Keeping hens safe, warm and healthy through harsh weather

March 14, 2017

Even though the calendar says that it’s almost spring – it certainly doesn’t feel like spring right now in many parts of the U.S. In midst of blizzards, thunderstorms and other extreme weather, how do farmers keep their animals safe, warm and healthy?

Safety authorities tell us to cope with harsh weather by staying indoors as much as possible. That’s good advice for animals, too. It’s one of the many reasons that the vast majority of egg-laying hens are kept indoors.

Some people believe chickens should be raised with access to an outdoor environment, and that’s understandable. It was routine for hens to be raised that way decades ago. But egg farmers learned over the years and through experience that climate-controlled barns provide warmth and comfort and improve overall flock health management, while also protecting hens from the spread of disease.

The term “biosecurity” refers to measures farmers take to protect their animals from disease. The U.S. Department of Agriculture emphasizes the importance of strong biosecurity with the “Defend the Flock” program to help raise awareness and promote disease prevention practices among farmers and others.

Defend the Flock focuses on biosecurity basics such as the importance of washing hands before coming in contact with animals; making sure farm workers don’t carry pathogens into barns on the boots they wear; changing clothes before entering areas of the barn where the birds live; and keeping tools and equipment clean and dry. It’s also important to keep visitors to a minimum and only allow essential personnel on the farm. Farms with strong biosecurity programs allow only people who care for the birds inside the barns.

Being indoors also protects hens from migratory waterfowl and other wild birds that can carry disease. Hens that are allowed to come in contact with bird droppings are at higher risk of disease that can strike quickly and have devastating consequences.

Another benefit of keeping animals indoors is keeping predators at bay. Chickens left unprotected are easy targets for dogs, coyotes, foxes and owls. The indoor setting also makes it easier to provide hens good access to food and water, as well as the conditions that allow them to lay clean, unbroken eggs. Finally, keeping flocks inside also enhances the opportunity for animal care workers and veterinarians to regularly monitor the health of the flock.

The different ways that hens are housed indoors has been addressed by animal scientists and veterinarians. A study supported by scientists, farmers, food companies and others looked at three different indoor hen housing environments and examined impacts in five areas – food safety, environment, hen health and well-being, worker health/safety and food affordability. The study concluded that no single housing environment is better than the others. They all have trade-offs and benefits.

Keeping animals safe and healthy through extreme weather is hard work but it’s a top priority for America’s egg farmers. There are many options for housing hens today, and all of them can provide for the health and well-being of egg laying hens. Regardless of the conditions in which hens are kept, consumers can be confident that the eggs they purchase are safe and nutritious.

Photo source: Minnesota Turkey Growers