Why we want to start a charity fortifying feed for hens (founders needed)

TL;DR: Bone fractures are the biggest welfare concern for hens in cage-free systems, and the second biggest in caged systems (Schuck-Paim & Alonso, forthcoming). Charity Entrepreneurship proposes to address this issue by launching a new nonprofit. Complementing the animal movement’s ongoing campaigns for the welfare of chickens, this new charity would fortify feed for laying hens to strengthen their bones and reduce fractures. Contact us at karolina@charityentrepreneurship.com if you’re interested in getting involved, or apply to our 2021 Incubation Program (extended deadline: April 22, 2021).

1. The welfare stakes

In 1900, farmed hens laid about 80 eggs per year. Today, this number has increased to over 300. This unnatural frequency depletes their bodies of key nutrients. Estimates suggest that a hen today needs as much as 30 times more calcium than is available in her body reserves, because so much calcium must go into producing eggshells. Lacking vital nutrients and sufficient room to exercise, a hen’s bones are left so fragile that they fracture even from simple activities when navigating their environments.

Numerous studies point to the harmful consequences for laying hens. Osteoporosis alone contributes to between 20 and 35% of all mortalities among caged laying hens, and up to three-quarters of noncaged hens suffer chronic pain from old fractures.

Damage to the keel bone specifically – the bone to which the muscles that move their wings are attached – is one of the most prevalent welfare problems for hens across all production systems. One study found that as many as 97% of hens had at least one keel bone fracture. Such injuries also prevent hens from moving around freely, preventing them from engaging in their natural behaviors.

Cynthia Schuck-Paim (co-author of a recent meta-analysis on laying hen mortality) describes keel bone fractures as “the main trigger of physical pain”. She observes that for cage-free hens, “keel bone fractures [are] the most important welfare concern, accounting for most of the time cage-free hens spend in pain of all intensity levels.”

This graphic (excerpted from Cynthia Schuck-Paim and Wladimir Alonso’s forthcoming book, Quantifying Pain in Laying Hens) shows the proportion of time in pain that the average hen endures from various welfare harms:

The researchers’ Pain-Track tool is another useful reference for the duration and intensity of suffering that hens experience in conventional cages, furnished cages, and aviaries.

2. The intervention

Fortifying food revolutionized public health as one of the most cost-effective ways to significantly improve lives. Charity Entrepreneurship aims to bring these successes to farmed animals by fortifying feed for laying hens. Reducing the incidence of fractures through fortified feed will not only alleviate this major source of chronic pain, but also allow hens to more freely express their natural behaviors.

The evidence base connecting deficiencies and welfare is impressively strong. For instance, a five-hour time-capped review of the impact of micronutrients on hen welfare came up with ten studies evaluating the effect of calcium, fourteen on the effect of phosphorus, and six on the effect of vitamin D3. We also found some evidence for the positive impact of betaine, as well as of optimizing the feeding time and particle size of calcium in feed.

This intervention could improve the lives of laying hens across production systems, building on the great work the animal movement has done to secure cage-free commitments. It would most likely be effective in all countries that are transitioning to cage-free/​aviary systems (for example as a result of recent wins on corporate campaigns), since keel bone fractures are the leading welfare challenge for cage-free hens.

The intervention could also be effective in countries that haven’t transitioned to cage-free yet, especially if paired with cage-free efforts. For example, India is among the top five egg-producing countries worldwide. The majority of hens are kept in cages and there’s a significant gap between actual and optimal standards for feed. A conversation with an expert who works with the government of Andhra Pradesh highlighted the inadequacy of the Bureau of Indian Standards’ feed standards, which are merely recommendations. A new organization in India would have the dual aim of promoting cage-free efforts and fortifying feed. Ultimately the choice of country may partly depend on the co-founders and their fit to work in priority countries.

In our cost-effectiveness analysis, we only modeled the impact of subsidizing supplements for farmers in India so that feed for their hens contains adequate nutrients, because an analysis of the cost-effectiveness of cage-free campaigns already exists. This aims to set a conservative minimal threshold for cost-effectiveness. A high-scale, lower cost strategy (e.g. outreach through farmers associations) could further increase cost-effectiveness.

We quantify the impact of our animal interventions using welfare points, a system developed in-house to enable comparison between species and across various living conditions. Our model suggests that just through fortifying feed this new charity could affect 34 welfare points per dollar spent. Put another way, every dollar spent would help 1.8 hens. Even if we include counterfactual considerations, this charity would still affect 12 welfare points per dollar. Pairing the intervention with a cage-free ask would further increase the cost-effectiveness.

Fortifying feed is a highly cost-effective, well-evidenced, and tractable intervention that could address a key welfare concern for laying hens in both caged and cage-free systems. Another strength of this intervention is the simple metrics involved: the rate of broken bones, for example, is easy to measure and informative, allowing this charity to be confident in its impact.

After hundreds of hours of research, feed fortification (along with shrimp welfare) was found to meet our stringent criteria. To read about our research process and findings in more depth, access the full report via our website. For any questions about the research, reach out to vicky@charityentrepreneurship.com or karolina@charityentrepreneurship.com – our team is always happy to discuss!

3. How you can help

We’re keen to connect with aspiring entrepreneurs who could launch this new charity through our 2021 Incubation Program. If you know anyone who might be interested, please share this post. Further details about the Incubation Program can be found on our website (apply by April 22); feel free to contact us for more information at ula@charityentrepreneurship.com.