Broadly, there are different systems of rearing chicken namely free-range (extensive), semi-intensive, folding units and intensive systems.
To a large extent, chicken production especially at commercial level, heavily relies on intensive systems, with the common ones being battery cage and deep litter systems.
The choice of system to use is mainly dictated by available resources with deep litter undisputedly being the most widely used across the country.
In recent years, battery cage has been gaining popularity, making farmers choose between the two based on purpose and preference.
This article gives insights to how the two systems compare, to further inform your choice.
Briefly, battery cage system entails rearing birds in compartment units where floors are of standard strong galvanised wire (plastic also available) that slope from back to the front.
This allows eggs laid to roll out of the cage to a receiving gutter while food receptacles are outside the cage and water supplied with pipes bearing drinking nipples.
Deep litter, on the other hand, is a system where chickens are reared on floors made of concrete but covered with litters like saw dust or wood shavings to make birds feel comfortable.
Poultry equipment sets such as feeding and drinking troughs are then placed in convenient places inside the coop.
In both cases, construction of poultry houses are required.
Land or free space is becoming a limiting factor and this is why free-range system of poultry rearing is near obsolete.
In urban areas, hardly can a poultry farmer spare open land for rearing chicken, therefore, going intensive proves the worth of keeping the birds in minimum spaces.
Further, deep litter requires drinkers and feeders as well as litter for floors which cost a lot, especially if one chooses automatic drinkers and feeders.
For instance, plastic tube feeders’ cost between Sh600 and Sh700 each, while automatic drinkers’ costs between Sh1,200-Sh1,400 each.
Of the two, battery cage is the most intensive system as greater number of birds are reared per unit area, but it needs more initial capital considering the cost of cages.
Nonetheless, this system requires higher maintenance costs as one has to deal with things like mechanical faults.
Management and laying performance
Feeding management in cages has to be carefully considered since many farmers mostly rely on mash or crumbs for production.
This is not enough, so some form of grit must be offered.
Compared to deep litter, it may come as a surprise to learn that built-up litter also supplies some food requirements for the birds as they obtain ‘animal protein factor’ from the trash.
However, there is more wastage of feeds and water by birds under deep litter system.
Provided both systems are set up under proper ventilation, correct light-intensity, duration, temperature, vermin-proof houses and that feeds meet all nutritional needs, they have proven successful.
Previous researches, however, hand battery cage system remarkable results, arguing that birds spend minimal energy and lessen the load of excess body heat.
This energy is instead directed towards egg production.
In battery cage system, it is also easy to monitor egg laying performance of each bird making culling an easy exercise.
Cage system makes it easy to monitor laying percentage in your flock.
Under deep litter, it is much harder to monitor the birds since they move frequently, thus could turn costly especially for telephone farmers.
The process of identifying unproductive birds is also difficult under deep litter. Collection of eggs with dirty shells is eliminated in battery cage although tiny shelled eggs can easily crack.
Therefore, battery cage system provides the best opportunity for close supervision of individual birds so that capabilities and productiveness are monitored.
Chicken vices, disease and parasites
Good health is a prerequisite for a birds’ welfare. Under battery cage system, birds do not come in contact with their droppings hence there is less occurrence of parasitic diseases such as worms and coccidiosis hence lower mortality.
If in anyway there is disease outbreak, it spreads faster in deep litter system.
While in cages birds are not exposed to wetting floors or litters, a well-managed deep litter in dry condition with no wet spots around watering points has sterilising action.
It is therefore a requirement that litter is changed periodically as occasions demand to prevent infectious diseases building up including parasite infestations.
Chicken vices such as cannibalism, pecking and egg eating are common practices under deep litter system, translating to loss of revenue.
These are more controlled in battery cage system. It is easier to pick a hen from a cage for different purposes compared to catching birds under deep litter system.
Under battery system, hens are confined to a cage just large enough to permit very limited movement and allow them stand or sit comfortably.
As such, the birds’ social welfare is compromised since most cages usually accommodate one to three birds.
In fact, some countries term raising birds under battery cage ‘imprisoning the birds’.
Further, battery cage is associated with higher incidences of leg problem, cage fatigue, fatty liver syndrome which is increased deposition of fat in the body.
Under deep litter, birds run and mingle freely thereby creating free social welfare.
The free movement is also of advantage as the floor litter maintains its own temperature, so birds burrow into it when atmospheric temperature is high, thereby cooling themselves.
Conversely, they can warm themselves in the same way when the weather is very cool.
Labour requirement and manure
Guano manure is a valuable economic factor with deep litter system.
According to previous researches, a flock of 35 laying birds can produce about a tonne of deep litter manure in a year.
It is, however, easier to evacuate waste in the battery cage system unlike the deep litter.
For labour, cleaning out laying boxes, feeders and waterers regularly means quite a lot of work since they get ‘soiled’ by birds.
This extra labour is not as much compared to battery cage system, which goes a long way to save labour.
With these insights, you can easily compare the two systems and choose wisely.
Opinya works at the Department of Animal Science, Egerton University.