Tag Archives: farmers

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.

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

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

Chicken Farming Across the World

My trip to Atlanta was, as always, an eye-opening trip.  One of the things that stuck with me, as I wondered the aisles, was the number of international exhibitors.  I got freebies for my kids that I can’t read.  (International exhibitors give away the BEST stuff….I got an oriental labelled magnetic chess set from one of them!….I’m not even sure what country the company was from.)  There were entire aisles where spanish and chinese were the main languages spoken.  It made me think of egg farming elsewhere in the world.  I talked to an Egyptian farmer, who had to make his own fans, because of some embargo that didn’t allow him to import equipment that he thought was decent quality.  Then a farmer from India who was concerned about air conditioning his chick barn so that they didn’t die from heat prostration (they like temperatures of 94F…..and he had to COOL them to that temperature!!).

Then, at one of the lectures I attended, there was a “Future of Chicken Farming” video shown from the United States that was made in 1946.  The description of the challenges and goals of the farmers of the time were amazing….there was no such thing as a broiler-type chicken then….people cooked up and ate laying hens when they were done laying.  The goal of the time was to try to develop a bird with a reasonable amount of meat on it….how things have changed.

Anyway, I started looking around for examples of different egg farming practices from around the world.  Many of the modern egg farmers across the world mostly deal in similar technology….the world is shrinking.  But the traditional and smaller farms vary considerably.  As do the attitudes towards egg handling and food safety.  I honestly don’t know if any of these pictures are representative of egg farming in any of the places or times represented.  I found them interesting, and eye opening.  You may find some things that you could apply to your backyard, or possibly gain an appreciation of the opportunities that we have that other areas do not share.

Employee of a 1940s egg farm, washing eggs for sale in the local store. My 5 year old would start a new product..."pre-scrambled eggs".


Proud farmers, displaying their best hens...in 1910.


Feeding Chickens in the 1950s.


Govornment Farm in Victoria, BC. Not sure of the year. Govornment efficiency....the great constant across the years.


An Egg Farm in Honduras


An egg farm currently for sale in the Phillipines....from the realtor ad.


Some hens in Australia


Interesting way to deliver birds to market in Phillipines.


A farmer in India...you just never see saris in barns in Canada


Mozambique egg farm


I LOVE these egg cartons in China....don't believe they are widely used, but they should be!


Back in the 1950s, advertisements were simipler....and more accurate!


Egg market in Korea....not a fridge in sight.


Farm in Japan....much more intensive than here....


Chinese Egg Farm....again, very large scale

Mike the Chicken Vet.

A Perspective on World Food Supply

A week ago, I went to Atlanta to the International Poultry Exposition.  It was massive, with an official attendance of over 20, 500 patrons and 895 exhibitors.  As a laying hen vet, it is an ideal spot to hook up with researchers, breeding experts, other vets and people who have “been there and done that” since before I was born.  I’m willing to bet that if a fact has ever been known about a chicken, someone in that room knew it. 

Because of the concentration of expertise, it was a great forum for a meeting entitled “The Future of the American Egg Industry”.  Although egg farming in Canada is somewhat different, there was a lot that I thought I could learn from the speakers, so I put my quest for loot at the booths, and sat in on some serious stuff. 

The first speaker was Jeff Simmons, the president of Elanco, the animal health arm of Eli Lily.  This guy sits at the head table of a company that in 2008 had revenues of over $20 Billion.  He is in a position to know a lot about international agricultural issues.  He is also a professional speaker….extremely engaging and REALLY passionate.  His message boiled down to the fact that in 50 years, we will need 100% more food to feed the planet.  70% of that increase will need to come from increased efficiencies….we need to produce twice as much food, without using any more water for agriculture.  He quoted a UN statement that the most important therapeutic substance for the future will be nutritious food.  I have seen references to this in newspapers recently, as well.

Mr. Simmons practiced what he preached.  He told stories about fasting for 72 hours, then flying into a slum in Rwanda and living on the street for a week.  He said that unless you are truly hungry, you cannot appreciate the importance of accessable, affordable food to people in that position in the world.  And, according to numbers he used in his presentation, about 60% of people on earth are unsure where their next meal is coming from.  And it’s not just in the 3rd world (although mostly).  1 in 5 kids in the US eat 2 meals or less per day (not by choice), 2/5 in England, and 1/7 in France.  Without “Food for school” programs, he said that number would be much higher.

His opinion is that technology is the key.  He is confident that human ingenuity and knowledge will develop ways to improve efficiencies and yields at a pace to keep up with need.  Crops that will grow in drier soils, higher yielding strains, disease resistance, faster growing chickens, more efficient laying hens, more milk per acre of grass, more digestible grains, higher starch levels in corn, etc, etc, etc.  These improvements will involve all types of science, from genetic modifications, hydrology, microbiology and intensive housing of animals.  He feels that there is no alternative to this type of evolution for the vast majority of agriculture on earth.

He also discussed his opinion on consumers.  He said that 95% of people are food buyers, 4% are lifestyle buyers, and 1% are fringe groups.  He describes the groups as this: food buyers are mainly concerned with taste, cost, nutrition and safety.  Lifestyle buyers are concerned about specialty qualities ….luxury/gourmet, organic/local, self-grown, etc….he said we are all lifestyle buyers for certain things (think of the premium people pay for THEIR brand of beer, or their Starbucks, or that Ethiopian coffee, even if they buy most of their groceries based on price).  The fringe group are a minority who are trying to change the way food is produced.  He feels that the difference between lifestyle buyers and fringe is that lifestyle buyers want to INCREASE choice….they don’t care if other people buy “buck-a-beer” brands, as long as there is micro-brew available too…..fringe groups want types of food to be removed from the grocery store, and consumers to have less choice.

I found Mr. Simmons to be incredibly engaging, and his ideas are persuasive.  I spend quite a bit of time considering opinions of people who want to increase the base cost of food to meet a priority they have….animal welfare concerns, organic production, local food, etc, etc.  All of these increase the cost of food…..I was fascinated to hear the “other side of the story” from someone who has a great perspective on world food concerns.  I believe that all the concerns are valid, but this talk gives some perspective on the issue.  If nothing else, it is something to think about.

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

What is Poultry Welfare?

Actually, the question should be “What is poultry welfare to YOU?”.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am doing a Master’s degree in animal welfare.  It has long been an interest of mine, and the circumstances resulted in me doing the degree part-time, while I am still doing my vet job.

Today, in my “Assessing Animal Welfare” course, a discussion evolved on defining animal welfare (makes sense to figure out what you are assessing before you start).  Basically, the gurus say there are 3 broad components of animal welfare – mental states (referred to as feelings or affective states), health (the absence of pain and illness), and ability to live naturally.   The great thing is that, almost universally, EVERYONE agrees on benefits and detriments for animals.  Nobody will argue that it is good for chickens to be sick, or hungry or in pain; and everyone will agree that it is good for hens to be able to perform natural behaviours like nesting, perching and dust-bathing.  It should be simple to go forward from this point.  Unfortunately, very few changes in hen care result in improvements in all 3 aspects.  Often, strategies that improve the hens’ health restrict the diversity in the environment, resulting in boredom.  More freedom of movement and behaviour almost inevitably result in more injuries and pain. 

The problems, arguments, plebiscites, lawsuits and angst result from the different emphasis people put on different aspects of welfare.  If chickens are allowed to wander outside, they will get more disease, and suffer more deaths and injuries from predators.  Nobody will argue this point.  What happens is that people argue about whether it is worth it.  (Even if, sometimes, the combatants don’t even realize that this is the discussion they are having.)   “Hens have to have access to the outside, to feel sunshine on her face”, and “The mortality and disease rates of range housing of laying hens is unsupportable” are actually just different shades of grey. 

I think that the discussions would be a lot more productive and congenial if everyone involved in the debate would realize that we are all actually on the same side.   We all want happy chickens living a free, healthy, productive life.  The question is: how many days of illness are worth the feel of sunshine on her beak?  How heavy a load of bacteria offsets the satisfaction of scratching through the dirt for bugs and grubs?  There is no set answer, but everyone has a valid opinion.

The discussion has to continue, and farmers have to continue to evolve to meet the society’s expectations.  Just remember, the debate has been going on for thousands of years….Aristotle and Plato discussed animal welfare in ancient Greece.  If they couldn’t figure it out, I don’t expect the answer will be very simple or straightforward.

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