Layer Hen

Position Statement


Sentient encourages a move away from conventional, intensive egg production systems in favour of well-run alternative housing for layer hens. We promote free-range farming with low stocking densities and appropriate environmental protection as the ideal. We acknowledge that barn systems also present a significant improvement on cages, provided they are well managed, as they allow birds to engage in most natural behaviours, however these are still far from ideal as they do not provide access to sunlight or fresh air.


Sentient is opposed to husbandry practices that restrict animals’ freedom to exercise, form normal social relationships, and express natural behaviour. Sentient promotes egg production systems that minimise health risks (such as osteoporosis and cage layer fatigue, respiratory disease, fatty liver haemorrhagic syndrome, toe pad hyperkeratosis and bumble foot), and reduce the development of negative behavioural reactions such as stereotypies, feather pecking and cannibalism. 


It is for this reason that Sentient is fundamentally opposed to the housing of hens in conventional battery, and newer enriched, cage production systems. Sentient acknowledges that alternative free-range and barn systems also present risks to hen welfare, morbidity, and mortality levels and often involve greater management challenges. By contrast to cage systems, however, the disadvantages proffered in alternative systems are much less certain and seldom affect all individuals to a similar degree. Barren battery and enriched cages pose inherent welfare adversities to all birds due to the severe movement and behavioural restrictions, which far outweigh any advantages in hygiene or management. Whilst enriched cages present an opportunity for increased welfare compared to the conventional cage, such improvements are incremental and are often not actualised in current designs.


Sentient supports housing systems that provide hens with environmentally-enriched conditions and the ability to express natural behaviours, proven essential for both hens’ mental and physical well-being. This includes the freedom to dustbathe in appropriate litter substrate, perch with at least 30cm of readily-accessible and appropriately elevated perching space per hen, forage for food, roost, and lay eggs in secluded nests. Hens should also be provided with the freedom to exercise, including walking freely, jumping, flying and flapping wings, as well as to explore and engage in comfort behaviours such as stretching, and preening. 


Stocking densities should permit appropriate social interactions, including the ability for hens to escape bullying, and should allow sufficient individual space. This translates to a minimum of 5000cm2 per bird, and may be appropriately achieved in larger housing systems with low stocking densities, or more ideally, within smaller communities. Sentient promotes stocking densities of no more than 1500 birds per hectare, with a maximum of 750 birds being most ideal. 


Hens should be provided with access to the outdoors during daylight hours, with a minimum of eight hours per day, except in circumstances of adverse weather conditions or extreme disease outbreaks. Outside environments must shelter the birds from predation and weather extremes, and thus require suitable fencing and the provision of wind breaks, shade and foliage, preferably in the form of dense tree coverage.


Inside environments must provide clean and dry litter and ground substrate. Sentient agrees with current model codes of practice (Primary Industries Standing Committee, Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, Domestic Poultry 4th Edition, section 6.4, 6.5) regarding tolerable ammonia, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide levels in sheds. These values should be checked daily. Temperature should also be closely monitored and checked at least three times daily in order to avoid extremes and minimise the risks of heat stress. 


Sentient promotes strategies to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, cage layer fatigue, and associated fractures, all consequences of high calcium input into egg production, inadequate dietary calcium and phosphorus, low vitamin D, and low exercise levels. These strategies include ensuring access to sunlight, dietary supplements, adequate exercise, and genetic selection for more hardy strains and crosses.  


Sentient is opposed to forced moulting, in which food or water is denied for significant periods in order to extend the laying cycle. Hens must have access to food at least once every 12 hours, and preferably ad libitum. ‘Skip-a-day’ feeding is not considered an acceptable industry practice for maintaining bird health and productivity.