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