Monthly Archives: November 2011

Why Eggs are OK

Tomorrow, I am giving a talk for OFAC (Ontario Farm Animal Council)  to some industry types.  I’ve done that before, but this time, I’m talking to people involved in the grocery industry.  My plan is to have a fun, not too scientific (read: boring) talk about hens and eggs and how they are raised and kept.  I’m a little nervous, since these people are fairly high up in the grocery groups, making purchasing decisions and policy decisions.  I keep imagining seeing Galen Westin sitting in the front row (I actually have no idea if he will be there).  I keep thinking their suits will be worth more than my car, and their cars worth more than my house….

My plan is to explain how much work a typical chicken does…..it might surprise you.  My schtick is to compare a chicken to a woman.  If a chicken were a woman (150 lbs vs the 3 pounds she actually is), she would eat 12500 calories per day (remember the furor that followed Michael Phelps announcing he ate 10000 calories during the Olympics??).  And she doesn’t gain any weight. 

If a chicken was a woman, she would have a 9 lb baby every day,….EVERY. DAY.  My dear, lovely, patient wife has given me 2 awesome children.  I love her dearly, and I outweigh her almost 2 to 1, but when her hormones were raging during pregnancy, I lived in fear.  Imagine a bunch of women living together, each having a baby every day, hormones raging…..Have you ever seen the movie Mean Girls?  Doesn’t even begin to describe it.

This is why the housing of chickens is such a complicated question.  Can you imagine Michael Phelps needing to stand in line for an hour each time he wanted to eat?  Similar things happen to chickens that live in free range or free run barns.  One hen that “loses it” on a regular basis can attack many more hens in a free run or free range system.  Any environmental deficit such as coolness, ammonia, dustiness, etc will REALLY affect these athletes (sounds silly, but that is really what they are). 

Contrast that with hens in cages…..food and water right in front of them, small social groups, GREAT control of temperature, humidity, ammonia and dust, but obvious shortcomings in freedom of movement and behaviours.   

It’s something to keep in mind with backyard chickens too….make SURE you provided easy access to all the necessities (including high quality feed, fresh water, warmth and shelter).  These hens are not just hanging around, dropping the odd egg….she is working her feathered butt off….you just can’t see it.

As consumers (and egg purchasers for stores, I hope), you can feel confident that eggs from any housing system is safe, produced conscientiously, and with care by farmers who know their housing system, and work hard to provide the best possible welfare for their charges. 

The farmers are also working on implementing new technologies, and some of these are close to being perfected.  Aviary systems and furnished cages are large steps forward in the quest to provide even more complete care for the hens.  These new housing systems (new for the Canadian system and Canadian climate) are getting close commercially viable, and are getting a lot of attention by the professional farmers.  How and when these technologies will be implemented is yet to be seen, but there are a lot of very motivated, smart people who are working on the project. 

Hope this makes some sense to you all, and thanks for letting me do a “dry run” for my presentation tomorrow.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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Chickens in the City

The City of Toronto is wrestling with the question of how to allow chickens in their city.  I have been involved somewhat in their discussions, and I believe that there is interest in finding a way to accomplish this, the question is…..how?

I have been asked by other municipalities in the past to give advice on requirements for bylaws to control backyard flocks in urban environs.  I usually give a bit of a talk showing some of the risks to the hens, their keepers, and people eating the eggs the hens produce.  It is important to point out to the councils some of the problems that they may face if they allow backyard flocks.  Some of the councils have felt that they didn’t want to  allow chickens in their jurisdictions because it was too complicated to do properly.

I have been accused of being “against” urban hens.  Once in the hallway outside the council chambers by a group of people who were quite upset…..as I answered their questions, I scanned for the nearest exit….just in case.  These henners….all of whom were illegally keeping hens “underground”, felt I was trying to put them out of business.  The really sad thing is that I have a huge amount of respect for almost all the people I have met who have backyard hens.  They like em….they care for em….they do research and try to do everything right, and do a great job, for the most part. 

The people I am warning the council to be aware of are the people I liken to the “Christmas morning puppy” bunch.  A squirmy, cuddly puppy is a great idea on Christmas morning, but by February, the adolescent creature is dropped at the shelter for shedding, barking, chewing and being just too much bother.  I’m afraid that when chicken keeping is sanctioned by the city, people will be tempted to buy hens with the same amount of forethought.  It’s even worse for chickens though, since almost everyone has a basic idea of what dog ownership entails, while chickens are….well….weird.  Exotic is a nicer way of putting it, but not as accurate.

I have posted an Urban Farmer’s Chores List, which gives an idea what the background needs of chickens is, and some of the hurdles you can plan on facing if you decide to keep hens.  The municipality must be aware of these things, and find a way to make sure that anyone who keeps hens does it in a responsible fashion.  If not, there are significant animal welfare and human health risks, as well as a likelihood of neighbour issues.

The people who have hens now have found out most of these things themselves, either through hard experience, or advice from a friend.  I want to be clear that I am in support of backyard hens being kept responsibly.  I think that knowing about chickens and eggs, and being interested and involved in food production (at any level) is a hugely beneficial exercise for any city dweller.  If nothing else, it will make you more knowledgeable and appreciative of the things that us rural folks are involved in every day.

So….those of you who are involved in trying to get hens in your cities, keep up the fight….make sure that the rules are in place so that anyone who joins your ranks does as good a job of looking after the hens as you do.  I will be behind any group that has that as a goal.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Why I like supply management

I know its been a little while since I posted a “real” post.  I’ve been busily changing the appearance and some of the functionality of the blog….hope it makes the info more accessible to anyone who is interested. 

Over the past few days/weeks, there has been a LOT of attention paid to the supply management system.  It’s in the news a lot….people discussing whether our government should work to defend this “cartel” when making new Pan-Pacific trade agreements.   Opponents cry that the “protectionist” system is causing all of us to pay too much for eggs, milk, chicken, grains and turkey.  Plus, it may jeopardize trade agreements that will be important for all sorts of sectors. 

They might be right.  Hell….I don’t know.  I am neither politician, economist or negotiator (my wife can vouch for ALL 3 of these….and she does….often).  Do the marketing boards and tariffs make domestic food more expensive than they need to be?  It seems like they must.  They control supply, and thus decrease competition, reduce imports, and lower price efficiencies. 

The amount of increase is the question that I can’t get my head around.  One thing I do know is that food freedom day this year was Feb 12.  Food freedom day is the day that the average Canadian has earned enough to buy all the food we need for the year.  That’s 43 days, or 10% of our income.  That put us 5th in the world for paying the least per capita for food in 2010, according to National Geographic and Euromonitor.   We pay less for food than Australians, Japanese, Finns, Mexicans, Chinese, the French, the list goes on.  Sure….a big part of that is because we make a lot of money in Canada, but we also have relatively cheap food.  When our dietary staples (milk, cheese, eggs and bread) are all supply managed, I can never see how the system is hurting the public very much.

Let me tell you a little about what I do know about.  In Ontario, the average egg farm has  24, 0oo hens.  In the US, average egg production company size is measured in the millions of hens.  A flock size of 24,ooo hens is considered a hobby farm, and producers laugh at our puny operations….literally….  In Ontario, family farms still make up the vast majority of production.  By this, I mean that when I show up on a farm, either the farm owner, his wife, his kids or all of the above will be in the barn.  When I worked in the US (admittedly only for 6 months), I NEVER met a farm owner in a barn.  I met managers in barns, and I met owners in offices. 

The system we have in Ontario has a much better food safety record than our bigger brothers down south.  The animal welfare on our farms is also noticeably better.  There are good farms in the states too, but when the income per hen is so much lower, investing in new equipment, extra labour, or better systems is economic suicide.  When the egg farmers make a good living, they can (and do) afford to provide their hens with the best systems available.  I have NO qualms about stating  we look after our hens better than they do in the US.  We can afford to.  Because of supply management.   That’s why I like it.  Supply management results in better care for the hens.  Full Stop.

Is it worth it?  I don’t know.  I have no idea of the implications across other sectors.  My personal prediction is that if supply management is dismantled, and the US is allowed to ship eggs into Canada, there will be one, two, or at most three, egg farms in Ontario.  They will consist of millions of hens, each barely making any profit, and getting re-investment at the same rate.  Will eggs be cheaper….yep, but not a lot.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Pictures

I’ve added a new page to the top of the blog (I’m starting to figure out this whole technology thing!!).  If you are interested in seeing what modern laying hen housing types really look like, check these out.  I will update and add to this page periodically, especially the backyard ones, since they are so variable, and may provide some ideas for people trying to set up their own coops.

Mike the Chicken Vet

New Function

Hi all:

I was talking with a friend who has come in contact with my blog lately.  He was asking me why I hadn’t posted about coop design…it was something he was interested in.  I told him I had, but it was early in the year, but it gave me pause.  There is no point in putting up information (super-valuable, well-thought-out, incredibly-well-written information, I might add) if nobody can find it.  So…..I’ve designed a FAQ section, and recatagorized my posts.  Now if you have a specific interest, you can use the drop-down menu to the upper left, and it should focus on the things you want.  Hope this helps, and thanks Eric, for the suggestion.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Winter’s Coming!!

I woke up yesterday morning, and the ground was white.  A mad scramble ensued….finding winter coats and snowpants and hats and mitts and scarves before we had to trundle the kids off to kindergarten.  How is it that winter catches us by surprise….EVERY YEAR?!?!?  I mean….we live in Canada….It’s November….what did we think would happen???

I hope that the same thing doesn’t happen to backyard flock keepers.  Winterizing your coop, or re-homing your hens to someplace with a source of heat should be on everyone’s agenda (or probably should HAVE been a few days ago).  I hope everyone knows that chickens are not native to our climate….they evolved in the sub-tropical jungles of Borneo (lucky them!). 

Chickens have a fairly wide ability to cope with heat and cold, but as you’d expect from their historical home, they deal with heat better than cold.  Laying hen welfare experts (ie people a WHOLE lot smarter than me!) say that chickens should have their environment maintained above 10 C.  The upper limit of whats called the thermoneutral zone is around 30 C.  Outside this range (10-30 C), hens have to work hard metabolically to maintain their body temperature.  I have personally seen frostbitten hens.  It’s unfortunately not uncommon to see chickens with gait problems because 1 toe is shorter than the others, or stubby little combs….both of which are long-term legacies of frostbite damage. 

 

Blackened comb tips from frostbite....the black areas will fall off, leaving a blunt, gnarled comb

 

Frostbitten foot
 
 
There is no doubt that these conditions are painful and can be debilitating.  Some breeds are more cold tolerant than others…as a rule of thumb, larger breeds, and those with smaller combs (pea combs) do better in the cold. Heating a coop can be as simple as wiring a 60 watt lightbulb into the coop.  Realize, however, that this will totally mess up their lay cycle, since their day length will effectively be 24 hours.  They will go out of lay, and will be difficult to bring back into production in the spring.  A well insulated coop, several birds housed together, and a very small heat source should be plenty, but only you can know what will work for your coop.  If you are worried about frostbite, and there is an especially nasty bunch of weather on the way, there is some protective value in putting a vaseline coating on all the featherless parts (wattles, combs, legs, feet), but this should not be your primary way of protecting your birds.  Give them access to a warm area, then let them decide if it’s worth it to wander in the run, or stay bundled up inside.  A more crucial consideration is making sure that the birds are never out of water.  Birds have no teeth, and store food in their crop (basically a skin bag on the front of their necks….my grandmother has a similar looking appendage, but she can’t store seeds in hers).  If a bird has access to feed (which is generally dry), and her water supply is frozen, several nasty things can happen.  She can get feed impaction, in which a ball of damp feed can harden in the crop and get stuck, damaging the lining, or the food bolus can begin to rot, or fungus can take root because of the stasis (called crop mycosis), or just serious discomfort.  Heated dog bowls are available that won’t freeze up, watering systems that keep a small trickle of running water, or just providing water several times per day can get around Mother Nature, but, again, only you can decide what will work best for you.So, bundle up, and go forth to care for your chickens….then when winter REALLY shows up, somebody HAS to make one of these, and send me a picture…..it will be the talk of the neighbourhood!!!I
 

I GOTTA do this in my yard!

 

Types of Eggs

I got a question today, asking if organic eggs were commercial eggs, or if there is a difference.  THis question brings out one of the most annoying fact surrounding the sales of eggs in Canada (and elsewhere, but I don’t have a vested interest in those places….).    What annoys me is the confusion about the types of eggs that are available…..as the egg farmers have bent over backwards to provide all the different types of eggs, the terms to describe eggs have become overlapping, and confusing.

Size, Color, Housing, Nutritients....Choices, Choices

So…here is retail egg – 101.  In general eggs you can buy are commercial.  Those you get from backyard flocks are not.  Even the ones you pick up from farmers markets or farmers’ little shops are commercial.  The majority of eggs from the store are produced by professional egg farmers….people whose primary job is to spend all their working hours looking after hens and producing eggs.  Some people who sell eggs at markets or farm gates are professional too…but some are not.  This in no way means that they are substandard, it just means that they don’t have enough hens to make a living on.  Small groups of hens are cared for after the owner gets home from being an electrician, or a truck driver, or what have you.  These birds can be well looked after, but they are not the main focus of the person’s waking life.

The other criteria for eggs have to do with either a) what the birds are fed, or b) how the hens are housed.  Omega eggs are produced by birds that are fed higher levels of flax or fish oil, to get a high level of omega-three fatty acids in the yolks of the eggs.  There are also eggs high in lutein, eggs with extra vitamins and the egg farmers are constantly working on incorporating other nutrients in eggs they produce.

Free run eggs are produced by hens that roam free inside a barn.  They lay eggs in nests, and are not in cages.  Free range eggs are produced by birds who roam free inside a barn, and have access to an outside run.  Organic eggs are free range hens that are also fed pesticide free grains, do not use antibiotics if the hens get sick, and do not use fungicides, most disinfectants, rodenticides or insecticides in the barn.  All other eggs are produced by hens that live in caged housing systems (see my post “Inside a Real Egg Farm”).

These may be next......

Free range, free run, and organic can be either brown or white, but are usually brown in Canada, due to customer preference.  Omega eggs are sold in both brown and white varieties, as are high vitamin eggs and lutein enriched eggs.

Just to complicate things further, eggs come in many different sizes, and different carton sizes.  Again, if you buy them in the store, they are commercial eggs, and have to meet many quality and food safety criteria before they can be part of the marketing system in Ontario.  So….you can buy an 18 pack of extra-large, omega enriched white eggs, or you can buy a half-dozen medium-sized organic brown eggs.  Simple, right?

Mike the Chicken Vet.

The Economics of Egg Farming 101

I ran into a veterinary colleague of mine in the cafeteria at the University today.  He is a cow vet who teaches at the vet school, and I’ve known him for years through hockey.  He asked me what I was doing in the cafeteria, and I explained how I was working on my Masters in Animal Welfare (and I needed coffee….duh!).  

We started talking about my interest in laying hen welfare, and he said he bought eggs from birds who got more room, and was willing to pay more for chickens that weren’t kept in cages.  “I know that [cages] is the most profitable way to keep hens, but I don’t like it” was what he said to me.  And that is where the conversation stopped being of any value.

Don’t get me wrong…..there was no animosity, no anger, no “throw-down” in the caf (I coulda taken him, no sweat), but his most basic assumption made the discussion useless.  I was disappointed….here was a guy who knows a LOT about animals….is very familiar with animal agriculture, and is not close-minded, or brainwashed, or a zealot.  He is, like ALL of us…..lazy.  He was told that putting birds in cages is done to increase profits, and he believed it….and never questioned.

To be fair, the laying hen business is different than most, and if you are not intimately involved in it, you have NO contact with it, so it is easy to accept the “common wisdom” and continue with life.  I would like to point out how things really work…as I see it.  If any of you reading this takes a few minutes and thinks about how egg farming works, I’ll be very happy.  If you disagree with me, I’ll still be happy….I just want you to think about your preconceptions.

NOTE: these points only apply to Canadian production, and Ontario specifically.  We have a “supply managed” system (unlike most jurisdictions in the world, which work as free-enterprise)…..this means that you need to own quota (basically, you need a license to own more than 99 laying hens), and since the amount of quota is fixed, it needs to bought from someone who already has it.

Consider:

  • Laying hen quota costs more than $200 per bird, regardless of production type (free-run, caged, organic….whatever)
  • White hens kept in conventional cages are the base of the payment system….all other types of production get a premium on TOP of this (~5% for brown, ~5% for omega eggs, 20-30% for free run, >30% for organic)
  • Cage systems cost in the ballpark of $40 PER BIRD to buy (see the images of cages in my video, or some of the pictures in my other posts….its a LOT of stainless steel!!)
  • Non-caged systems cost ~$20 per bird to buy
  • Caged birds will eat about 10% less than non-caged birds
  • Caged birds will lay about 3-5% more eggs than non-caged (really variable….well run non-caged farms will lay more than mediocre caged barns)

I don’t want to use exact numbers because some people don’t like it when you talk about how much they earn, and the farmers I work with are no different, and I don’t want to offend anyone.  The number that professional farmers use to evaluate their success each year is the profit per hen above the cost of the feed and the cost of the 19 week old pullet (the 2 biggest yearly expenses).  You will have to take my word for it that free run flocks will usually make $1-$1.50 more profit per year per bird than a white bird caged flock. 

If it costs the same to have the license to own the bird (by far the biggest expense in the system we have), costs less to build the barn, and the birds make more profit per year than caged birds…..how do the caged hens make more money?

I’ll let you in on a little secret…..they don’t.  Increasing profit is NOT why hens were housed in cages originally, and it isn’t the driving force today.  There are lots of reasons why hens are kept in cages, and I plan to talk about them in other entries, but to increase profits is not one of them (again….economics are different in other places….this discussion is about the Canadian model). 

Everyone has an opinion on the issue of keeping hens in cages, and I am not trying to change that (at least not in this post……), but PLEASE don’t think that egg farmers keep hens in cages because that is how they make more money…..it makes the base premise wrong, and the discussion on how to improve egg production can’t proceed from there.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest…..back to your regular programming….

Mike the Chicken Vet

Hatching Success!!!!

I spent the day on pins and needles.  I had not anticipated how nervous I would be when I set up an incubator and hatching eggs for my daughter’s kindergarden class.  (See my post…Kindergarden Incubator).  My daughter was SO PUMPED about the chicks that were coming today….as were her friends.  All day, I was wondering what was going to happen if none of the eggs hatched?  After all, it was a pretty rudimentary design, and maintained by the teacher, who had absolutely no experience…..I kept envisioning my little, trusting, five year old having her confidence in the world order shattered when none of the eggs hatched.

Anyway, long story short….well, actually kinda a short story short….by the time she left school, there was 1 chick wandering around, and hopefully more to come….the kids were incredibly excited…..as was I….big smiles all around.

Mike the Chicken Vet

P.S. – they named her DUCKY…..sigh

Practical Coop Design

I was recently asked where to find a plastic or steel coop in Ontario.  The Eglu is very popular, but is not available for delivery here, and since I had mentioned that wood is almost impossible to clean properly, the wooden coop designs available online were not ideal. 

My solution is one that has been very popular lately on professional egg farms: plastic covered plywood.  Many farmers who are building or retooling their barns use this product to create a waterproof, disinfectable surface for the inside of the barn.  A couple of places to find this stuff in Ontario (I found them on a quick search, and don’t recommend any of these companies….they can just act a starting point for interested people.) are

www.taylorsplastic.com , and  www.duraedgeinc.com

This is what the inside of a barn looks like with the plastic plywood for walls

I would use the plastic coated plywood on any surface that is exposed to the hens….ie the inside of the coop, inside of the nest boxes, etc….any surface that you would like to be able to clean and disinfect well.  The exterior of he coop can be anything that fits your style and decor….backyard coops can be as elaborate and decorative as you want them to be!!

This material is not cheap, and it is heavy, which will mean you need to make sure you build the coop sturdily, but it makes for a great finished product.  The other advantage of something like this, as opposed to a product like the Eglu is that you can design it to the number of hens you want to house, the shape of your space, etc.

Other recycled plastic products are also available for construction, but some of them are less than ideal, since they are designed to mimic real wood, and have some of the problems of real wood.  They are not porous like wood, and as such are MUCH more cleanable, but my feeling is that if you are going to make the investment, you should get the best you can, and that would be the smoothest material you can find.

Recycled plastic boards are not as good, since they are not smooth, and are therefore harder to clean....SHINY = EASY TO CLEAN!!

I hope this helps, and welcome any comments or questions.

Mike the Chicken Vet