A new code of practice that calls for big changes to the way egg-laying hens are housed is being welcomed with open arms by Manitoba egg farmers.

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A new code of practice that calls for big changes to the way egg-laying hens are housed is being welcomed with open arms by Manitoba egg farmers.

The National Farm Animal Care Council code released earlier this week calls for egg producers to phase out the use of small, cramped, "battery" cages for hens within the next 15 years. About 90 per cent of egg production in Canada is done using conventional battery-cage housing.

The code also sets out new standards of care to ensure hens can perch and forage for food, have boxes to lay their eggs in and are better cared for if they are sick or injured.

While the changes are designed to make life less stressful for egg-laying hens, they also mean added costs for producers. Despite that, the general manager of Manitoba Egg Farmers (MEF) — which represents 155 of the province’s egg producers — said it supports the changes.

"It was time (for a new code)," Cory Rybuck said Wednesday.

"The last code we had was from 2003 and it didn’t account for many of the changes in behavioural science and what we now know about production techniques."

Rybuck said the new code also gives newcomers to the industry and farmers who are planning to build new barns a better idea of what will be acceptable going forward.

"This will provide some clarity for those folks," he added. "So it’s a welcome document, for sure."

MEF’s position doesn’t come as a big surprise.

Egg Farmers of Canada, of which MEF is a member, announced last year its members would no longer be installing any new battery cages.

It said they’ll begin an industry-wide transition to alternative housing systems for hens, although it said the transition would take 20 years to complete.

Rybuck said the transition is further along in Manitoba than in some other parts of the country, with 26 per cent of MEF members now using alternative systems.

He said most have switched to "enriched cages," which are larger and include perches, a nesting box and a scratching area.

Others have switched to a "free-run," or cage-free, system, while a third alternative is a free-range system where hens live cage-free and have access, at least for part of the year, to the outdoors.

Canadian Federation of Humane Societies president Barbara Cartwright has described the phase-out of battery cages as "a huge win for Canada’s hens," although the timeline is longer than the federation wanted.

The new code says at least 85 per cent of hens should be housed in enriched cages or cage-free by 2031. Producers who can’t meet that target will have an additional five years to reach the standard but must give their hens more and better living spaces in the meantime, it adds.

Rybuck said he expects most Manitoba egg producers to meet the 2031 deadline.

While some animal rights groups want all hens to be cage free, Rybuck said those systems cost more to operate because they require more space and bigger barns. That drives up the retail price of eggs — and not all consumers are willing or able to pay the higher prices, he added.

He said standard white eggs generally cost about $2.85 or $2.89 per dozen in Manitoba, compared with $5-plus for a dozen free-run eggs and $6-plus for a dozen organic, free-run eggs.

He noted the demand for specialty eggs is growing faster than the demand for standard eggs and some major retailers also have said they plan to start purchasing only cage-free eggs by the end of 2025.

"We want to preserve that choice, but if the market moves and more people go for free-run (eggs) and that type of thing, then certainly our farmers will be there to meet the demand," he said.

— with files from The Canadian Press

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca