Have you ever looked at a carton of eggs marked ‘very large’ and wondered: “How can any chicken lay eggs this size? That must be painful!”

According to a Danish study it actually is painful, and extremely so. Scientists from the University of Copenhagen assessed the health of 4,800 hens from 40 different flocks and found that more than 4,000 of them, 85%, had a fractured keel bone. Many had suffered multiple fractures (the keel bone in chickens is the equivalent to our breast bone).

The fractures are not caused by external factors, but occur when the hens lay eggs that are so huge that the keel bone ruptures under the pressure. “We knew there was a problem, but we certainly did not expect it to apply to almost all laying hens in the country. These animals suffer, both when the fracture occurs and afterwards, so we are dealing with a huge animal welfare problem here”, said Ida Thøfner, assistant professor at the department of veterinary and animal science. Thøfner compared the level of pain the hens experience to the pain we feel when we fracture a bone – but unlike us the chickens of course won’t be able to rest which means the healing process will take a lot longer.

The scientists found there wasn’t much difference between free range and caged hens, what mattered was the breed: “Generally, we can see that the lager the eggs and the smaller the hens, the greater the problem. The bodies are simply under too much strain because they are bred to be small and to lay a lot of large eggs”, says Thøfner’s colleague, Jens Peter Christensen.

Not just a Danish problem

Keeping a few hens used to be common, they could be found in backyards and gardens as well as on farms. They varied hugely in size, shape, colour and temperament. Today, eggs are mostly produced on an industrial scale by highly ‘specialised’ hens that have been bred to produce the highest number of large eggs on a minimum amount of feed (hence the small hen size). A handful of multinational breeding companies maintain a small number of breeds with very limited genetics and supply them to egg producing facilities and farms worldwide. The commercial breeds the Danish scientists studied are not just common in Denmark, but the world over and that means that the animal welfare problem they highlighted is universal. The large eggs you just fried for breakfast or used for a cake are likely to come from a hen with a fractured keel bone.

One method to reduce the problem might be to work with slightly older hens: “The earlier these hens enter into production, the larger the problem is”, says Thøfner, “we are fairly convinced that you could postpone egg laying for a couple of weeks until the hens are more robust and the keel bone is more resilient to fracturing without losing money, because the hens will simply lay eggs for a longer time if you follow this strategy”. The Danish team is seeking funding to study methods that might alleviate the problem.

But to me, that’s going in search of a band-aid instead of solving the problem: We need different breeding goals that don’t just focus on maximum egg or meat production, but on animal health and wellbeing too.

Chicken paradise

What ideal living could look like for chickens I learnt at the end of August when I visited Karin Maier’s certified organic farm in southern Germany. She keeps up to 4,400 laying hens and is a bit of a “chicken whisperer”. She is a keen observer and though it is impossible to know each individual hen in the current flock of 3,000 white Sandy hybrids, she knows about their likes, dislikes, and fears. She gently knocks on the door of the chicken barn before opening it so that the hens have time to move away. It’s late morning, most of the hens and a few cock are scratching, pecking and sandbathing, either in the free space inside the barn or outside in the huge garden area they can access. It’s a beautiful sunny autumn day, “that’s why so many are inside”, says Maier, “chicken love to be outside when it is cloudy or even in the rain”. This time of year, there are often hawks circling, so some hens stay close to the barn entrance. Others are adventurous and wander through the high grass or even slip through the fence. “That’s there to keep the foxes out rather than the hens in”, says Maier. As quirky and inquisitive as her chickens are, Maier is not happy. Most of the feed for the chicken is grown on the farm and, on a daily basis, freshly mixed with supplementary mineral feed. “Still, as they grow older you can see that laying so many eggs takes a physical toll”. Which is surprising, because the “Sandy” breed is “dual use”, the hens are kept for laying while the male chicks can be raised for meat. It took a long time for Lohmann, one of the world’s biggest chicken breeding companies, to produce a dual use breed, says Maier, but to her, the Sandys are still too much ‘egg laying machines’ and not enough chicken. As a test, she has recently kept a small flock of another “dual use” chicken breed, a variety bred by organic breeders, and was surprised at the differences. While the Sandys reliably are done laying their eggs by 11am, only 20% of the organic hens are, the others choose to lay their eggs at a later point in the day. And many prefer making their own nests inside or even outside of the barn rather than using the nest boxes. They also need more feed while laying fewer eggs. Nevertheless, Maier is determined to switch to the organic breed. “They will be a lot more work, but to me that’s worth it”, she says “they are really healthy and they truly behave like chickens”. At present she sells eggs for 20 Euro cents (17 pence). In future she will charge 27 Euro cents (23 pence). Her main customer, an organic baker who buys a third of Maier’s eggs, supports her decision and will continue to buy from her even at the increased price. It’s the commitment to animal welfare of customers and food producers such as this baker that will make sure that in future, healthy hens will live good lives while we learn to value the eggs they lay by paying a bit more.

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years,  and is the author of “Regenerative Agriculture: Farming with Benefits. Profitable Farms. Healthy Food. Greener Planet. Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent  (c) @M.Kunz

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