Avian Influenza Hits Ontario

It has happened.  The event that poultry vets, suppliers, farmers and supporting industries have been preparing for and dreading for years….Avian Influenza has been isolated in Ontario.  As you can imagine, this is a very busy time for those of us in the industry, putting in control measures, routing deliveries, sampling to identify any other flocks, and implementing our emergency procedures.  We are working closely (and surprisingly well) with govornments at the provincial and national levels to minimize the impact and the number of birds affected.  This virus is also a risk for backyard and hobby farmers as well.  Ironically, we had produced an information sheet on Avian Influenza for small flocks because of the prevalence in the US, and concerns it might come here…..well….here it is…OAHN poultry small flock PRODUCER REPORT avian flu FINAL

This is an information sheet with some useful stuff for small flocks.  It will be valuable for anyone in any area where avian influenza is present.  Our group will also be developing a webinar for small flocks in the next little while, to help you develop a strategy to keep your birds safe.  Feel free to share this with anyone who might find it useful.  I will try to keep you updated as I can on things that may be useful to you.

If only they'd keep the darn things ON!

Mike the Chicken Vet

What do you put in those chickens?

There is NO WAY he's all natural!
There is NO WAY he’s all natural!

If I had a quarter for every time I was asked what we put into laying hens to make them lay so many eggs….I would NOT be setting my alarm early so I could shovel my driveway out for the 4th time this week.  I can’t keep track of the number of times or ways I have been told about the constant flow of antibiotics, hormones and additives that go into laying hens.  It has stopped being a surprise, but it used to be….I always wondered what I was doing wrong as a vet!  If everyone else was using all these good drugs on their hens, what was I missing?  Then I figured it out….what I was missing was immersion in the internet.   The amount of misinformation out there is staggering.  I’m sure it’s true when I do a quick search on nuclear energy, or free trade coffee, or Beyoncé’s plastic surgery history (not that I would….honest).

The difference is, in this case, I KNOW how much is misinformation….on other subjects, I can be convinced by a smooth argument and repetition.

I can only swear to the truth about the birds I look after, here in Ontario.  As the vet on record for over half of the laying hens in Ontario, I can state that it is much more common for flocks to NEVER see antibiotics than to be treated.  I use antibiotics if a flock needs them to fight off a disease, but that is rare….I used antibiotics less than 20 times last year in the more than 300 flocks I am in charge of.

Professional laying hen farmers spend a lot of time, effort and money in PREVENTION of disease.  This includes extensive vaccine programs, strict biosecurity programs, excellent control of the environment the hens are in, clean barns, high quality feed and water, and protection from wild animals (this is especially important right now, when waterfowl are shedding Avian Influenza in many areas of North America).

If only they'd keep the darn things ON!

If only they’d keep the darn things ON!

That and the fact that laying hens are mostly in cages, separated from their manure, means that it is uncommon for laying hens to get diseases that require treatment with antibiotics.

I think it is crucial for animal welfare to allow for the treatment of sick flocks when medically necessary.  I also think it is crucial for farmers to take disease prevention and prudent use of antibiotics very seriously…..and, in my experience, they do.  We manage flocks so we don’t have to treat, but will treat if it becomes necessary.

I still wondered if I was running a different practice than my colleagues though.  I know the vast majority of the laying hen vets in North America, but they don’t tell me what they are doing on a day-to-day basis.  I was in an international poultry expo in Atlanta last month….a who’s-who of the poultry world, and about 30 of us laying hen vets got together for a meeting (we are not a big group….there are more pro sports TEAMS in the US than laying hen vets).  The subject of antibiotic resistance came up, as it does in every vet meeting I’ve attended in the past 5 years.  One of the most distinguished vets in our group said he thought our industry was doing well in antibiotic usage….his quote: “I belong to a group called AA….Antibiotic Anonymous…..whenever I feel the urge to try to solve a problem with antibiotics, I phone another vet, and they talk me out of it”.   That made me feel that we were all pushing in the same direction.

As for hormones, the last time I saw commercial laying hens administered hormones, they were given by a unicorn, and brought onto the farm by one of the giant alligators from the sewers.  It’s an urban myth and, in reality:

It. Doesn’t. Happen.  ………     Ever.   If I could say it more clearly, I would.  There is no hormone product for sale for poultry, there is not a farmer who would want it, there is no way it would make economic sense, and there is absolutely no reason to use such a product.  Our hens have been genetically selected so well that they almost lay an egg every day….that is all they can produce!  There would be no way to feed a hen enough nutrients to allow her to produce more than that!  Besides…many of you readers have backyard hens, who also lay close to an egg a day…..where are you getting your hormone supplements from?


Additives: Not nearly as ominous as “investigative reporters” would have you believe

As for all the additives we use in laying hen feed, there is some truth to that.  We add vitamins, lutein, Omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrient enrichments that are passed on to the people who eat the eggs.  We also add things to improve the health of the birds….electrolytes (think Gatorade, without the sugar), calcium for bone strength, probiotics (similar to yogurt, but not as gross), and organic acids (similar to vinegar), to help with digestion and keep the gut healthy (actually this is one of the more recent focuses of disease prevention…..gut health).

I hope this makes some sense to readers who are unfamiliar with professional egg production….at first glance, it might make sense for us to use a lot of drugs or even hormones.  But once you look a little deeper, disease prevention and good management do more good than either of those strategies.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Avian Influenza Again

Some of you might be aware that there is another outbreak of Avian Influenza in Canada. In British Columbia, on our west coast, a total of 10 barns have been found to be infected (so far). I’m getting quite a few calls asking about information around the disease, so I thought I would share some thoughts with you, in case you are interested.

Avian Influenza (AI) is a virus that is pretty well adapted to ducks and geese. The bug lives in fairly good harmony with waterfowl, not causing too much disease or problems. Then….it gets into chickens (or turkeys). AI gets into cells in the windpipes and lungs, making the birds sick….but not too sick. The virus hijacks the birds cells to make copies of itself, and then destroys the cell, and spread the new viruses into the world. This is what we refer to as “Low pathogenic” AI. Chickens and turkeys don’t feel well, but the severity is a lot like a cold for us…farmers would notice the flock was off, but no alarm bells.

Then….a couple subtle changes happen in the virus, and the bug becomes able to penetrate cells in the windpipes and lungs, but also the intestines, muscles and some other organs. The virus makes many more copies of itself each time it invades a cell, and it invades A LOT more cells. As you can imagine, the amount of virus produced is staggering, and the number of cells damaged by the virus are very high. The virus now has become “Highly pathogenic”. It makes birds desperately ill or dead extremely quickly. So quickly, in fact, that they don’t even seem to be sick….you can check the birds in the barn at 9 am, and notice nothing….come back at noon, and hundreds of birds are dead…..call the vet, who gets there at 3pm, and thousands of birds have died….it’s that fast and that severe. In the current outbreak, over half the turkeys in one flock had died within a day and a half from when they first got sick.

The other aspect of AI is that it is so transmissible that it sometimes seems like magic. It rides the wind, lives in water, can attach itself to clothes, tires, shovels, manure spreaders…..anything. In one outbreak I was involved with in the 90s, a backhoe was used to dig the hole to bury an affected flock for disposal. The backhoe was washed, and trailered 30 miles back to the owner’s lot. It was parked about 200 yards upwind from another barn, and that barn got infected. Controlling this disease is extremely difficult, and trying not to spread the virus while trying to stop the outbreak is tricky.

There are a small army of really smart people doing heroic amounts of work, trying to stop the spread of this disease. Birds can’t move without a permit showing that the flock has tested negative. Feed is delivered in very precise way, in a determined schedule. Affected flocks are quarantined, and euthanized, and any flock within the safety zone (usually 1-3km around the affected flock) is immediately tested. I am REALLY glad I’m not involved in the clean up, and commend all the farmers, vets, government officials and all the other people involved in the clean up.

You might ask what the human risk is. The risk for human infection is extremely low. Very, very few Influenza viruses can transfer from birds to mammals, let alone people. Also, the only risk to people at all, is through contact with infected live birds, or their environment. If you are not exposed to sick birds, or involved in the clean-up, you cannot get influenza from eggs, chicken meat, or any chicken product. I have no more fear of a human pandemic from this outbreak than I fear California falling into the ocean because of a massive earthquake…..both are imaginable, but vanishingly unlikely.

I hope this helps answer any questions you might have had, and if you would like to know something else, please ask.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Euthanasia Part 1

This is a post I have been mulling around for a while. Euthanasia is a very emotional, controversial, and uncomfortable subject, especially when talking to people with different backgrounds. I have been lucky enough to be involved in a big animal welfare project that is going to focus on agricultural animal welfare….all species. The strategy sessions have one issue in common between cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits……euthanasia. Farmers know that one of the most important welfare contributions they can make to their animals is to properly and humanely dispatch sick, injured or unthrifty animals.
I also remember a conversation with a very invested backyard chicken keeper, and her main concern with the lack of accessible vet care for urban chickens was having no-one who could euthanize her hens, or teach her how to do it herself, if it came to it. Euthanasia is a huge animal welfare concern for anyone who lives with any type of animal.
There are two huge questions surrounding euthanasia….when and how. When to euthanize is an emotionally charged, non-scientific, opinion and value based question that will be different for each person. It depends on your opinion on quality of life, and your morality surrounding death. I am NOT going to tell you when you should make the decision that euthanasia is appropriate. I will state that refusing to euthanize an animal no matter the circumstances, is detrimental to animal welfare. Letting an animal languish and waste up to the time when he dies, instead of euthanizing him, increasing the amount that animal suffers. Having said that, the decisions around whether an animal with a specific injury, or a disease at a certain point should be euthanized is a value based question, and needs to be made on an individual basis.

Something I can probably help with is the HOW of euthanasia. Killing an animal and euthanizing an animal are not the same thing….in both cases, the animal ends up dead, but euthanasia has more requirements than the final result. Medically, euthanasia is defined as “the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering“. Other definitions usually include the concept of “painless death“. In reality, true euthanasia is virtually impossible. You are taking a living body and damaging it somehow so that it stops living. You can use poisons, trauma, or take away something the body needs to live. It is our jobs, as welfare proponents, vets and caring owners, to get as close to perfect as we can.

There are 3 aspects of proper euthanasia.  1 – It should cause immediate insensibility (unconsciousness), 2 – It should be irreversible, and 3 – It should cause no discomfort (pain or fear). The issue arises with the absolute statements of immediate and NO discomfort. There is a second, separate, and unfortunately pervasive issue – esthetics. At the end of the day, we are taking a life. It will ALWAYS be distasteful and uncomfortable. It will sometimes be gross. The people it affects most? The people doing it. That is why many “investigative” videos show problems with farm worker’s attitudes around euthanasia….the joking, callousness or disinterest captured on camera are almost always defence mechanisms of people trying to get through a part of their jobs that make them very uncomfortable. It doesn’t excuse the behaviour, but it does explain it a bit. Euthanasia methods need to be accommodating for the persons executing it.

A real, and possibly the most damaging aspect of euthanasia (and the main reason I wanted to write this convoluted post), is the attitude of people watching the euthanasia…..especially the public, who are definitely going to ask agriculture to justify the methods we use to dispatch animals. If you consider the 3 aspects of proper euthanasia, the most effective methods of euthanasia for farm animals are gunshot, blunt force trauma, decapitation and maceration (of appropriately small animals). All of these methods are summarily condemned by people who are only used to dealing with companion animals. Why? Obviously, it is disturbing, violent, and gross. I get that.

But, think about it from the animals point of view.  Imagine a piglet, picked up and held, squealing and afraid, while someone holds him very firmly until a vein is found, inserts a needle, and puts him down.  It maybe takes a minute, and hurts only a little, but the fear level is pretty high.  He then goes into the corner, lies down, goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up.  Now imagine the same piglet, held for about 5 seconds, and struck with a hammer.  He is instantaneously killed, and there is minimal to no fear.

Which is more humane to the animal?  How would you feel if you saw someone euthanize a piglet with a hammer?  Would you be upset at the farmer?  Would you charge him with cruelty?  (NOTE: I am not recommending using a hammer as a proper method of euthanasia….there is too much of a risk of missing, and causing welfare problems….it is simply a thought experiment).

People who work consistently with animals know that euthanasia is an important part of animal care, and realize that euthanasia is about the animal, not the observer


Why do we keep Chickens Inside

I have been asked by several different people with very diverse backgrounds as to why we HOUSE chickens. People have a Disney moment every time they see a big fluffy chicken scratching around in a dusty yard, or looking ridiculous eating grass in a beautiful sunny field. These idyllic images should be the goal of “farming” everywhere, and folks wonder why on earth this doesn’t happen.
snow chickenHere, in Ontario, Canada, the most obvious reason is just making its reluctant disappearance. Winter and chickens are not the best of friends. Red Jungle Fowl, the predecessors of all laying hens, evolved as (spoiler alert: check out the name) JUNGLE fowl. Not especially tailored to cold weather. Although some breeds have been developed in the northern climates (like Rhode Island Reds, Couchons and Buff Orpingtons, to name a few), they lay far fewer eggs than the modern crosses we use now on commercial farms. Hens cannot handle cold weather well if they are selected for egg production.
Again, the pressures facing professional farmers is different than backyard chicken keepers. If you have 5 hens, and are used to getting 4 or 5 eggs per day, and get 3 or 4 per day in winter, you will say that they never miss a beat. This is a 20% decrease in production, and will destroy a commercial flock…..if you have 20,000 hens, you would be collecting 4,000 eggs less PER DAY. Either we would have egg shortages in the winter, (if we kept the same number of hens we have now), or a glut in the summer (if we had enough hens to supply enough eggs in the winter).

There are other reasons why chickens need shelter. They like it. Chickens are the ultimate prey animal….they have no weapons, they don’t have great camouflage, they are tasty and low in fat (important for predators who are watching their

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

Notice how many chickens are venturing out of the safety of the barn.

waistlines). Chickens are NOT adventurous, brave or tough….they are, in a word, chicken. It keeps them alive. They have great vision, communicate predator presence very well, are flighty and nervous and very efficiently look for a reason to freak out. Having an enclosed shelter gives them a strong sense of security, especially if it protects them from predators from above. There have been research trials that marked hens with radio-collars that showed that hens given the choice to free-range outside of the barn actually choose not to. Over half the birds is some trials NEVER leave the security of the barn, and many of them spend a lot of time in the doorway….protected, but able to look out. Hens also have a serious aversion to wind, and really don’t like to go outside on windy days.
Hens seem exceptionally sensitive to flying threats, and really appreciate overhead protection. Some of the same studies have shown that range use increases if there is overhead shelter provided. Of course, putting a roof over the range makes it much less Disney-esque, and it is not difficult to imaging this roofed structure eventually gaining some type of walls to keep the rain and wind out….oops, now it’s a barn again.

Speaking of rain….it is another major drawback to range hens. Wet environments are incredible breeding grounds for bacteria, fungi and viruses that can devastate the health of a flock. Again….backyard flocks can work to keep

There is a reason why "mad as a wet hen" is a simile.....

There is a reason why “mad as a wet hen” is a simile…..

a range dry…shifting the area hens have access to, or shovel away the dirty, manure filled mud and replace it with dry, clean fill. Imagine trying to manage the range for a flock of 20,000 birds (I keep using 20,000 birds, since this is the average flock size in Ontario….it is a very small flock size compared to many places). Recommended range availability for laying hens is around 4 square meters per hen (right now, Canada has no explicit range size recommendations, but this number applies to other jurisdictions). For my hypothetical flock, we need 80,000 square meters of land to manage. This is 15 soccer fields to drain, clean, manage and keep attractive to the hens. It isn’t so much that it can’t be done, but it is very complicated and labour intensive.

Another thing that is controlled well indoors is light. Ever since pressure on laying hen farmers in the EU forced hens to be housed with outdoor access, mortality and welfare problems due to pecking and cannibalism has been one of the biggest obstacles facing the farmers and birds. In small groups (ie less than about 25), hens develop a solid “pecking order” that is mostly maintained by postures, feints and threats. In larger groups, dominance pressures more often result in physical attacks and then wounds. The other difficulty caused by daylight is the stimulation to keep birds laying throughout the fall and winter months. Chickens are encouraged to lay by increasing day length, and decreasing day length will push hens out of lay. Because our latitude causes maximum day lengths of over 15 and a half hours, it is necessary to keep the barn lights on for at least 16 hours per day. The further north you go, the longer the longest day is.

Finally, we keep hens indoors to protect them from predators. I’ve discussed problems of predation with many small farmers and backyard keepers. Predation is a very difficult problem….owls, hawks, and eagles from the sky; cats,

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb.

Raccoons can open almost any latch, burrow under fences and climb almost anything.

dogs, foxes, raccoons, weasels, snakes and even bears from the ground. Latches get undone, fences get burrowed under, and the assault on all the supports, wires and nettings means that there needs to be constant repair. Remember….on a professional farm of 20,000 hens, we are surrounding and covering 15 soccer fields of area. And once a predator finds access to such an easy, tasty meal, they will not leave it or forget it….in fact, in the case of birds, they often recruit friends to help with the harvest.

So, in summary, hens are indoors to decrease disease and discomfort from environmental stresses, reduce injuries from each other and external predators, improve the control of the environment in terms of light intensity and day length. There are other reasons, such as practicality of providing feed and water when the hens are outside, disease transmission from wild animals (Avian Influenza is a big one), and problems caused by foraging (impacted crops, nutrition dilution because of high levels of fiber intake, etc).

I hope this gives non-farmers an insight as to why range hens are a niche market, supplied by farmers who command a significant premium for their product and usually have small farms. Shifting the majority of the professional farms to this strategy of production would be very difficult, and would lead to a lot of problems for the hens as the industry adapted.

Winter is ending….Uh Oh!!

This winter has been a throwback to olden days (olden days is when I was a kid, according to my 7 year old). We had extended periods of cold, REAL snow (I got to expose my kids to the joys of digging tunnels in snowbanks for the first time in their lives), and all the bliss that goes with a real Canadian winter. I’m no social media guru, but I’ve noticed a lot of people from a lot of places complaining about the same thing across North America.
Your chickens have noticed it too. Trust me. They have been cooped up (pardon the pun), struggled through the snow, fought with frozen water, and risked frostbite for the past 4-5 months. They have likely slowed down in egg production, moved around less and eaten and drank less than they have in past winters. I salute all the backyard farmers who have helped their flocks get through the challenges.
But….as much as everyone involved is looking forward to a change in season, now is a very risky time for your flock. Here are some things to watch out for:

Your coop and run are likely deeper than you’d like them to be. Removing manure and litter in the winter is difficult, and a build up of litter is beneficial in keeping the coop warmer in the cold of winter. However….depending on the lay of the land, the drainage of your backyard, and your snow burden, there is a real risk of “poop soup” developing. If water can settle into your coop or run, either because of the slope of your yard, or the way snow is piled around it, the risk of disease is very significant. When manure is frozen and dry, it is not as much of a risk factor for disease…..cocci oocysts (eggs) are inert, E.coli and Salmonellas aren’t dividing and increasing in numbers, and worm eggs and fungi are less infective. Once you add water to the system, all this changes.

There is also a physical risk for your chickens from wet environments….wet feet have less integrity, and the risk of bumblefoot and ulcers goes up.


Spring is a tricky time for temperature. Damp air at 5C(42F) is more dangerous for frostbite than dry air below freezing. As the temperature goes up, and your yard gets muddier, your hens will (like your kids), run around, make a mess, and cover themselves in all kinds of goo. When they go back into the coop, the hens may be wet, which will increase humidity in the coop, and when temperature drops at night, there is a real risk of discomfort and even frostbite in your flock.


Clean out your coop……yesterday, if not sooner. Pick up the droppings in your run, as best you can. Reduce the source of infection, and you will go a long way to protecting your flock. Ideally, you would move both the coop and run to a fresh area of the yard as soon as the grass shows up.

Get out your shovel

Dig a moat around your coop, or dig a trench to guide the meltwater and runoff away from your hens and where they live. BUT, it is usually not a great idea to flood out your neighbour with meltwater, especially if the water is also draining from your coop. I can’t really help you specifically, since everyone’s situation is unique, but do your best to keep the water and mud away from your hens, without sacrificing neighbour relations.

Ventilate your Coop

Do what you can to keep the coop dry. Dryness is even more important than absolute temperature for hen comfort (within limits). A small, battery powered fan can make a world of difference. The other important aspect is keeping the floor dry, as this helps control bacterial load, improves foot health, and reduces humidity overnight. Clean out more often in spring….even though it is less convenient…..your hens will thank you for it.

Remember…..not only are environmental challenges higher in the spring, but your hens are quite likely coming back into production, which is also stressful and reduces their ability to fight off problems. Take the time to give them all the support you can to get through this tricky time.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Activists, Politics and Farming…Everyone Loses


Example of a Furnished Cage

The battle over animal welfare is coming to a head in the US.  California’s Proposition 2 comes into effect in January 2015, which is almost immediately, in terms of the farms affected.  The story is complicated, the issues are multi-layered, and as far as I can tell, NOBODY is going to win.


A Modern Conventional Cage Barn

Turn the clock back to the halcyon days of 2008.  An animal rights group called the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) champions a ballot initiative in one of the most liberal states in America.  HSUS is an organization that is dedicated to the reduction and elimination of animal use in the world.  They had a budget of $125,763,492 in 2012, but used less than 1% of their funds for shelters.  They claim to want to improve the lives of laying hens and other farmed animals in California….cynics say they are trying to destroy the egg and pork industries.

Proposition 2 stated that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”  It passed with 63% of the vote.  Californians, although reportedly being confused about the implications of the statement, clearly want improved welfare for farmed animals. They also eat almost 9 Billion eggs per year.   After much legal wrangling, it has been decided that furnished cages (cages with a nest box, perches, scratch areas and more space) are an acceptable method of farming hens, as are free-range, free-run and aviaries…..all of which are noticeably more expensive than eggs from hens housed in cages.  Proposition 2 has an implementation date of Jan 1, 2015.

Farmers want to look after animals, produce food and make a living.  Several farmers decided to adopt new technologies and improve the welfare of hens.  Notably JS West Co. has converted several barns to furnished cages at an incredible cost.  They tried to recoup their investment by selling the eggs for a small premium.  Unfortunately, nobody would buy the eggs, and JS West has been forced to sell the eggs as traditional white eggs, at a loss.

Enter the Governator.  Arnold knew that, if the eggs produced in California had to be more expensive, they could not compete with cheaper eggs from Iowa, which has almost 52 million laying hens, well over 90% of which live in cages.  He proposed a law that would require that any egg sold in California would have to be produced by hens held to the new standards required by Prop 2.  Unfortunately, this law seems to be unconstitutional, since agricultural standard in one state cannot be dictated by another state’s rules.  The Governor-General of Missouri is suing California to allow access to California’s egg market, and it looks like he will likely prevail.

So…..where does that leave them?

At the end of the day, rules are rules, and California farmers will have to follow the housing regulations.  California will have to allow free trade of eggs from other states.  The end results will be millions or billions of dollars spent in court (depends who you ask), eggs produced in California will be more expensive to produce, and unless something drastic happens, all but 5-6% of Californians will buy the cheapest eggs in the store.

HSUS will not achieve either of their purported goals….egg consumption will not drop due to higher prices (which is supposed by critics to have been their actual end-game), and the same proportion of California egg consumption will be from caged hens (meaning no improvement of welfare, which is their official goal).

Californians will not get improved animal welfare, since they will continue to buy eggs as they always have….more than 90% of the eggs from hens in cages.

Farmers in California will basically go out of business.  If you are producing a commodity that is purchased on price, and your production costs are higher, you must make less profit.  Eventually, they will go elsewhere.

Hens will not have an improved life.  Actually…just from the fact that they will live in Ohio instead of California, it is arguable that their quality of life will go down……not many people take holidays in Ohio….

This is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and nothing getting accomplished.  Except this is more like an octopus, and all the balls dropped are Faberge eggs worth millions.

Here in Canada, we are trying to use a collaborative process to develop a strategy for welfare improvement through the National Farm Animal Care Council.  We have farmers, vets, industry, welfare scientists, humane societies, retail councils and all other players in  egg supply sitting around the table hammering out a policy.  It is excruciatingly slow, but I think it is going to result in some improvement in welfare in Canadian egg production….rather than just a redistribution of the geography of egg production.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Environmental Impact of Professional Farms

In the past decade, many pundits and critics have talked about moving to more extensive farming in order to improve the environmental impact that food production has on the world. They say “support small, diverse farms, like grandpa used to have, so that we can protect the earth”. Or “buy organic, its more environmentally friendly”. I’ve never understood this line of thinking.

Let me put in a couple caveats……I don’t think I have the authority to tell people what to eat. Animal activists will say that we can decrease the environmental impact of egg production by eating no eggs. Duh. They don’t ever tell you how much environmental impact of whatever you replace eggs with in your diet, and I don’t have the background to even guess at those numbers. My point is, if you want to eat eggs, you can EITHER support extensive housing (free run, free-range, organic, etc), OR be environmentally friendly. No matter how many eggs we eat, the more intensive the farm, the more environmentally efficient it is, and the less environmental impact it has. Think of it this way….a hen will only lay so many eggs….if we want to impact the environment less, the more efficient the hen is, the less grain we feed her, the less water we give her to drink, and the less manure we are left to deal with….whether they are on 1 farm of 100,000 hens, 10 farms of 10,000 hens, or 1000 farms of 100 hens. If the hens are less efficient, there is more waste….at both ends.

The most environmentally friendly way of producing eggs

The most environmentally friendly way of producing eggs

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but never had the numbers to back up the argument….I knew it was true, but couldn’t give you a measure of it…..now I can. A study released by the Egg Industry Center in the United States compares the environmental impact of a 1960’s egg farm vs a 2010 Egg farm.

Key results of the study found that compared to 1960:

The egg production process releases significantly less polluting emissions, including 71 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Hens now use 32 percent less water per dozen eggs produced.
Today’s hens use a little over half the amount of feed to produce a dozen eggs.
At the same time, today’s hens produce 27 percent more eggs per day and are living longer.

Due to increased feed efficiency, advancements in hen housing and manure management, egg farms now use less water and energy on a daily basis and release less polluting emissions. Every aspect of the egg production process, from cultivating feed to raising the laying hens, has led to a reduced environmental footprint.

Producing US eggs this way will put an extra area equal to 3 PEI's under the plow.

Producing US eggs this way will put an extra area equal to 3 PEI’s under the plow.

Using 1960 technology to produce the 2010 egg supply would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans.

The Province of PEI is 1.4 million acres in size. Additionally, it will take more than 2 million liters of diesel fuel to run the tractors to till the land and harvest these crops. Remember, all of this would produce the exact same number of eggs as current housing systems.

Does this mean that current egg farming practices are ideal? No. They have impacts beyond the environment, all of which have to be evaluated when deciding the right way to produce food. But, if you feel strongly about protecting the environment, and wish to have less environmental impact from the eggs (or any other food you eat), efficiency is the key….and the more intensive the farming system, the more efficient it is.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Welfare Impacts of Different Laying Hen Housing

Many people have read and commented on my previous post, where I tried to give some context to an animal activist video that attacked professional egg farmers in Canada. I have had numerous questions regarding housing types, and how “Welfare Friendly” they are. I am convinced that it would be easier to tell you how the colour purple smells. Anyways, here is a VERY BRIEF and superficial description of the welfare impacts of housing. These facts are based on scientific evaluations by some of the leading welfare scientists in the world. If you are “sciency”, I have included references at the bottom of the post, so I don’t get accused of making things up.

First, it is important to realize that animal welfare is generally evaluated under 3 sets of schemes.

1) Biological functioning measures an animal’s response to its environment. Mortality rates, production measures, corticosteroid levels, and any other measurable parameter will fall under this scheme. Welfare is assessed by the ability of the animal to adapt to its environment, and if it can adapt successfully, the welfare is felt to be good. For example, if you have a hen in a barn with a temperature of 15 degrees C, and her cortisol levels are normal, she is not ill, etc, etc, then you would say she is able to adapt to that environment, and her welfare is good. If she is in a 5 degree C barn, and her stress hormones are high, her body temperature is below normal, etc, you would say she cannot adapt to that temperature, and her welfare is poorer.

2) Affective state refers to the feelings of the animal. It is the feeling of hunger that is the problem, not the fact that the animal is hungry. Fear, frustration and boredom are important considerations in this approach, regardless of the physical state the animal is in. One caution with this approach is that affective states are extremely difficult to measure directly. Affective states can only be inferred from the actions the animal takes. For example, a shivering dog may be said to be cold, but she may actually be nervous, or excited.

3) Natural Living. The premise of this approach is that behavior evolves in a method similar to physical characteristics, and that extraneous behaviours will be phased out because they are too costly for the animal to maintain, if it is not important to the survival of the animal. Thus, any behavior, drive or urge that remains must be important to the animal, and for good welfare, the opportunity to perform all natural behaviours is necessary.

The welfare effects of different housing systems for laying hens are complicated and multi-layered. Conventional cages are heavily criticized because they severely restrict behavior and movement. They do provide many welfare advantages as well.

Typical modern conventional cage

Typical modern conventional cage

Cages provide excellent health and environmental benefits for the hen. They also effectively control group size, resulting in less inter-bird aggression and cannibalism. Health advantages provided by cages include less viral and bacterial infections, less parasite infestations, less bumblefoot, lower mortality and less antibiotic usage than loose housed or aviary flocks. Hens in cages also have less competition for feed and water. Environmental benefits delivered by cage systems include the lowest ammonia and respirable dust levels. On the downside, cages predispose hens to metabolic imbalances such as osteoporosis and fatty liver. Osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures during handling at depopulation. It is assumed that fear and boredom are inevitable consequences of barren environments, and natural living is very poorly provided.

Furnished cages are larger cages that contain perches, nest boxes and a scratch pad that has substrate on it to encourage

A Furnished Cage in Ontario

A Furnished Cage in Ontario

dust bathing. Mortality rates and bone strength are improved over conventional cages, and this housing system results in the least fractures overall. Infection rates, aggression and cannibalism are the same as conventional cages. Foot infections are more prevalent in furnished cages than conventional cages. Affective states in furnished cages are improved over conventional cages because of the variety of activities and social interactions that hens can perform, reducing boredom. Natural living aspects are improved due to the ability to perch, dustbathe and lay eggs in a nest, but is still very limited.

Loose housing systems (aka floor barns, or free-run barns) provide hens with a much expanded repertoire of behavioral

A free run barn in Ontario

A free run barn in Ontario

abilities, allowing hens to lay eggs in a nest, dustbathe, and forage. Hens are motivated to perform all of these behaviours, although to differing degrees. The barn in the picture has perches, although not all do. Aggression is higher in this housing system, and bone fracture incidence is around 60%. Ammonia and dust levels are high, with levels that are 3-4 times that of aviaries. Affective states are extremely variable, heavily dependent on the rank of the hen in the social hierarchy. The affective states are generally thought to be better overall than conventional cages. Natural living is improved over cages, due to the ability to nest and perch, but still limited.

Aviary housing is a system in which the hens are free in the barn and can access different levels throughout the barn. This system results in the best bone strength, but perversely the highest number of fractures, with up to 85% of the hens

An Aviary Barn in Ontario

An Aviary Barn in Ontario

getting a broken bone by the end of the lay cycle. Aviaries provide the widest repertoire of behavior, and the various heights allow submissive hens to escape effectively, and thus aggression is reduced from free-run barns. Ammonia and respirable dust are intermediate between cages and free-run, with levels 5-7 times that of cage barns. Affective states are assumed to be better than free-run barns, due to decrease in aggression and the thus fear, but are still dependent on social hierarchy. Natural living is improved over free-run due to the ability to fly, and perch in high sections of the barn.

Free range flocks have the ability to go outside. The range may be associated with a free-run barn, an aviary, or no permanent structure, only a mobile shelter to provide food, water and shelter. In Canada, free ranging can only occur during times of the year when the weather is reasonable. For several months of the year, the flocks are essentially free-run or aviary flocks, since going outside in the winter is not practical. Chickens in this type of housing have the ability to explore, experience weather and natural light and perform all their natural behaviors. These behavior benefits come at the cost of increased mortality, increased infections, predation and poor environmental control, resulting in thermal stress and discomfort from poor environmental condition such as mud and rain. Affective state is very good due to the ability to control her destiny, and make choices. Natural living proponents assess this housing system as far superior due to the range of natural behaviours it enables.

On top of all the considerations inherent in the physical layout of each housing system, the ability of the farmer to manage each barn can overcome many of the welfare differences between the systems. A well-managed cage barn will provide better welfare than a poorly managed aviary. The reverse is also true.

It is obvious that the three paradigms for evaluating animal welfare are often at odds with each other, and that each housing system satisfies each scheme to a greater or lesser extent. The housing system that provides the best welfare depends on the priority you place on each of the ways of measuring welfare. If natural living is the most important priority to you, cage systems will never be considered good providers of animal welfare. If you feel that it is preferable for the hens to be bored, rather than at greater risk for illness and dying, cages provide unparalleled welfare advantages. The relative importance of each area of welfare assessment is a philosophical decision that varies from person to person.

Add to this the impact that different housing systems have on food safety, egg quality, economics and the environment, and it is staggeringly complicated to compare the benefits of each housing system. It is far too simplistic to state that any housing system is inherently better than another, let alone that any of them are unacceptable or ideal. Anyone who can make this type of declaration likely doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the issue.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Tauson, R. Management and housing systems for layers- effects on welfare and production. World Poultry Science Journal 2005;61:477-490.

Lay , D.C., Fulton, R.M., Hester, P.Y., Karcher, D.M., Kjaer, J.B., Mench, J.A., Mullens, B.A., Newberry, R.C., Nicol, C.J., O’Sullivan, N.P., Porter, R.E. Hen welfare in different housing systems. Poultry Science 2011;90, 278-294.

Rodenburg, T.B., Tuyttens, F.A.M., Reu, K.D., Herman, L., Zoons, J., Sonck, B. Welfare assessment of laying hens in furnished cages and non-cage systems: an on-farm comparison. Animal Welfare 2008;17, 363-373.

Sherwin, C.M., Richards, G.H., Nicol, C.J. Comparison of the welfare of layer hens in 4 housing systems in the UK. Brit Poultry Science 2010;51, 488-499.

Wilkins L.J.,McKinstry J.L., Avery N.C., Knowles T.G., Brown S.N.,Tarlton J., Nicol C.J. Influence of housing system and design on bone strength and keel bone fractures in laying hens. Veterinary Record 2011;169:414-421.

Nimmermark, S., V. Lund, G. Gustafsson, W. Eduard. Ammonia, dust, and bacteria in welfare-oriented systems for laying hens. Annals Agricultural Environmental Medicine 2009;16:103-113.

Response to Activist Video

This blog post is one I was hoping not to have to write. In Canada, there was recently an “investigative report” on the commercial egg industry. It developed after an animal activist group took undercover footage and passed an edited video to a television newsmagazine. The resulting 30 minute show was a black eye to the professional farmers, and has caused a stir in the public. I am disappointed in the response from the industry groups to address this attack, so I am writing this blog post in hopes of doing my part. This commentary does not represent any organization, and is entirely my own opinion.

First, let me point out some of the issues that are at play in animal activist videos in general.

1) Modern farms are large. This is daunting to most non-agricultural people. Looking at a barn with 10,000 chickens is as alien to you as me looking at an auto assembly plant, or a brewery, or a company that makes computer components. The shock of seeing the alien environment is leveraged by insinuating that it is impossible to care for large groups of hens. The fact is, there are basically as many laying hens in Canada as there are people. The farms are large because so many people live in cities and towns and don’t have time or interest in raising their own food. 30 Million chickens have to live somewhere in Canada if we want to continue to eat eggs the way we do now. Interestingly, the average flock size in Canada is smaller than anywhere else in the developed world….in the US, farms are between 50 and 100 times as large.

2) Activist videos are not what they seem. No, I’m not saying they fake them (although that has happened in some cases). What you need to realize is that the activist takes video for 4-5 months, then edits the video into the worst possible 15 minutes possible. The mandate of animal activists is to stop the use of animals…..all animals. They aren’t interested in showing the truth….if false representation helps them stop a process they see as immoral, that is very acceptable to them. Think about what this means. Imagine someone secretly taping you interacting with your kids or coworkers for months, and then trying to make you look bad. Imagine going through 4 months of footage of baseball games, and clipping out batters getting hit, hard slides, collisions at the plate, then make a 15 minute video of how baseball should be stopped because it is too violent. If the people watching were from the interior of China where people are unfamiliar with baseball, what would their opinion of the sport be?

3) Farmers (and unfortunately, farmer organizations) are petrified to make mistakes in public. If you say something incorrectly and it is misinterpreted at a party, somebody might think you are an ass. Make a clumsy remark to a “gotcha” reporter, and you make an entire farming community look bad. Nobody wants to be the face on TV that makes everyone look bad (it’s interesting that the activists almost never show his/her face on the videos either). Unfortunately, the implication is that the farmers have something to hide, further shaking public confidence (oddly, it is seen as protecting the activist’s identity).

4) The “alternative” methods are always shown as a Walt Disney film. We need to house 30 million hens in Canada. If everyone doesn’t want to house 2 hens on their apartment balcony, we need people to make a living by producing eggs for the city folk to eat. To farm, you need to have enough income to pay your bills and feed yourself. The 5 hens that were shown running around the feet of the cow, on a sunny summer day will a) feed the farmer and maybe 2 other people (we will need 29, 999, 995 more farmers to do this), b) have a much less pleasant time when it is raining or snowing out, and c) have to earn the farmer $10,000 each in order for the bank not to repossess the farm. If you want to promote free-run or free-range, at least understand what a 5,000 bird flock of hens kept in that system looks like (5000 is about the minimum size of flock where a farmer can make a living).

5) It is assumed that the only reason farmers keep hens in cages is to increase profits and sate their greed. In reality, especially in Canada, there is much more profit to be made farming cage free or organic hens (see my blog post www.mikethechickenvet.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/the-economics-of-egg-farming-101/). There are several reasons why hens are in cages. Cages are the housing system that result in the healthiest hens, the safest eggs, and the least environmental impact. They are the most efficient method of producing eggs, and thus result in the most inexpensive eggs for the consumer. The industry consists of over 95% of the eggs being produced in cages because that is what the consumer has demanded. If people stop preferring cheap eggs, the farmers will respond.

With these ideas in mind, there are things that happened on the activist video that needed to be improved upon. The farm had an unacceptable method of euthanasia. Their training of employees was weak in this area, and the problem was one of ignorance, rather than callousness or laziness. The method of euthanasia was actually more difficult and labour intensive than the approved, proper and effective methods. In this instance, I thank the activists for finding the problem so that it could be fixed. In 15 years as a laying hen vet, I have never seen another farm that euthanized pullets incorrectly….cervical dislocation is a very effective, humane and simple method of euthanasia that is used EVERYWHERE…..I honestly don’t know where the idea came from on this farm.

The unfortunate side effect of having large flocks (at 120,000 hens, this is one of the largest flocks in Canada) is that there is bound to be injured or escaped chicks. This is what the farmer works to prevent and address on a daily basis. I don’t work directly with this farm, but every farm I work with will inspect each of the cages at least daily, and the vast majority will inspect the barn 2-3 times per day, to remove injured or dead chickens, and make sure no birds are trapped or injured. Despite the appearance of the video (again 4-5 months worth of injuries shown in less than a minute), these things don’t happen often, and happen LESS in cages than in other housing systems. The activist stated that she saw ‘a thousand chicks die’. I don’t doubt it. Sounds dramatic. But think about 1000 chicks out of 120,000 chicks. If you have 5 hens in your backyard, that would be the same rate as 1 BIRD DYING EVERY 22 YEARS.

Is this farm perfect? Absolutely not. They need to change some of their practices. In general, they do a good job. The TV show condemns cages as a method of housing laying hens, but makes no mention of the changes that are being undertaken by the industry to implement furnished cages, which have been shown to be a VERY humane and effective way to house hens, maintaining the health and safety benefits of cages, while allowing much better behaviour capabilities and freedom of movement. Are cages acceptable? As someone who just finished my Masters Degree in Animal Welfare, I am very supportive of furnished cages, as are the ethologists I have worked with over the past 15 years. Only you can make that decision for yourself, however. What I can tell you, is that if you ask for the industry to change, it will. The housing situation right now is in place because that is what the consumer and society has demanded.

If you have any questions or comments, I will be interested in hearing them, and will respond as well as I can.

Mike the Chicken Vet