The total number of chickens raised for eggs in Canada is estimated at over 25.8 million animals. There are over 1,000 egg farms across Canada. The average laying hen can lay approximately 320 eggs in one year.
Eighty-four per cent of Canadian egg-laying hens spend their entire lives in cages. Around 66 per cent of caged birds are housed in conventional “battery” cages, while the remaining 18 per cent are housed in “enriched” slightly larger cages. On average, each hen is given less space than a standard sheet of printed paper. It is legal to confine hens to these cages for their entire lives.
Life of an egg-laying hen
The life of an egg-laying hen begins at breeder farms. Breeds of chickens selected for good egg production are bred and lay fertilized eggs. The fertilized eggs are collected and then sent to a hatchery. Eggs are housed in an incubator for 18 days, after which they are removed from the incubator and hatch three days later.
Once hatched, the female chicks are sent to a pullet farm. A pullet is a young hen that has not reached sexual maturity (started laying eggs).
At the pullet farm, the birds are cared for until they mature into laying hens, which occurs around 18 to 20 weeks of age. At this point, pullets are moved into laying barns. The birds are now called hens or layers and will start laying eggs for collection. Some egg farmers will get their pullets from pullet farms, whereas others may raise their own. Hens will lay eggs for approximately 52 to 60 weeks.
Unlike the broiler chicken, which has been selectively bred to rapidly grow muscle, egg-laying hens have been bred to produce a large number eggs. As a result, older laying hens (called “spent hens”) have a much leaner body and often end up being used for soups or pet food products when they are slaughtered at one to two years of age.
What are the main concerns for egg-laying hen welfare?
- Bone health:
Due to the high demand placed on hens as a result of eggshell production, osteoporosis (weak bones) and fractures are a major problem facing laying hens. Calcium is needed for daily eggshell production, but is also important to bone development. When birds are in lay, calcium is used to form the eggshell at the expense of being used to form strong structural bone. Over the course of their intense production, they lose bone strength and become prone to osteoporosis and bone fractures. These conditions cause pain, distress and inhibit their mobility.
- Battery cages:
Around 66 per cent of egg-laying hens in Canada are confined to small, cramped cages called “battery” cages. There are four to eight hens housed per cage, with each hen receiving as little as 432 square centimeters (67 square inches) of space, which is less than a standard size piece of notebook paper. Hens are restricted from engaging in many natural behaviours due to limited space, and as a result, conventional cages have begun to be phased out in Canada.
Chickens have many important natural behaviours that help them feel clean, safe, and comfortable in their environment – behaviours like perching, dust bathing and finding a secluded nest in which to lay their eggs. These behaviours cannot be performed by hens kept crowded into a bare battery cage. As a result, birds may become bored, frustrated, stressed and aggressive, and may pluck out each others’ feathers or even begin to cannibalize one another.
- Painful practices:
Beak trimming is routinely performed on hens to prevent damage if they begin pecking at each other. A blade or laser is used to perform the procedure in the first few days or weeks of life. If done incorrectly, it can cause lasting pain and distress for the hen.
Support a better life for egg-laying hens
By choosing higher-welfare food products, you can help laying hens lead better lives and support the farmers who care for them. Learn more about shopping for higher-welfare eggs.
We are always working to build a better future for farm animals in B.C. and across Canada, but we need your help. Help us speak for farm animals by taking action.
- Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets and Laying Hens
- Fun facts about chickens!
- Caring for backyard chickens
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