Category Archives: Professional Egg Farming

These posts will describe the state of professional egg farming in Ontario, Canada….as I see it.

Is Animal Welfare a Real Priority for Consumers?

I have been involved firsthand in many of the changes that are being required of agriculture to respond to animal welfare demands by consumers.  I have noticed a few things that I think are very interesting, and, frankly, movie-worthy.

Consumer pressure has pushed for the removal of gestation stalls for sows and caged housing for laying hens, pressure against fast growing broiler chickens, and removal of antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants in all animals.  We can debate the end result of many of these requests, and whether they actually result in improved animal welfare, or whether the gain is worth the loss in other areas such as environmental impact, human health or economics.  That is interesting, but the question I keep running up against is whether the public ACTUALLY WANTS the things they are “asking” for.

Huh?  I know you are asking yourself if I’ve bumped my head or drank too much (questions I’ve had to face far too often in my career), but bear with me.  I am going to use caged chickens as an example to show you what I mean (the blog is not Mikethepigvet, after all).

Don’t get me wrong….I understand that animal welfare is a big concern for some people, and those people have been making choices of what to buy based on their values for years.  And I believe that almost everyone has a desire, all things being equal, that animals be treated well.  BUT, remember that improving animal welfare makes eggs more expensive…cage free eggs will always be more expensive than caged eggs, and organic eggs will always be more expensive than both.  Does the general public want welfare improvements enough to pay for them?

Think back a couple years….on TV is a lovable guy who works for A&W, and he is telling you that you can get a burger that is free of hormones, antibiotics and guilt (I might be paraphrasing).  This ad campaign was hugely successful, and A&W became a  much bigger

aw-guy

Yeah, this guy….how could you NOT believe him?

player in the fast-food arena, despite not bringing back the drive in.  A&W had identified a concern held by some of the consumers, and addressed it.  They were seen as good, responsive corporate citizens, and gained trust and goodwill.

Other restaurants had to respond…they were losing business.  Enter McDonalds.  They had been struggling with their image as the prototypical fast-food outlet and blamed for singlehandedly causing the obesity trend in the world.  In response, they rolled out all day breakfast and pledged to source eggs from only cage-free hens.  They had a very solid response and uptick in business and image.

In Ronald’s eyes, the public really WANTED cage free eggs….the switch was in response to public values.  People responded to McDonald’s doing something that made them seem like “good guys”…..plus, Egg McMuffins are delicious.

Other restaurants saw a behemoth like McDs moving to cage-free and followed suit, because the public wanted it.

Around the same time, surveys were done by activist groups that showed that 90+% of people felt it was important to treat animals kindly and that confinement was not kind.

So….come to my part of the world.  Over the past few years, more chickens have been housed in aviaries and other cage-free houses in Ontario….to meet the commitments made by the big retailers.  Everyone built a little bigger than they needed to, because – hey, the public wants cage-free eggs, and the market would do nothing but expand, and eggs that didn’t go to the food retailers would sell like hotcakes (also delicious) in the grocery store.

Why, then, are there thousands of dozens of eggs being produced in aviaries and floor barns in Ontario being sold as regular eggs….without earning the premium price that is necessary to pay for the more expensive method of production?  There are cage-free eggs front and center in every egg display in every grocery store in the province…..I have trouble finding the regular eggs that I buy (they are at knee level, near the back of the cooler).  I thought the public WANTED cage-free eggs.

Why, then, has the demand for specialty eggs not increased noticeably?  It continues to creep slowly upwards, but the number of organic, free-run, and cage-free eggs bought in the store is essentially the same, and well less than 10% of eggs sold.  (I don’t count omega-3 eggs in this, because they are produced by changing the birds diet, and are laid predominantly by chickens in cages).

Consider this…..are consumers responding to the willingness of the restaurants to show that they are responsive and “good guys”, more than an alignment with specific animal welfare priorities.  Consumers “accept” the changes in the restaurants, but don’t “choose” those same eggs in the store.

The implications for farmers are huge….they are going to change their way of housing birds, but if they invest millions into non-cage systems, but the public doesn’t want to buy them they will literally go broke.  If they invest millions in the new furnished cage systems, and the public DOES demand cage-free in the store, they will go broke.  Makes me glad I’m not making the decision right now, but it does make me worry for the friends I have in the industry.

 

Mike the Chicken Vet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Activists, Politics and Farming…Everyone Loses

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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.

DSCF1284

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

Be Careful what you Wish For….EU Egg Crisis

I am “up” on the animal welfare issues facing laying hen farmers across the world.  Different jurisdictions are dealing with hen housing in different ways, trying to find a balance between production efficiencies, animal welfare, consumer demands, environmental impact, food safety, and many other concerns.  The European Union has been touted as the leader in this regard, leading the way in banning conventional cages as of January 1/ 2012.  Animal rights organizations have long been using this as the “gold standard” when they criticized other areas for not moving fast enough on this issue.

Unfortunately for the EU, their policy has had some holes in it.  Recent newspaper articles have shown that there is an egg supply crisis in the EU…

“Britain’s supermarket shelves could be empty of key products within a month as an acute shortage of eggs threatens to have serious consequences for the country’s food chain. New EU rules banning the housing of hens in conventional cages are being blamed for what some in the industry are already labelling a “crisis”, as competition among food manufacturers to source eggs sends prices rocketing. The price of eggs on the EU wholesale market has nearly quadrupled over the past week to more than four euros a kilo.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012

And:

“France is now suffering a shortfall of 21 million eggs a week or 10 per cent of overall production, the National Union of Egg Industries and Professionals said in a statement. As a result, egg prices shot up 75 per cent between October last year and February”  Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/ 2012

The mistake that the EU made was that they tried to be too much to too many people, and they did not enforce a “phase-in” period.  (As an aside, I would like to point out that I have the benefit of hindsight and the ability to analyze what other jurisdictions have done since the EU directive was enacted in 1999….I am NOT criticizing the program, or the people who developed it.  They were WAY ahead of the curve, and did an excellent job.  They weren’t perfect however, and this situation can serve as a cautionary tale for other jurisdictions, like Canada, that are still deciding how to deal with the issue.)

The EU (under pressure from animal rights groups), decided that conventional cages were unacceptable, and legislated them out of existence.  They gave a 12 year “accommodation period” for the industry to adapt to the legislation, but didn’t demand a gradual uptake of alternative housing.  What happened is that farmers put off the huge investment for as long as they could (remember the unlucky coincidence of the world-wide recession in this period).  The legislation also discouraged farmers from investing in furnished cages (again, because any cage system was discouraged by animal rights groups), by categorizing them as “cage” eggs, and not paying a premium for them.  This resulted in many farms hesitating to moving to free-run or aviary systems, since they are less efficient and much different to manage.

There are two situations that have resulted….some countries have aggressively adopted the new requirements, and have been importing the eggs that they have not been able to produce locally, since the new systems are somewhat less efficient.  Now, however:

“Under the new rules, manufacturers are not now permitted to source their eggs from non-compliant EU countries, 13 of which have yet to introduce the new pens.” The Guardian, Mar 4/2012.  Because of this, even compliant countries are short of eggs, especially for commercial markets, such as for bakeries and food production facilities that use liquid or powdered eggs as ingredients.

“Cake and brioche manufacturers [in France] may soon be forced to shut down production and temporarily lay off workers if shortages continue.” Ottawa Citizen, Mar 2/2012.  I’m not 100% sure what brioche is, but it sounds yummy, and if it not produced anymore, I expect the world will suffer.

Countries in the EU are still unhappy with the directive….Irish sources state:

 

“Unfortunately, the cost of complying with the directive and the way in which it was implemented forced an estimated 10% to 15% of our producers out of business. This has resulted in a tightening of egg supplies and a rise in the price of eggs. ” Belfast Telegraph, Mar 10/2012.

They say a fool never learns, a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise man learns from other men’s mistakes.  If this is true, what can be learned from the EU example? 

First, putting together these types of sweeping rules is VERY complicated, the pitfalls are deep and plentiful, and the repercussions are HUGE.  So, as frustrating as it is to say, it is necessary to approach this issue slowly and carefully.  I have been really frustrated in the pace of change in the industry, but moving forward slowly and correctly is much more effective than moving quickly.  Jurisdictions such as the United States have proposed plans that give a phase in period, but have required benchmarks that require a certain amount of the industry to be compliant an interim times.  Other jurisdictions, such as Manitoba, have started to pay an incentive for hens housed in furnished cages, as well as loose-housed systems. 

I think that improving welfare is important, and it is the right thing to do.  All the farmers I work with agree, and want to do the right thing for their birds.  The unfortunate thing is that the question is so complicated that it is impossible to know for sure what the right answer is.  And the repercussions of moving the wrong way is losing your life’s work.  We can do it, and we can do it right.  I would like to thank the EU for paving the way with a really good first draft of a welfare program.  I can’t wait to be part of the committee that improves on the system of implementation that they developed.

Mike the Chicken Vet

 

Egg Farming Cornucopia

On Tuesday, I am flying down to Atlanta, Georgia.  I am one of 20,000+ attendees from over 100 countries who are gathering to discuss, gawk at, learn about and share ideas on the latest and greatest in the world of poultry farming.  If a chicken will ever see, hear, smell, taste, touch or be processed by, it will be on display in Atlanta.  The convention center is many football fields in size, and will be filled, shoulder to shoulder with farmers, vets, scientists, salesmen and industry reps who are hoping to discover the cutting edge of egg and chicken farming technology. 

There is also a scientific program where some of the more obscure points of vet medicine and research will be presented and discussed.  I am looking forward to this exchange of knowledge, but I can imagine that most of you would pay good money NOT to attend.  Interestingly, this year (similar to last year, but not common before that), a big part of both the displays and the scientific program deals with animal welfare.  It is going to be COOL. 

Getting to talk face to face with the guys who invented the new cage systems, or the better light-bulbs, or the better mouse-traps (It’s true…there ARE better mouse-traps), is an amazing opportunity!  Why the plastic at the front of the cage is higher density than the stuff on the side, or why the light-bulb manufacturer spent so much more money on his bulbs so the light contains more of the red spectrum….these things can’t be found in a sales manual, or be explained by the company rep who you have contact with.

I think it’s interesting and worth noting how intricate, in-depth, and exhaustive the knowledge about poultry farming is.   I’ve been involved in other aspects of agriculture in many capacities, and have heard (or had to say) “I don’t know” when discussing a lot of aspects of livestock farming.  There are a lot less grey areas in poultry farming (although still plenty)….partly because so much research is done in the area, partly because of the controlled housing that the birds are kept under, and partly because we collect so much data on each flock.   I’m looking forward to my trip (being wined and dined by companies hoping to influence my opinion is not a horrible part of it either), and will post after I get back about anything that I think will be of interest to y’all.  Chickens are chickens, and knowledge about professional farms often help with backyard issues too.

Mike the Chicken Vet

A Professional Free Run Barn

I was asked about free run eggs again yesterday.  I’ve lost count of how   many people I’ve met who are confused as to what the term means.  Some people think it means living in a situation like Old McDonald used to have….a few hens, scratching in the yard in the daytime, and trooping obediently into a quaint coop (up a ramp, no less!) for the evening.  The farm-wife gathers the dozen eggs or so into her apron before she does the laundry and cooks the meal (Old McDonald wasn’t big on equality).

Unfortunately (or, in many ways, fortunately), this is not reality.  Remember, you city folks want to be able to grab eggs at your convenience, in whatever store you are closest to.  It takes a lot of aprons full of eggs to make that happen.

Hens on perches...red cups are under drinker nipples...feed trough....along the left is the row of nest boxes with red doors

I was in a free run barn a couple of days ago.  I took some pictures to show y’all what it looks like inside a professional free-run barn.  This is a fairly new barn, run by owners who are VERY diligent and innovative.  The barn has a solar powered heat pump gizmo that reduces the amount of propane needed to keep the barn warm, and makes the barn more eco-friendly.  The ventilation is designed to minimize electricity usage, and the design and materials are state of the art….as good as anywhere in the world…..at the risk of being labelled a “chicken geek”, this barn is seriously cool.

This is what the barn looks like...other pics are taken with flash so the birds aren't blurry, but they make the barn look much darker than it is

The barn holds more than 15,000 birds.  This is about average for a free-run barn, and is near the minimum size that makes things like the heat exchanger, computerized ventilation and modern equipment feasible.  The birds have a fair bit of room, plenty of perch space, nest boxes and automatic feeders and waterers.  As you can see in the pictures, however, they choose to “flock together” to what seems an extreme amount.  I see it in most of the barns I’m in….there will be a significant amount of empty barn surrounding a clump of chickens….if we housed them at the density they hang out at, we would be in violation of our code of practice, but since they do it by choice, who is to second guess them?

This is what chickens do, left to their own devices. About half way up the barn, there is a big open space....possibly reserved for bowling...

There is a conveyor belt under the row of nest boxes, and the eggs are carried to the front by this means, so the farmer doesn’t have to get on his hands and knees to reach in each one to grab the eggs…..it also allows him to keep his apron clean, so it will hold more eggs.

 

 

Mike the Chicken Vet

The Future of Egg Farming?

I spent this afternoon working with a group of researchers at the university laying hen barn, teaching some students about how normal chickens act and look.  The point was how to examine the hens to look for health issues that might impact their welfare and to compare the impacts of different housing systems.  This in itself is not that far removed from what I do…..what made today cool for me was that I got to see chickens in a new type of cage.  A new technology that helps provide more complete behaviour opportunities than regular cages, but still offers all the welfare benefits that cages provide.

The new type of "furnished" cage....no sofas or TVs, just the chicken-centric stuff

I am excited to be involved with projects like this, and others that are pushing the envelope with respect to laying hen farming.   The new technology…furnished cages….has huge potential to improve welfare and still keep eggs safe and affordable for consumers.  The issues are complicated and involved, but I would (and have…often) argue that furnished cages can provide the best possible welfare currently available for laying hens.  And there are some truly smart, educated people who agree with me.  In fact, these cages have been evaluated by the most accomplished animal welfare experts, and have been approved and endorsed by all of the ones I have met or talked to….and I’ve met and talked with a great many of them.  

Furnished cages in action in Europe

There is some question as to whether these fancy cages will be able to do what they are purported to do….given Ontario’s climate, feed types, labour availability, etc.  That’s what the research project today was about….the university is evaluating the feasibility of these cages.  You see…new technology is the same, no matter what field it is in.   Electric cars…..enviromentally friendly homes….today, there are almost no people who would argue that they are not progressive, valuable, and a trend of the future.  They are also as rare as hens teeth (pun intended).  Why?  Because they are expensive and unproven.  Look at big screen TV’s…..5 years ago, they were cutting edge, and only the wealthy and risk tolerant types would buy them.

Birds-eye view...perches, dustbaths and nest areas are the Mariott of hen housing!

That was for a TV….maybe a $5000 investment.  These furnished cages will cost the average farmer around $250,000 MORE than regular cages, when he is refurnishing his barn.  You can imagine that these guys wanting to know that this new scheme for looking after hens is all it’s cracked up to be (I got this pun thing NAILED!).   If the research works out, I know that the farmers in Ontario will jump towards the new technology if it means better care for their hens.   I’ve discussed the technology and the costs with several interested farmers…..if we can show that the hens get the welfare benefits that have been described for the furnished cages, they will absorb the extra investment. 

Soooo….the egg-heads at the university will try to validate the claims made by the equipment salesmen, and progress will be made that will actually improve the welfare of laying hens.  It is really cool that I have positioned myself to have a front row seat to see it happen.  I will be one of those old curmudgeons saying “I remember when……”

Mike the Chicken Vet

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

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