Egg production and egg quality in free-range laying hens housed at different outdoor stocking densitiesc1
Free-range laying hen systems are increasing in number within Australia. Variation in outdoor stocking densities has led to development of a national information standard on free-range egg labeling, including setting a maximum density of 10,000 hens per hectare. However, there are few data on the impacts of differing outdoor densities on production and egg quality. ISA Brown hens in small (150 hens) flocks were housed in identical indoor pens, each with access (from 21 weeks) to different sized ranges simulating one of three outdoor stocking densities (2 replicates each: 2,000 hens/hectare (ha), 10,000 hens/ha, 20,000 hens/ha). Hen-day production was tracked from 21 through 35 weeks with eggs visually graded daily for external deformities. All eggs laid on one day were weighed each week. Eggs were collected from each pen at 25, 30, and 36 weeks and analyzed for egg quality. There were no effects of outdoor stocking density on average hen-day percentage production (P = 0.67), egg weight (P = 0.09), percentages of deformed eggs (P = 0.30), shell reflectivity (P = 0.74), shell breaking strength (P = 0.07), shell deformation (P = 0.83), or shell thickness (P = 0.24). Eggs from hens in the highest density had the highest percentage shell weight (P = 0.004) and eggs from the lowest density had the highest yolk color score (P < 0.001). The amount of cuticle present did not differ between densities (P = 0.95) but some aspects of shell colors (P ≤ 0.01) and location of protoporphyrin IX (P = 0.046) varied. Hen age affected the majority of measurements. Stocking density differences may be related to hen diet as previous radio-frequency identification tracking of individual hens in these flocks showed birds used the range for longer in the lowest density and the least in the highest density, including depleting the range of vegetation sooner in the smaller ranges. An additional study assessing the relationship between individual hen range use, nutrition, and egg quality is warranted.