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Penn State looks at safe, comfortable cage-free chicken housing

Image: Eileen Fabian Cage-free chickens
Research underway in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will help poultry farmers improve housing systems so that chickens can walk around and perch freely in a safe, controlled environment.
Purpose of research is to design effective systems for improving indoor air quality and uniformity in cage-free houses and to develop mechanisms that reduce airborne disease spread.

An increasing number of today's consumers are scanning egg cartons for the words "cage-free," "natural," "free-range" and the like.

So much so, in fact, that many large institutional buyers of eggs and egg products have announced that within 10 years they will do business only with cage-free production facilities, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

That shift in consumer behavior is prompting some poultry producers to change the manner in which chickens are housed and cared for, and research underway in Pennsylvania State University's College of Agricultural Sciences will help them convert from traditional caged housing to non-caged systems that continue to safeguard the health and safety of flocks and employees.

"Many consumers want food-producing animals such as chickens to live in environments that are non-confining," said Eileen Fabian, professor of agricultural engineering and environmental biophysics in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. "Poultry facilities are going through the largest evolution in design due to this demand, but the overall sustainability of cage-free systems is in question when one considers the increased feed, fuel, land and labor they require."

Building on prior accomplishments in agricultural structure and ventilation design, Fabian and colleagues Long Chen, doctoral student; Paul Patterson, professor of poultry science; Daniel Hofstetter, extension research assistant, and John Cimbala, professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering, are examining various cage-free building configurations.

The purpose of their research is to design effective systems for improving indoor air quality and uniformity in cage-free houses, especially those that provide supplemental heat, and to develop mechanisms that reduce airborne disease spread within and between hen houses.

"Many commercial facilities have multiple buildings that each house between 20,000 and 50,000 hens, so there's a lot to consider when creating a cage-free housing design," Fabian said.

Blueprints will be created using a state-of-the-art computer design and analysis tool called computational fluid dynamics (CFD), which allows researchers to enter a design model and then run simulations that investigate how changes to ventilation-system configuration in poultry houses affect indoor air flow patterns and air-quality parameters such as temperature, humidity, ammonia and dust concentrations and potential disease particle spread during an outbreak.

"We can see how our designs hold up under various circumstances," Fabian said. "For instance, we can set up a scenario that involves a sick chicken and see how our proposed ventilation system would move the contaminated air from that part of the building to prevent disease spread."

For his part, Cimbala said he is eager to lend his expertise in CFD to support the study and is optimistic the results will meet the needs of the poultry industry and consumers alike.

"This research will help poultry farmers improve ventilation systems so that hens can walk around and perch freely in a controlled environment that ensures health and safety," he said. "There are people who will feel better knowing that the eggs they consume come from hens that live in this type of environment."

The research, which involves visits to poultry facilities and input from construction professionals, will be conducted over the next several months. The team plans to release its final design recommendations to the poultry industry in May 2018.

The U.S. Egg Industry Center has provided funding for this project.

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