Societal concern with the welfare of egg laying hens housed in conventional cages is fostering a transition towards cage-free systems in many countries. However, although cage-free facilities enable hens to move freely and express natural behaviours, concerns have also been raised over the possibility that cage-free flocks experience higher mortality, potentially compromising some aspects of their welfare. To investigate this possibility, we conducted a large meta-analysis of laying hen mortality in conventional cages, furnished cages and cage-free aviaries using data from 6040 commercial flocks and 176 million hens from 16 countries. We show that except for conventional cages, mortality gradually drops as experience with each system builds up: since 2000, each year of experience with cage-free aviaries was associated with a 0.35–0.65% average drop in cumulative mortality, with no differences in mortality between caged and cage-free systems in more recent years. As management knowledge evolves and genetics are optimized, new producers transitioning to cage-free housing may experience even faster rates of decline. Our results speak against the notion that mortality is inherently higher in cage-free production and illustrate the importance of considering the degree of maturity of production systems in any investigations of farm animal health, behaviour and welfare.
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