Tag Archives: farm


One of the biggest buzzwords I hear at committees and meetings I attend is SUSTAINABILITY. Everyone has a general sense of sustainability: have a less negative impact on the environment, be kind to animals, have systems that can be successful long term, consider the economic impact, especially on low-income groups, etc. The idea became formalized in 1983 with the Bruntdland Commission which came up with the famous definition as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. A Venn diagram (who doesn’t love a Venn diagram?) of the thought process is here

Because I’m Mike the Chicken Vet, and not Mike the Nuclear Physicist, I always seem to think about sustainability with respect to poultry production and welfare. I’ve asked sustainability specialists how we should prioritize each of these circles, and everyone seems to have a different answer, depending on their personal biases and preferences. The reality on the farm is that there are very few win-win situations left when we make changes. If you want to improve societal concerns, you end up worsening environmental impacts and increasing cost of food. Which should we focus on?

I’m really proud of the Canadian egg farmers for committing to improving animal welfare because we felt that it was important enough to commit billions of dollars of investment. We followed the welfare science and took into consideration the big picture of sustainability. We committed to the use of furnished cages or cage-free production. I see other jurisdictions where the industry did not lead the change but was forced into change by outside forces (activist groups or government organizations). Many of these jurisdictions were forced to adopt cage-free production because it looks attractive on the surface, and is easier to “sell” to the public as a welfare improvement. But most outside groups don’t have intimate knowledge of the knock-on effects of these changes on the rest of our sustainability concerns. I hope (and am planning on working hard in this area) that consumers and food service providers continue to support the decisions that the industry is leading through the NFACC code of practice process to keep laying hens sustainable on all fronts.

An Aviary Barn in Ontario
Dust Blowing out of an Aviary Barn

Where this affects my daily life is when I talk with my clients about changing housing styles for laying hens (remember, the Canadian industry is committed to phasing out conventional cages, so all my clients are having to consider this). Always, the question is whether to adopt furnished cages or cage-free systems. Both systems provide real improvements to animal welfare (see my last post, if you’re interested), but farmers have many other considerations when deciding on a multi-million dollar, decades-long commitment. When compared to furnished cages, cage-free systems result in more mortality, fewer eggs per hen, less feed efficiency, more manure, and a larger environmental footprint, similar to ABF broiler production. These effects are magnified further when you feed organic feed, and/or let your birds outside. I don’t have the numbers on the Canadian industry (I could give estimates, but nobody has done an extensive survey), but when you multiply these effects by the nearly 28,000,000 laying hens in the country, again, the effects will be widespread and significant. They also take many more workers, who work in more challenging environments, which results in more injuries and sickness. You can imagine picking up eggs off the floor or climbing up on aviary systems to free a stuck bird, when done many times per day can result in slips, falls, and repetitive strain injuries.

Furnished Cage

Does this mean that cage-free systems are bad? No. They have advantages too, with a wider range of behaviors available to the birds. But they definitely come with a significant cost to the environment, food affordability, and worker health and safety. There are also a limited number of consumers who are willing to pay the increased cost associated with producing cage-free eggs.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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.

Why aren’t there more Chicken Vets?

I have been asked numerous times why there are no vets around who work on backyard chickens.  It’s been suggested that I should specialize in backyard health and make my millions.  There has been an article in the Wall Street Journal no less, decrying the lack of vets with chicken experience (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323527004579081812563033586.html?mod=WSJ_hp_EditorsPicks#articleTabs%3Darticle). 

I will try to tell you why there is a lack of vet care available for your chickens.  Like most real-life problems, it is complicated, involves money, attitudes, history and inertia.  Some ways to approach providing backyarders access to vet care include a backyard poultry only practice, professional poultry vets branching out into backyard flocks, or small animal vets branching out into backyard flocks.  All of these have challenges.  I will give you my top 10 reasons why there is a lack of veterinary care for backyard flocks;

     10) Money

I have worked exclusively with poultry for 15 years now.  I’m happy with my income (unless you happen to be my boss, in which case, I’d like a raise), and I like working with the birds.  I visit about 2 – 3 flocks per day, and I earn hundreds of dollars from each visit (sue me, but I’d like to earn more than a plumber….10 years of post-secondary education left me with a small mortgage, and it should be worth SOMETHING).  Since the flocks I visit have thousands of birds, each visit costs pennies per hen.  Many backyarders won’t be willing to pay $50+ per visit, which is about the minimum I’d need to keep my doors open.

      9) Biosecurity

 I know activists would have you believe that biosecurity is just an excuse to keep professional farms out of the public’s eye, but it is a crucial component of the health programs on all commercial sized farms.   This year alone, I am aware of backyard flocks who have been diagnosed with Avian Influenza, Mycoplasma, Salmonella enteritidis, Infectious Laryingotracheitis, Fowl Cholera and Blackhead…..all of which would be devastating in a professional flock…..as in, people losing their livelihood and home, level of devastation.  Believe it or not, the amount and variety of diseases in backyard flocks dwarf the infections on professional farms, and the risk of carrying diseases is very real.

    8) Liability

I have been asked to do things like prescribe medications or sign export certificates on backyard flocks.  The reality is that, as a professional, every time I sign my name to a certificate, it is on me to make SURE it is true.  So, if you want to move a flock across state lines, and I sign a form saying your flock has shown no signs of disease X in the past 3 months, I need to be SURE that they haven’t.  This means that I need to know you and your flock well, and have multiple visits (costing you $$ multiple times).  If the hens are carrying the disease I stated they were free of, it is ME who is charged with negligence or malpractice.  This is not as big an issue for small animal vets, because the impact of a missed case of kennel cough or FELV isn’t the same as moving the hens that are the start of an agricultural disease (the Avian Influenza outbreak in British Columbia cost an estimated $380 million, and almost definitely started in a backyard duck flock). 

     7) Different type of Medicine

For me, as a commercial vet, I concentrate on keeping flocks healthy.  To do that I do what is called “population medicine”, and am more focussed on the health of the group as opposed to each individual hen.  Sick hens will often be euthanized to be examined and samples taken so the rest of the flock can be appropriately treated.  That model does not work for backyard flocks.  Techniques like exploratory surgery, intravenous fluids, severe wound repair or life support therapy are necessary, even crucial when dealing with backyard hens, but I am not used to performing them, and it is an entirely different mindset.

    6) Interest

Very few small animal vets have any experience or interest in chickens.  They like dogs and cats, and think guinea pigs and hedgehogs are cute, but chickens are alien to almost all of them.  Chickens are so different than the mammalian patients my classmates see that they are very uncomfortable in even attempting to deal with them.  This is a wide generalization, but holds true in most cases.  I know of an injured hen that was flatly refused at a vet clinic because the vet said she “wouldn’t even know where to start”.

     5) Lack of tools

Chickens are no longer expected to be in small groups in North America.  Vaccines come in bottles of 1000, 5000, 10,000 or 25,000 doses, and once opened, need to be used within 2 hours or they don’t work.  (One of the vaccines I use can only be bought in a 25,000 dose bottle).  Even though I want to recommend vaccination of backyard flocks, it is difficult to justify buying 5000 doses of Newcastle Disease vaccine for your 5 hens.  Antibiotics are the same….most come in a pouch that treats 100 gallons of water….once opened, the antibiotic starts to lose efficacy, and should not be stored for later use.

     4) Lack of Numbers

Even if there was a way to provide decent care in a metropolis like Toronto, or New York, that would still only help a very small percentage of the backyard hens…..what about the smaller cities, towns, and even rural flocks (cow and horse vets don’t really have any comfort with chickens either, as a rule).  Unless there is a critical mass of hens, it is very difficult to provide care, regardless of the location.

     3) Chickens are weird

Face it…chickens are weird.  They have an odd social structure that can seriously impact their health, they have a wildly different biology that other pet animals (respiratory, digestive, reproductive, cardiovascular, immune, bone and skin systems are all vastly different than other pets).  It means that a small animal vet cannot apply what he/she knows in other areas to the chicken.  A chinchilla is not that different that a dog or cat, and you can logically adapt treatments if one is brought into your clinic, but a chicken does not fit the model.  At all.

     2) Chickens are food

Another aspect of treating chickens that makes small animal vets uncomfortable is that you don’t (usually) eat your pets.  I am very aware of the human health implications of everything I do on a farm.  I only use antibiotics that I am confident will not contaminate the eggs or meat, or else I know how long that contamination will persist for, and advise against eating the eggs for a period of time.  Small animal vets don’t have this background, and are (rightly) worried about causing residues that make people sick.

    1) Inertia

The number one reason that vet care isn’t more available for backyard chickens is inertia.  “It just isn’t done”.  Like giving women the vote, this is unheard of, and might be the end of civilization as we know it.  Keep asking your vet (and other vets) to look after your hens.  Be willing to pay a little, in order to make him/her think about making it a part of the clinic’s business model.  Be patient if they are slow, or unsure.  Keep trying to make it happen, and in the near future, someone will figure out that treating chickens is not scary or dangerous, and a model for this type of medicine will emerge and become commonplace. 


Mike the Chicken Vet

Hidden Camera Videos

I watched a “documentary” today on CBC that was based on an “undercover investigation” by the group Mercy for Animals (MFA).  It was an expose on the pig industry and the intensive confinement that is used in pig agriculture.  It was graphic, ugly, and portrayed the farmers as heartless animal abusers who are strictly out for a buck.  If you are an animal rights group that is against the use of animals for food (which MFA is), it was an incredibly effective tool.  If you are the CBC, a nationally funded broadcasting agency paid for by the people, it may not have been quite as effective a story.  Tom Kennedy, the investigative reporter, was sent a tailor-made, exclusive to w5 video clip that was taken by an Animal Rights advocate who admitted that his goal is for all people to become vegetarians.  The video was shown (I’m not sure how much of the video that was sent to w5 was shown), and the activist was interviewed.

Much of the video was centered around injured pigs, euthanizing piglets by “blunt trauma” and pigs in gestation crates, which severely confine their movement and restrict the behaviour dramatically.  The fact is, pig farms are big.  All the people who live in cities eat pork.  As do all the people who live in towns, and the people who live on dairy farms, chicken farms and guys who produce crops.  All these people produce 0% of the pork they need.  On the show, there was the obligatory 5 second shot of 5 pigs running around in the mud somewhere (not in the snowy environs outside Winnipeg where the videod farm was).  The reality is that pigs do not fare well outside in Canada for 6-8 months of the year….but that’s besides the point.

I’m not here to defend the pork industry….I know more about it than most people, but I am not an expert in pork production, nor have I worked intimately with pork producers for a dozen years or so.  I know that the video was sensationalized, and probably consisted of less than 0.01% of the video the activist shot.  The bottom line is that some very bad things happened on the farm, some moderately bad things happened on that farm that were able to be edited and shown out of context to be made to look bad, and there are some things that people who are ignorant about agriculture find distasteful, but aren’t inhumane. (Proper euthanasia often falls under this category).

Interestingly, during one of my MSc lectures, a welfare scientist who has often been quoted in activist videos showed another, much older, protest video that he was involved in.  His was a cautionary tale (since we were going to be graduating as animal welfare experts), and he was saying how important it was to be extremely careful when commenting on animal welfare for these groups.  He was filmed and quoted in several sections of the video in question, and then explained to us what his answers actually were.  Once, his answer was complete, but through the magic of editing, the interviewer asked a different question, then inserted his answer, entirely changing the meaning.

The bottom line is, animal activists and protest videos have an agenda.  They admit it freely, but it still gets forgotten by the people watching the show.  Expert opinions that are offered as support may be accurate, or may not.  Remember, the animal rights people want to stop the use of animals.  They believe it is immoral to use animals for our benefit.  I actually admire activists….they believe in something, and do their best to promote their moral view and spread it.  Of course, I also admire Jehovah’s Witness’, for the same reason.  I don’t agree with either of them, but admire their committment.

The reality is that farmers give the public what they want.  If farmers could sell their pigs for twice as much, and spend twice as much time with half the number of pigs, they would jump at the chance.  If the production from 100 pigs could pay for a farmers mortgage and living expenses, that agricultural model would exist.  But the proportion of organic pork sold in stores is not increasing.  If people are only willing to pay a little more for pork before they switch to beef, chicken or eggs, then farmers need to figure out the most humane way they can produce pork under those constraints.  NOBODY can afford to have a job that doesn’t pay the bills….if they do, it’s called a hobby, and they need to have a job on the side.

The fact is, bringing these issues to light are good for the industry, animals, and consumers….if they are taken with a grain of salt.  Conservative institutions like agriculture change slowly, and the goad provided by extremists make farmers evaluate what they do, and progresses animal welfare.  Letting consumers realize the direction that the economics of food production push production strategies is also helpful.  Painting farmers as the cause of the system is like blaming your doctor when you are sick.

Just some thoughts on hidden camera videos.  If you keep them in mind the next time you see one of these videos, try to remember that this is the likely distillation of months of video, edited to make it look as bad as possible.  If you don’t work in an office, imagine someone with an agenda doing his best to make your workplace look ugly….could it be done?  In all honesty, I would HATE for someone to do an undercover video of me parenting my kids….if you take all my worst parenting moments over the past 3 months and make a montage…..just sayin.


Bones, Shells and Hen Health

People keep backyard hens for any number of reasons…..for companionship, for comic relief, to fertilize the garden, eat bugs, teach kids about the circle of life or to eat table scraps.  But the main reason that most people have hens around is because they do all these things AND produce eggs.  Eggs are the lynch-pin that makes henning so popular.  You (and your kids) can see how the food the hen eats today becomes your breakfast tomorrow.  It is fascinating and awe inspiring….old broccoli into an omelette…..talk a bout a silk purse from a sows ear!

There is an aspect to egg production that puts the health of your hens at risk, however.  Each egg is presented to you in its own handy carrying case….the shell.  An egg-shell is made up of calcium carbonate.  It contains the entire

Hens in lay have “trabecular bone” that allows for the rapid storage and release of calcium when the hen is in lay. If the trabecular bone is depleted, the cortical bone (part that gives strength) will start to be used, resulting in weakness and pain for the hen.

amount of calcium the chicken can carry in her bloodstream.  This means that if a hen doesn’t eat any calcium, she will deplete her calcium stores very, very quickly.

A chicken’s bones are made of calcium phosphate.  In the currency of egg production, consider this the “bank”.  Hens eat feed that contains calcium….it’s her “income”….she deposits egg-shell….this is her “expenses”.  The bones act as a storage site (important, since she eats during the day, and deposits egg shell overnight).  Simple, right?

Sorta.   Getting enough calcium into a hen every day is tricky….the ration needs to be balanced for both calcium and phosphorus, and hens do NOT like eating a ration that contains more than 4% calcium (the amount needed if a hen is to lay an egg each day)…..it is very salty, and hens will back off feed when the calcium level is high in the diet, until they get used to it.  Giving oyster shell as a free-choice supplement is not enough if you have a modern laying hen breed.  Hens eat oyster shells, and they stay in the gizzard as the acid there dissolves them

The black stuff inside the gizzard is limestone…another source of calcium. It stays in the gizzard until it shrinks to less than 3mm in size, then it goes through the gut. This gizzard is quite full, but the large particles won’t provide enough calcium for the hen, if they are the sole source.

slowly….thus it is a constant drip of calcium for the hen.  Helpful, but if it is the only source of calcium, the physical limits of the gizzard, and the slow release of the calcium means the hen won’t get enough.

To further complicate things, the bones are made of calcium phosphate….therefore phosphorus is also very important for bone health (and indirectly, shell quality).  The problem is, the phosphorus level needs to be in the proper ratio with the calcium…..too much phosphorus is dangerous to the hen, and she must get rid of it through her kidneys, and will (strangely) result in the same condition as insufficient phosphorus.  In a backyard, feeding minerals becomes more art than science.  Feed sunflower seeds, edamame, flax seeds and oat bran (foods high in phosphorus), but not TOO much…..and there is no target amount to feed…..it depends on the amount of calcium the hens consume…..the ratio of calcium to phosphorus is the important number.

To further complicate things, if you have a modern type laying hen, her physiology is set to lay an egg a day (pretty much).  She will do this, regardless of the state of her bones, or the balance of her calcium intake vs output.  The result is poorly shelled eggs, weak bones, egg bound hens or chickens that are too weak to survive well.  Heritage breeds are not as physiologically driven to lay eggs, and will just stop laying if the mineral balance is poor.

The answer is to feed hens a ration that is balanced with a lot of calcium in it, and appropriate amounts of phosphorus added.  Feed treats and scratch as just that….treats and amusement.  Don’t try to balance your hens rations piecemeal….it is all but impossible, and the hens will suffer.  Another way to approach the problem is to use heritage breeds, which will go out of lay  much more easily, and spare themselves the effects of calcium depletion.  You will get fewer eggs, but also less problems.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What Eggs are Safest?

I work in the professional egg world.  I know by name the vast majority of people who supervise the production, transport, grading, marketing and delivery of the eggs you find in your grocery stores, restaurants, farmers markets (yes, legally, those eggs need to be professionally graded too), and industrial users of eggs (think bread, cake, cookie, cereal, etc. makers).  I know how much care, concern, time, money and worry is dedicated to preserving the safety of eggs.  Being a vet, I am very involved in advising on many aspects of egg safety, right from chicken health to giving opinions on egg handling, and even national programs for salmonella control.

We, in the world of Canadian large-scale egg production, are quite proud of our safety record, and the programs we have in place.  We often debate whether small producers (read backyarders and hobby farmers) can produce a product that is comparable in safety.  We snicker a little at activists that say we need to get away from large-scale farming, since you can produce healthier eggs in your backyard, or on your apartment house roof.  How on earth can removing the expertise and care that we provide result in a healthier product?  By concentrating the number of birds on a farm, you allow a person to focus strictly on the care and protection of the hens….learn about them and become truly an expert.  I admit to having this opinion much of the time.

Many, many people disagree though.  “Factory farms”, “industrial production”, “bacterial breeding grounds” have been used to describe professional farms….unfairly, I think, but the terms are sincerely used by many people.  The problem is that there are many confounding factors.  Depending on what you WANT to read in a paper, almost any study can say anything.  Professional, caged farms are much bigger than extensive farms, and exponentially bigger than recreational farms.  If there is 1 contaminated egg per 1000 in a cage barn, the farm will produce many contaminated eggs per day.  A backyard flock with a rate of 1 contaminated egg per hundred would only have 1 contaminated egg per month.  If you eat 2 eggs per day, however, which is safer? 

The fact remains (check any activist website for examples) that many studies show that large farms have higher bacterial contamination.   Conversely (check any egg farming website for examples) many studies show that professional farms are much safer, contamination wise.  So, what’s right?

There is a very recent scientific paper from Spain that describes bacterial contamination that I think is quite balanced.  It must be taken with a grain of salt, however, since in North America, all graded eggs are washed, whereas in the EU, this is not the case.  Also, the rules on antibiotic use is different.   That being said, the study found that there was more significantly more bacterial contamination in free-range, organic and backyard (called “domestic eggs”) production than in free run (birds free inside of a barn), while cage barns had the least contamination.

Having said that, the authors went on to evaluate the antibiotic resistance in the different systems.  Free run barns were worst, then cage barns, then free range (outside), organic and backyard flocks had the least antibiotic resistance.  Both these findings make sense to me.  Large scale farms have a higher tendency to use antibiotics (thus the resistance), whereas backyard flocks almost never medicate (sometimes that is itself a problem). 

Which is more important?  I don’t know.  Antibiotic resistance doesn’t necessarily mean that the bacteria is likely to make you sick…it just means that if you treat an infection, you are more likely to clear it.  Some resistant bacteria don’t make you sick at all….some susceptible bacteria make you deathly ill, very quickly.  On the other hand, if you DO get sick from a resistant bacteria, it can be a serious problem. 

Bottom line, eggs from backyard flocks are more likely to be contaminated by bacteria than anything you would buy in a grocery store.  Be careful with them….wash your hands; keep the eggs in the fridge, separate from other foods; rinse eggs in running water to remove contamination before packing them in the fridge……and then relax.  Contamination rates are very low, and most bacteria are not pathogenic.  Take reasonable precautions and then just enjoy the fruits of your labours.  You are as likely to give yourself an ulcer from stressing about the bacteria as you are of getting food poisoning.

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


“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


Where’d they come from?

Chickens are a weird study in domestication.  People have had chickens around for a REALLY long time….but nobody is really sure where they came from exactly…

Red jungle fowl, and his great, great, great, great....(you get the idea)....grandson

It seems that red jungle fowl were hybridized with grey jungle fowl about 8000 years ago.  The original strains are likely to have come from Thailand, but domestication seems to have happened independently several times in southeast Asia and China between 5400 and 5200 BC.  I can’t help but imagine a Chinese Johnny Appleseed-type guy….wandering from village to village saying “if you keep some of these birds in your house, you won’t have to go hunting all the time….”

Cishan Site...a 10,000 year old site where 6000 year old chicken fossils were found, indicating this may be one of the earliest sites of chicken domestication

A couple thousand years later, the chicken made it to the Indus valley (around 2000 BC), which has been called the cradle of agriculture.  It was this are where many of our domesticated animals were domesticated, as well as many of the hybrid grain and vegetable crops that are the progenitors of todays farming across the world.  It is from the Indus valley that chickens found their way to Europe and Africa.

Now that we know where chickens came from, how have they changed?  It’s been a LOOONNNGGG time, and we’ve been messing with these birds pretty aggressively.  People have been VERY successful in increasing the ability of the bird to produce eggs.  Jungle fowl will lay around 5-6 small eggs per year.  Leghorn (the strain of white hens that are the most commercially successful chicken throughout the first world) hens will lay over 325 eggs in a year, and the eggs are much larger than the wild counterparts.  That is pretty obvious, and expected.


Laying hens split from jungle fowl lineages about 6000BC, and split from broiler chickens and Rhode Island Reds about 100 years ago


What is interesting is that domesticated animals (all of em…not just chickens) gain some traits when being domesticated…..think about it.  Domestic dogs, cats, cows, chickens, pigs…..all of them become less fearful of predators, have a less serious fear response, and show less interest in novel stimuli.  All that is understandable as animals are chosen on their ability to cope in a confined, human-centric environment….but there are other things too.  The one that amazes me is that domesticated animals uniformly turn more white.  I don’t know why….it makes sense that domesticated animals don’t need to be as camouflaged, but why bother changing?…..also…does that mean that blondes are more evolved than the rest of us?

 Domesticated chickens also use a more energy-conserving foraging strategy and are less active in fear tests, compared to jungle fowl.  This means that, given a choice, they PREFER more bland food, as long as it is easier to get, where as jungle fowl will work harder to get tastier tidbits.

The more predictable environments that leghorns find themselves in have caused them to be more risk averse, and less responsive to things like food deprivation.  Leghorns will act much more normally during experimental food deprivation than jungle fowl, who will spend more time searching for food, and spend more time off perches (a risky behaviour for hens in a jungle).

Maybe even more intriguingly, there are several traits that have not changed much from junglefowl….hens still flock together much the same way…the same inter-bird spaces, the same synchronization of behaviour, similar responses to predators.  Both leghorns and jungle fowl imprint readily on objects as babies, and will approach that object readily later in life….but leghorns have less flexibility in this….in one experiment, they could not get used to a blue ball in the pen, where jungle fowl imprinted on it readily.  Leghorn hens also show more fear of a novel environment than jungle fowl.  Leghorns will adventure less, and show more agitation in unfamiliar surroundings.

Other behaviour remain important to the hen, while being unnecessary in captivity.  Nest building is an important activity that hens will work hard to fulfill, as is foraging for food (interesting that leghorns will choose to eat bland, easy to get food in preference to novel foods, yet will then spent time scratching for food after they have eaten their fill), perching and dustbathing. 

The fact that jungle fowl are still alive and available for study is a rather unique situation.  Other domesticated farm animals do not have an ancestor to be compared to.  The aurochs (cow ancestor), mouflon (sheep ancestor), and tarpan (horse ancestor) are extinct, and the wild boar that exists today is very different from the ancestor of the modern pig.  As such, these species’ behaviour are not compared to the ancestral in order to try to guess what they would prefer.  I think it is dangerous to look at jungle fowl and expect that laying hens will desire or prefer the same things.  There is information to be gained from studying jungle fowl, but laying hens cannot be un-domesticated, and should be evaluated on their own when deciding on how to manage them, and what behavioural needs must be accounted for.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Whats in an Egg?

It’s something you don’t think about all that often.  You go to the fridge, grab what you need, crack ’em and try not to get any shell into the slimy, sticky goop that comes out. 

The parts of an egg. The Chalazae are twisted because the egg rotates inside the shell membranes as it progresses past the infundibulum....natures version of "cats cradle"

Most people never really consider what is in the bowl or pan beyond that.  That’s sad….because the egg is really an amazing piece of engineering.  It only takes 22 hours to produce, it is impressive nutritionally, it is a source of both vaccines and medicine, AND it comes with a handy carrying case!

With today’s highly efficient strains of laying hens, an egg per day is not far from the truth.  This means that each day, the hen takes the most dominant follicle, wraps it in pure, digestible protein, water and membranes, then protects it inside a shell, and delivers it into the world.

The hens reproductive tract, with the parts labelled. The ovary makes ova (yolks), which then are covered during the 22 hourr trip down the reproductive tract

The ovary makes ova (yolks), which then are covered during the 22 hour trip down the reproductive tractThe infundibulum actually “plucks” the yolk off the ovary, and holds it for about 15 minutes. It’s here that fertilization will occur, if it is going to.  Then the 13 inch long magnum adds the thick albumin over about 3 hours.  In the isthmus, membranes are added which act as the scaffolding for the shell to grow from.  This takes about 75 minutes.Water is also added to the egg once the membranes are in place, in order to “plump” out the egg, and make it, well….egg shaped.  Then the egg sits in the shell gland for about 18 hours before being laid very quickly…usually just after daybreak. The addition of water is important, or you can end up with wrinkled eggs….the shell just covers the membranes, which are thin and pliable….without being plumped out, you get this :

I use this as a sign of stress in a laying flock.

You can get this type of thing from some diseases that injure the uterus, or if there is something that makes the egg leave the isthmus area too quickly.  During this relatively short period, an amazing package has been developed.  As someone who a) has kids and b) is in training, and wants to lose some weight as well as build muscle, I am acutely aware of the low calories and high protein available in the egg.  Eggs are still considered the yardstick against which other proteins are measured against, with beef getting a rating of .93, and whey protein has .25 of the quality of protein in an egg.  I also find it easier to get a scrambled egg into the kids than almost any other “healthy” food…(there is some debate in the house as to whether macaroni and cheese ranks as “healthy” food or not….).  For the low cost of 70 calories, eggs contain 6g of protein and 5g of fat.  They have an alphabet soup of vitamins, and iron, selenium and choline.

See....Lots of good stuff, and only 70 calories

See….Lots of good stuff, and only 70 caloriesThis is the breakdown of a “normal” egg.  If you feed chickens special things, such as lutein, Omega 3 fats, extra vitamins and potentially other things, you can harvest them from eggs, which make them the leading edge of the science of neutraceutical development.  Preventing macular degeneration, improving brain development and providing extra nutrition to people who don’t consume much food (think ill people, or the elderly) are all functions of eggs right now…the future has lots of potential.The other thing that is a nice characteristic of eggs is the versatility they have for preparation.  Hard boiled, over easy, quiches, scrambled, poached….all are quite different from each other, and eggs pick up the flavour of whatever you cook ’em in.  All in all, not a bad piece of food technology.  There are times, however, when you feel an urge to be a “purist”, and get back to nature….there is only one way to appreciate ALL the characteristics of eggs….not for the squeamish, however… 

Hard-Core Egg Consumption.....not sure what the health department would say...

Mike the Chicken Vet

It’s Food Freedom Day in Canada

Whew!  Just in time….I, like you, have just made enough money to pay for all the food I will eat this year….assuming you are as average as I am.   I’m not 100% sure how it works for the kids….they don’t have jobs, and they still eat quite a bit, so….they may have to go on a diet.  But, bottom line, we pay less than 10% of our GDP on food each year.  According to the government, each household spent $7440 on food in 2008, which was 1.8% higher than 2007.  (Somehow, the government knows EXACTLY how much I owe them the day after my income tax is due, but can’t tell me how much we spent on food any more recent than 2008….) 

In the 1960’s, the amount we spent on food was around 18.7% of our income.  I find it amazing that we spend so little for food in a country that, lets face it, is relatively inhospitable to life in general for 7 months of the year.  Much of our food cost has extra charges for transportation, energy and housing….whether its greenhouses, or barns with heaters.  Imagine being an egg farmer in the tropics….put up a roof, and some netting, and your barn is built….here we have walls, insulation, heaters, big fans, and computerized controls so that our birds don’t freeze in the winter or cook in the summer.

Anyway…I was looking at the numbers for food freedom day, and noticed a few other official numbers that were pretty interesting.  These numbers are from 2009, but are not too far off what is going on today.  The average person eats 16.1 dozen eggs per year (193 eggs), which is down from a high of 23 dozen (276 eggs) in 1960.  Of these 193 eggs, 70% are sold in the shell, and 30% are consumed as processed eggs.  Processed eggs are sold at retail, to hotels, restaurants and institutions, are sold to further processors for the manufacturing of many foods (bakery products, mayonnaise, noodles, etc.) and speciality items such as shampoo, pet foods and adhesives.  Consider Chinese consume 349 eggs per person, Mexicans consume 345 eggs per person, and the Japanese consume 323 eggs per person per year.

Canadians have a vast amount of choice when it comes to eggs.  Eggs farms in Canada produce white, brown, Omega-3, free-run, free-range, vitamin enriched, lutein enriched, and organic eggs.  They come in pee wee, small, medium, large, jumbo and double-yolk sizes.  There are a few farms now that are testing out aviary and furnished cage systems.  It is amazing to live in a country where we can afford to have this much choice!

So….now that I have enough money to buy all my food for the year, I have 3 days to save up for valentines day…..so I don’t have to spend extra money on a comfy couch.

Mike the Chicken Vet