After 50 years of battery-farmed hens, a major Whanganui egg producer is setting the birds free.
Ian Higgins Poultry Farm aims to have all its hens out of cages by Christmas.
Manager David Higgins said the business was spending more than $5 million over four years to keep all its hens in either aviary barns or free-range sheds.
"It's been very busy," he said.
They have built six free-range sheds and one aviary barn so far, and the remaining two aviary barns will be completed by Christmas.
The Higgins family has been keeping chickens for three generations, and Mr Higgins said battery hens were the only commercial possibility in the 1960s. Now they wanted to wash their hands of being associated with them.
Demand for free-range and barn eggs has increased. Both New Zealand's big supermarket chains support the change and the SPCA accredits the Higgins' production.
Keeping chickens outside cages is a lot more challenging, but more fun, Mr Higgins said.
"I really enjoy working with them on the ground. You can walk through the paddock and they chase around behind you. You feel more connected with the birds."
The farm produces 50,000 dozen eggs a week, from nearly 100,000 hens. They are distributed through sister company Wholesome NZ, and sold at the gate.
It has 50,000 free-range hens now, one aviary barn with about 17,000 hens and 32,000 hens still in cages. They will be replaced by hens in two more aviary barns, due to be in use by Christmas.
Hens for the barns have to be raised differently , so they can use their jungle-origin instincts for jumping and flying.
Egg prices vary, with battery hen eggs the cheapest, colony-caged hen eggs next, followed by barn eggs, then free range eggs and, most expensive, organic eggs.
The aviary barns have seven hens per square metre, and the free-range sheds have nine hens per square metre. Outdoors there are 2500 hens per hectare.
Keeping hens in battery cages will be outlawed in New Zealand by 2022, under a government code of welfare. Many poultry farmers were replacing battery cages with colony cages, which Mr Higgins said were little better.
"They can only scratch on a plastic mat, and two hens out of 60 can perch at a time."
Colony cages are already being phased out in Europe, and he thinks the same will happen here.