By Tom Collins
ST. ISIDORE — Not all egg farmers are pleased with the decision by the Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) to force farmers away from using conventional housing.
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.
Marcel Laviolette, of Ferme Avicole Laviolette at St. Isidore, started building a conventional barn last summer when he saw the writing on the wall and switched to enriched housing, a move he estimates cost about 20 per cent more than traditional housing. An enriched barn would need to be 30 to 40 per cent larger to hold the same number of birds as conventional, he said.
“It’s like you just bought your car yesterday,” Laviolette said. “Today you change your mind and want an SUV. What’s going to happen? You’re going to pay more money and you’re going to throw (away) something that’s good.”
A frustrated Laviolette thinks the move was done 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.
“Ninety per cent of regular customers don’t even care about it,” Laviolette said. “They just want a cheap egg. People won’t just go for free-range if they’re going to pay twice as much. We’re kind of put to the wall by people that don’t even have a clue how our industry works.”
Laviolette believes a free-run barn will be three times more time-consuming for workers than a conventional barn. Barns were mostly free-run before the 1970s but that changed as birds walked around in their own feces, making cuts and scrapes more susceptible to infections.
John Beking of Bekings Poultry Farm in Oxford Station — just south of Kemptville — switched to free-run in 2005 as a way to stay competitive, but he’s one of the few to have done so. The EFC says about 90 per cent of egg production is currently in conventional housing.
Consumers currently pay a premium for free-run eggs.
“In five years or maybe even less, as more of these eggs become available, the premium will probably not be as much because there will be more competition in the market,” Beking said.
Farmers switching from conventional to free-run need about double the barn space to raise the same number of chickens, he said. He added that free-run birds eat more as they move around more. There’s also a need for calcium as they are more active.
“The first six weeks you have to spend a lot of time in the barn,” Beking said. “They’re not used to a stranger walking among them, so they’ll be very flighty. They have a tendency to crowd in a corner, so you’re moving very slowly. You’re gathering a fair number of eggs off the floor. The idea of them laying in the nest is something that takes up to three to four weeks to learn.”
The time savings does start around the six-week mark. In a free-run barn, Beking can do a walkthrough and see every chicken within 15 minutes.
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.