The Cost of a Happier Chicken: Who Pays?

(Photo: SMcGarnigle)

Animal rights activists often oppose animal welfare reforms on the grounds that they make animal production more efficient. Rutgers professor Gary Francione argues this case convincingly, insisting that some “[w]elfare reforms make animal exploitation more profitable by eliminating practices that are economically vulnerable.” He adds, “For the most part, those changes would happen anyway and in the absence of animal welfare campaigns precisely because they do rectify inefficiencies in the production process.”  The point is compelling and controversial: welfare reforms–which so many consumers support–can make it easier for industrial agriculture to turn animals into food.

Improbably enough, industrial producers of animal products agree. As a justification for what concerned consumers perceive to be inhumane practices, factory farmers routinely insist that if they treated their animals poorly, production would decline. Thus, they conclude that consumers need not worry: the animals are doing just fine. Scott Dewald, Vice-President of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, explains, “Our producers take care of their animals, and we know that an animal that isn’t treated well doesn’t produce.”  Sherrie Niekamp, head of animal welfare for the National Pork Board, echoes this sentiment when she acknowledges that “Animal welfare is . . . a market driven issue.”

Putting aside the irony that there’s common ground between some animal rights advocates and factory farmers, it’s worth investigating what the available evidence has to say about this claim. Do improved animal welfare and increased productivity correlate? Is it in the economic interest of factory farmers to improve animal welfare? The answer appears to be “yes,” but only to point. Then, without doubt, it becomes “no.”  Definitively no.

Consider the case of laying hens and cages. In 2000, the United Egg Producers established voluntary welfare standards recommending that producers increase cage size from 48 to 76 square inches. Given that a typical bird needs 75 square inches to even stand up, this expansion can hardly be deemed a substantial welfare reform. Nonetheless, let’s assume that more space equals less stress, however nominal the reduction. Today, 80 percent of all eggs produced in the United States are under the UEP welfare label. The upshot, it turns out, is that egg productivity per hen increased. Thus it would seem, at first glance, that welfare improvements–at least with respect to eggs–indeed lead to a boost in production.

But the matter gets more complicated the more you bore into it. Most notably, while productivity per hen increased, overall productivity dropped. The decline was due to the fact that, with bigger cages, farmers with fixed barn space couldn’t cram as many hens into a single shed as they once could. Density of production, as one would suspect, pays. Commenting on this industry-initiated cage expansion, the agricultural economists F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk (whose superb book Compassion, by the Pound summarizes much of the literature on this topic) note how increased space has come at the “expense of farm productivity” and is more a reflection of “a real effort to improve animal welfare, and/or to protect the image of the egg industry” than a quest to boost profits.

Industrial operations don’t strike me as caring all that much about animal welfare, so the latter scenario seems more likely. Producers, aware that welfare reforms are costly, are only going to go far enough to convince welfare-concerned consumers that animals are being treated well. After all, when big producers embrace more serious welfare improvements–such as eliminating cages altogether and raising “cage free” birds–productivity doesn’t just dip, it plummets. 

Birds that are uncaged are often densely packed into barns, but they can move more freely and, in some cases, make it outside to really strut around. Movement means that a higher percentage of their feed supports their itinerancy rather than their egg production. Cage free hens, according to Lusk and Norwood, produce fewer eggs than their caged counterparts, die earlier, and have a mortality rate almost three times as high. Say what you will about the welfare benefits of birds not being in a cage, it’s anything but more efficient. For proof, just check out the price of your cage free or pastured eggs.

For now, then, I’ll tentatively conclude that animal welfare reforms don’t grease the wheels of efficiency so much as increase costs and make life more difficult for factory farms. But here’s an idea that has the potential to shift the nature of this whole debate: what if more space doesn’t, in fact, mean that animals are happier? What if this basic assumption is all wrong? I’ll explore this idea in my next post.


I know there would be no common ground on a metric - but I think it would be an interesting academic discussion to propose a measure on effectiveness of the rights v welfare strategies - and then weigh them against each other. I doubt a rights person would even agree that conversion of individuals to veganism would be the appropriate metric, though using that measure I'd guess welfarists would have the upper hand. Not to mention that they'd also make incremental improvements in billions of lives.


I can tell you without a doubt that you can see and hear the difference in stress levels in a hen that is roaming around a pasture versus one trapped in a cage. Yes, "free range" is less efficient. Which is more important, cheap food where the animal is reduced to nothing more than cogs in a wheel or allowing a chicken to express its intended natural behavior: scratching, foraging and dust bathing? Plus, when was the last time you compared cost per pound of your soda or snickers bar versus a dozen free range eggs? It's not all that expensive.

Seminymous Coward

"Which is more important, cheap food ... or allowing a chicken to express its intended natural behavior...?"
Cheap food is more important in some places, certainly. People trump other animals. That doesn't take away from your point in a first world context, of course.

Cost per pound is a bad metric for food; cost per unit of energy (e.g. Calorie or kilojoule) would make far more sense. I don't buy many eggs, and I always buy the cheapest ones when I do; therefore I don't know how much free range eggs cost. I'd do the calculations if I did. You should certainly be willing to do the research you suggest to others, though, right?


At an average cost of $1.5 per 2oz Snickers bar with 271 calories we get $0.006 / calorie.
We charge $4.00 / dozen eggs at our farm and the USDA reports that large eggs are 864 calories per dozen. This gives us a cost of $0.005 / calorie. Our eggs are actually extra large and according to Mother Earth news actually have more nutrient density than most eggs ( so probably have more calories and definitely are more nutritious than a Snickers bar. We haven't had our eggs sampled for nutrient quality so we can't actually make any claims there beyond guessing that ours are similar to other pasture-raised suppliers.

Now what about per pound? Snickers is $12 / lb. A dozen of our eggs are $2.67 per pound. Either way you look at it, it is still cheaper and more healthful to purchase eggs from a farm who raises animals in a manner more consistent with natural animal behavior.



All comments and corrections taken into consideration the point is still valid and is that we should not complain about the "high" cost high quality food raised in an ethical manner when, if compared to most other industrial, processed, nutrient-deficient, food, comes out equal or ahead in cost. This doesn't even count any other hidden costs at the food line like: environmental, health care, taxes via subsidies for grain, etc.


To keep this apples to apples how does the energy density or nutritional value of your ethical eggs compare to the eggs of factory farms? I would ask the same about the nutritional value comparison in actual meats between free-range and non free-range.

My last question is in response to your first message regarding stress levels, would you be able to provide some background into A)the degree to which the stress is reduced and what measure is being used for chicken stress B) the impact on egg output and C) the impact on egg nutrition.


Good questions Jim. Regarding C) I cannot show you a scientific study proving anything, as most studies are funded by industry and industry would not want to fund a study showing you this. As I mentioned Mother Earth news sent egg samples from a variety of types of flocks and published the results: The graphics are compelling: and

This clearly shows that the eggs from chickens that are raised outside, on pasture, are much more nutrient dense. In some cases, over seven times more. This is a more fair, apples-to-apples comparison.

Regarding A) I can only tell you what I have observed. We've raised chickens a couple of ways: 1. in a house with complete free access to a yard outside. Chickens sleep inside and go outside to eat, drink and scratch. 2. On pasture. Chickens live, sleep, eat and scratch outside. They have a shelter to live in but are moved to fresh pasture about once a week.

I can tell when the chickens are "bored." First off, the chickens raised inside tended to peck each others feathers to the point of bleeding. This is why, in caged operations they clip chickens beaks -- so they don't kill each other. Note that I said they "clip," not "debeak", as PETA would like you to believe. The chickens are bored and stressed and start having these behaviors that are not normal unless stressed. Many confined animals exhibit behaviors that are not normal for the same animal free ranging.
My guess is that if someone wanted to do a scientific study in this you could measure some kind of hormone or chemical levels at different times of day in a control group and groups in different kinds of scenarios.

Regarding B) as this article mentions the production (output) is lower in more free-ranging animals due to the animals 1.) expending energy moving 2.) expending energy keeping warm (if outside) and other factors like predator loss. I've measured our pasture-flock efficiency around 80-85% at peak times. Most caged flocks are probably closer to 95%. That means 95% of the chickens lay an egg a day. Breed also comes into play here a bit, but I'll bet most pasture-producers don't get above 85%.



So the ethically raised food is more expensive (about twice as expensive in the case of eggs, and more than twice as expensive in the case of meats) but the savings comes when other factors are considered. Right?

Let's take a look at the numbers then.

The average US family spends about $8513 in groceries per year. (not food - just groceries, since I figured that would be the best comparison with ethically raised foods) There are about 114 million families in the US. That's about $970 bn spent on yearly groceries. Let's say half of that is in meats, dairy, eggs, and other animal products - $485 billion.

Double those costs if foods were to move to ethically raised food - an extra $485 billion.

How much does the US spend in healthcare each year? In 2009, it was $2.5 trillion. Let's say that eating the healthier groceries chopped off 5% of that - $125 billion.

That's still $360 billion more that ethically raised foods would cost.

There is less than a third of a billion spent on dairy subsidies in the US. Let's round it up to a full billion just to keep things even.

That still leaves $359 billion more expenses for the ethically raised groceries.

Environmental costs are pretty tricky to figure out, $359 billion is 31 times the budget of the EPA and National Park Service COMBINED.

That's a pretty phenomenal amount to be saving in environmental improvements.

(and that's not taking into account whether or not moving to ethically raised animals would have an overall environmental improvement or not - land use would increase over 5 times to raise an equivalent amount meat animals in open pasture compared to current farms)

Then there's the factor of what families would be giving up if they have $4000 less to spend each year because of food costs rising.

It's not an impossible thing to work with. Start giving some numbers to show whether or not the statement that ethically raised animals is actually cheaper than typical practice, even taking other factors like healthcare, subsidies, and environmental costs.

There have been quite a few studies of the subject put out by universities (not just farm businesses who obviously have a vested interest in the matter), and almost universally they show that moving to open-range animal farms would be dramatically more expensive, even with other factors taken into account.



The headline should read, "The Cost of a Happier PETA, Who Pays?"


This had to be written by an urbanite. as no one who has familiarity raising chickens would try to argue that they are happier in confined pens than out in the grass eating bugs. What is wrong with pastured eggs costing more, they're more nutritious. Chickens are omnivores, not vegetarians. and they were not intended to be stuffed with corn and hormones and exposed to light all day long to make them lay more eggs - and die faster. What's wrong with paying for quality? And if quality food costs a little more, what's the damage to the average family? We buy a little less plastic crap made in China?


" Cage free hens, according to Lusk and Norwood, produce fewer eggs than their caged counterparts, die earlier, and have a mortality rate almost three times as high." ~From the the die faster statement you made is at the very least rebutted by the article. If you would like to present a researched counter argument that would really help more than moralizing.

As to the nutrition, other than references to mother earth news by Keith I haven't seen any peer reviewed research indicating that pastured eggs are inherently more nutritious.

I also find it very interesting that on an economics blog you state "What’s wrong with paying for quality? And if quality food costs a little more, what’s the damage to the average family? We buy a little less plastic crap made in China?" When almost everything on here is a look at how people try and maximize utility/the incentives that drive peoples decisions, etc. If you want a more ethical chicken it needs to provide either a large increase in utility or not be more expensive.



This whole productivity argument is a strawman. The reasons for pasturing chickens is to (a) make them and their eggs taste better and have higher nutrient density, (b) have them perform their role in integrated pasture management, i.e., better quality land for raising grass-fed cows, reduced pollution from raising livestock, and non-toxic pest control, and (c) create a luxury good. Nowhere in this scenario is productivity a consideration.

If traditional practices are more costly per animal, what of it? There's a viable and profitable market segment for those wealthy enough to afford premium poultry and eggs. Why isn't the author content with normal market segmentation?


DanSanto, your numbers are all great. There are problems though. The diary industry is not the only ag industry getting subsidized. Corn, wheat, and more. Also, who do you think funds university studies? It's not the student's tuition. Also, how much of that $8000+ budget for groceries do you think a) goes to waste and b) could be more nutritionally dense. I think that my grass fed beef could spin circles around any grain fed beef I you compare on regards to cost if you get rid of the grain subsidy. You might be surprised how much more efficient biological systems are in the long run than chemical and synthetic systems. Our current system is all about short term gain in quantity over long term quality and health. It's so sad.


Why are we only comparing eggs from caged chickens to eggs from free ranged chickens? There's a third option, which is to take the calories going into feeding the chickens (mostly grains, some soy protein) and feed them to the humans instead. How cost efficient is that?