Years ago, poultry farmers in developed nations reared chicken through free-range or deep litter systems. However, battery cage systems where layers are put in identical rows and columns of cages, common in the West, have gained traction here because of the many benefits.
Many farmers rearing layers now use battery cages in egg production because of its many benefits. One such farmer is Steve Kamwamu of Kamsa Poultry farm in Kisumu county.
“We are not doing this because we love it, but because it is what the market wants. When you sell an egg for Sh10, produced by battery cages, and another at Sh20 produced by deep litter, most likely the Sh20 egg won’t be bought,” says Kamwamu.
Kamwamu who has 5,000 chickens reared in cages says the system is great for efficient usage of space. He explains that he will need more space to accommodate the entire flock in a deep litter system.
On his farm, Kamwamu explains that one cage has 32 compartments and each holds three birds, which totals about 96 birds per cage.
“If l were to put one bird per cage that reduces it to 32 birds meaning that l will lose 64 birds. That’s more than two trays of eggs l will lose in a day, and that is a lot of money lost,” Kamwamu says.
He says with cages, egg damages are reduced and the eggs are cleaner.
“In addition, with cages, you can easily monitor which birds are laying and which ones are not and address the issue in good time.”
With cages, there is also little wastage of feed and water, since the birds do not move around a lot conserving their energies for egg production.
“The feeds that are eaten go into the production of eggs but in other systems, the feeds eaten are wasted as the birds move around, reducing productivity,” he says.
Despite its many benefits, animal welfare lobby groups are now cautioning poultry farmers against the use of cage systems because they limit the movement of the chicken, hinder them from expressing their natural behaviours, resulting in high levels of stress and low productivity.
Dr Victor Yamo, animals campaign manager at World Animal Protection says there is a strong push to move away from the cage system because it infringes on the welfare of the birds.
“Traditionally, Africans used to produce chicken through the free-range system or deep litter. There were no cage systems then. Cages are coming in now because somebody in Europe is rejecting them. And now, Europe is getting away from cages because it is inhumane. Those birds that we are putting in cages have feelings,” he says.
Stressed bird effect
Dr Yamo says the notion that production is high in cages, is not true.
“Productivity in deep litter system where chicken is allowed to walk around, scavenge and do what they can naturally, is higher than in cages. When caged, birds get stressed and a stressed animal cannot produce optimally,” he says.
He explains that in the battery cage system, the birds are so close that when there is a disease incident, it will spread fast.
In terms of easy management, he says, “Of course if we tied you in a small space it would be easier to manage you than when we leave you to walk around.”
Dr Yamo warns those insisting on battery cages that they risk losing the high-end value market because many companies are moving towards products produced in a humane manner.
“Unfortunately, our small-scale farmers are not aware of what is happening internationally. International brands that are coming in this country are not accepting anything produced in a battery cage,” he says.
Dr Yamo says science has shown that poorly treated animals give poor quality products.
Wairimu Kariuki, the chair of Kenya Poultry Farmers Association (Kepofa) admits that change in the poultry sector is inevitable but there is a need to give farmers rearing birds in the battery cage systems ample time to move to safer alternatives.
“We are aware that consumers in European countries are rejecting products from animals reared in cages. If our farmers do not embrace this change, they are bound to lose out on lucrative global markets,” she says.
Kariuki explains that there is a need to create awareness and make people understand what the shift is all about.
“For those in battery cage system, it should be gradual, they need to be given ample time to transition. It is not something you can do overnight. But we must embrace change, for it has come,” she says.