Researchers at Iowa State University are investigating new ways to house hens at large egg production facilities. Hongwei Xin, director of the Egg Industry Center at I.S.U., says the goals include improving the bird’s welfare and egg safety.

“We’ll be looking at a whole range of things from indoor air quality, air emissions, energy use, welfare behavior of the birds and the economics of bird production,” Xin said. The project is funded by a two-year, $700,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

Iowa is the country’s top egg producer. The research will involve experiments with hens housed together in groups as opposed to caging each bird. Xin says there are advantages and challenges to cage-free production systems.

“The nature of the bird, in large groups…they could establish a pecking order. So, you could have some cannibalism behavior,” Xin said. “You could also have eggs laying on the litter or manure, which would create some food safety concerns.” I.S.U. researchers are working the project with scientists at the University of California-Davis.

Voters in California recently passed a ballot initiative to essentially ban cage egg operations by 2015. Xin is hoping the research will help the industry develop affordable, environmentally friendly egg production systems that give laying hens more space.

“We’ll have to look at the checks and balances…whether it’ll be truly sustainable and how it will impact the cost for consumers when they go to buy eggs,” Xin said.