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Colorado's egg-laying hens get room to spread their wings in 2023

New rules set to take effect on January 1, 2023, govern how egg producers in Colorado house their birds
Yves Logghe/AP
New rules set to take effect on January 1, 2023, govern how egg producers in Colorado house their birds

Egg-laying hens in Colorado will get more living space starting January 1. The new rule will limit how many chickens can be kept in each cage, and it’s part of legislation passed in 2020.

According to that same legislation, all eggs sold in Colorado must come from cage-free hens — but that rule doesn’t fully kick in until January 1, 2025.

According to Bill Scebbi, Executive Director of the Colorado Egg Producers, the new rules give egg farmers two years to ramp up to a fully cage-free environment. “That still doesn't mean that hens are running around a huge facility all willy-nilly and doing their chicken thing. But it does give their hens a different environment to live in,” Scebbi explained.

In the meantime, the state’s egg-laying chickens will get a little more room: at least one square foot per bird, starting January 1st, 2023. “The conventional housing is being changed in 2023 to a larger space for the hens,” said Scebbi, adding that in a conventional egg-laying operation, that amounts to fewer birds per cage.

The change for this coming year is relatively small. The cages aren’t going away just yet, and the inside of the barn may not look much different to a casual observer. In conventional housing, before the new rules take effect, each cage confines 5 to 7 birds.

“They have conveyor belts that move the manure away. They have another conveyor belt that moves the eggs away into the distribution area,” Scebbi said. “They have feeders that provide adequate feed for them on a 24/7 basis.”

In a cage-free setting, on the other hand, “they'll be in an open space where they can fly onto the ground and scratch, like hens do,” Scebbi explained. “They have a place to roost so they can lay their eggs.” There may be fencing to separate a large flock into smaller groupings, but there are no cages, and the automation systems aren’t as achievable. “And so, it's a different environment,” Scebbi said.

Cage-free environments compliant with the new law must include enrichments, such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas, that allow chickens to express natural behaviors.

That’s why it costs more to produce cage-free eggs. It takes more manpower to wrangle chickens on the loose. “When you have a structured environment where people can go down the alleyways, the manure is already moved out of the way. The eggs are already collected with conveyor belts and it's more automated,” Scebbi explained. “But where we go to this new cage-free area, they will be able to be more like chickens on the ground, and they'll have freedom.”

“If you think about it, if you have to look at 1.5 million hens, which our farms have, that's a lot of hens,” he added. ”There's this thing called the pecking order. You have hens that are hogging all the food or hens that don't want other hens to be around them.” Dealing with those behavioral issues in a cage-free environment is more labor-intensive.

Nationally, nearly 30% of laying hens are managed in a cage-free environment.

The new rules come as a bad avian flu season continues to impact the industry. Farms with fewer than 3,000 egg-laying hens are exempt from the new rules.

I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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