By Tom Collins
EMBRO — Western Ontario egg farmers say new regulations by the Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) to force farmers away from conventional housing are just a matter of the industry evolving.
The EFC announced Feb. 5 that egg farmers have to start housing their birds in one of four ways:
• Enriched housing: Birds are still in cages but the cages are bigger than conventional and must have a nest and perch. The conventional cage requirement is 67 square inches per hen, while for enriched housing it’s 116.25 square inches;
• Free-run: Birds move freely around the barn without cages;
• Aviary: The same as free-run, but with multi-level platforms;
• Free-range: Birds move freely outside.
The EFC’s goals are for 50 per cent of barns to be switched within eight years, and 85 per cent within 15 years. There would be no conventional housing in Canada by 2036.
Barns were mostly free-run before the 1970s and were switched to cages as the birds would walk around in their own feces, making cuts and scrapes more susceptible to infections.
Dan Veldman, of Veldman Poultry Farms at Embro, saw the writing on the wall several years ago. He converted one of his three barns from traditional to enriched housing to learn more about the system. He plans to convert another barn this year.
Veldman thinks enriched housing is the way to go as it separates the bird from the litter much like a traditional system. In free-run housing, birds peck at the ground, which is covered in chicken feces. In cages, that doesn’t happen as the feces fall out of the cage and the eggs fall onto an egg belt which also keeps the eggs clean.
However, the bigger cages mean farmers need to make a choice: either have bigger barns to hold all the hens or have fewer hens. Veldman’s two 18-year-old conventional barns are 26 ft. by 250 ft. and hold 20,000 hens. The new enriched barn is 30 ft. by 250 ft. but holds just 10,200 hens.
Veldman believes enriched housing eggs will be the standard in 20 years. He’s heard that the EFC is designing a plan to compensate producers to pick up costs in transition.
While he thinks the EFC’s decision is a matter of the industry evolving, he says consumers will buy the eggs that are cheapest. The EFC says about 90 per cent of egg production is currently from conventional housing.
Some egg farmers believe this was a move to appease corporations like the McDonald’s restaurant chain, which announced last September that all of its eggs will be free-run within 10 years. McDonald’s buys 120 million eggs per year from Canadian farms, 76 million just for egg McMuffins.
Veldman thinks it stems from animal activists. He says activists tried to convince consumers to switch from conventional about 10 to 15 years ago, but that didn’t work. So instead the activists focused on corporations which have a brand image to protect.
Jim Van Hemert started in the egg industry three years ago. At the time, the Ingersoll farmer wanted to go with an enriched housing system, but it cost about 1.5 to 2 times as much as a traditional barn. So he went with conventional. He doesn’t plan to change his barn until the end of its life cycle in about 20 years, which is the EFC deadline for all barns to no longer be conventional. He still believes traditional barns are best as they have lower mortality and high production.
“It’s the best way to produce the most economical eggs on the market for consumers,” he said. “And you’re producing a very healthy product. It’s always very clean in the barn. I can wear my Sunday suit on any given day in my barn.”
A study by the U.S. Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply compared hens in enriched, conventional and aviary housing. It found that hens laid more eggs in enriched housing and fewer eggs in aviary. It also found hen mortality was the highest in the aviary system and lowest in the conventional system.