for the facility, and Big Dutchman and Choretime donated all caging systems, with each room holding about 600 birds.

The cage-free aviary system does include a cage, but it is opened up in late morning to allow the birds to freely move about on the floor covered in shavings. The top tier is designed for egg laying with a nest box. “We undoubtedly will have some floor eggs,” Karcher says. “We won’t be able to use those eggs. So, we’ll be looking at that from an economics perspective to see if we are making the most efficient use of the animals.”

Cage amenities

The colony cages are stacked three high and will have different levels of bird density. All colony cages have scratching pads, perches and privacy areas for egg laying.

“We’ll be measuring water and feed, and looking at what it really takes to produce a dozen eggs,” Karcher says. “In future research projects, we’ll experiment with different diets and their relationship to water consumption. We want to look at production and welfare, but also conserving our natural resources.”

Greg Herbruck, co-owner of Michigan’s largest hen laying operation, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac, calls it an investment in strengthening egg production and distribution, while protecting the welfare of hens. “This facility will give us access to the best research and information,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to build partnerships with colleges and universities across the country and conduct research that could change the industry for the better,” Herbruck says.

Not only is the new facility expected to benefit the industry, students will be given the opportunity to work in the facility. “We will be able to train them on current systems found within the commercial industry, and they will also conduct research and collect research data,” Karcher says.

Research from this project is expected to be useful in addressing a proposed federal regulation creating standards for laying hen housing. Both MAPI and United Egg Producers support H.R. 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. The federal bill would require egg producers to increase cage space per hen in a tiered phase-in over the next 15 to 18 years to 124 square inches per bird and provide cages with perches, nest boxes and other enrichments.

MAPI supports the legislation because it would override Michigan’s law, provide more time for the changes and wipe out the current disadvantage Michigan growers have with other states without additional regulations. The proposed federal mandate for bird space is higher than the current industry standard of 116 square inches, but less than current Michigan law of 144 square inches.

“In the enriched colony cages at 116 inches, this facility will hold 4,500 birds, but at 144 inches, it cuts that to 3,600 birds,” Karcher says. “There’s a huge difference there. The current standard of 116 inches, which was adopted from Europe, may actually be higher than it needs to be. It may be somewhere between 90 to 100 square inches per bird. That’s what we want to determine.”

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RESEARCH-ORIENTED: MSU Extension poultry specialist Darrin Karcher says the new facility will be used to gather scientific data to address questions related to alternative housing, including bird density, nutrition, behavior, welfare and environment.

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READY FOR BIRDS: MSU held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Oct. 15 for the new facility. Here is a cage-free system where birds will be allowed to roam on the floor.

This article published in the December, 2012 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.