By Connor Lynch
NAPANEE — The Egg Farmers of Canada announced last year that by 2036, conventional housing would be a thing of the past. The goal was to have 50 per cent of farmers off the old system in eight years, and 85 per cent of them within 15 years, with a total phase out by 2036.
The Retail Council of Canada, which represents such giants as Loblaw Companies, Metro, and Walmart Canada, announced in May of 2016 that there would be a voluntary commitment from its members to source only cage-free eggs by the end of 2025.
But Egg Farmers of Ontario’s director of public affairs, Bill Mitchell cautioned farmers not to get too excited about the retail council’s statement. “Their brands were being threatened, but what it actually means over a 10-year period remains to be seen.”
Some farmers are resisting.
Dan Veldman, of Veldman Poultry Farms at Embro, is planning for his three children to take over the family business. The farm currently has four barns: two conventional housing barns that are still in use, and two enriched housing barns.
Veldman said that despite the initial promise from some major Canadian egg buyers to go totally cage-free, the fox isn’t in the hen house just yet, and there’s room for egg farmers to hold out.
“I think it’s going to be a hard sell for retailers to take away consumer choice,” he said. These companies’ brands were facing enormous public pressure but there is plenty of wiggle room, he added.
Enriched housing (larger cages with privacy curtains for laying) strikes a happy medium between public concerns and public willingness to accept increased costs, he said. Enriched housing adds only a fraction of a cent to the cost of an egg, he said.
The main obstacle to cage-free is going to be at the checkout line and most consumers won’t pay double the price for their eggs, Veldman said. “I think a consumer would probably buy an organic, free-range egg if it was the same price.”
The Veldmans have had a bit of a learning curve with enriched housing; mortality was up in the first year, though not drastically. This year, mortality is less in the enriched barns than it is in the conventional. Feed costs in the enriched barns are slightly up, and production is a bit down.
Other producers are holding out for conventional as long as they can.
Eastern Ontario chicken farmer Max Kaiser of Kaiser Lake Farms Ltd. has a conventional housing layer barn that’s currently six years old, and could last another 20 years. He’s planning on keeping that barn as is right up until that 2036 deadline to avoid new costs and more expensive eggs.
“The push (for cage-free) is coming from people who aren’t bloody likely to buy eggs anyway,” said Max Kaiser, likening it to “tree-huggers telling lumberjacks how to run a chainsaw.”
The arguments from the “vegetarians and vegans” that animals in cage-free environments exhibit more natural behaviours don’t wash with Kaiser. “These chickens are not natural breeds. They’ve been bred for cage living and they’ve never known anything but. There may be some more instinctual behaviour that they do, but to say they want to?” Kaiser said that is at best a tricky thing to measure, and added that by any measurable metric, conventional housing is the best for both the consumer and the birds. Lower mortality rates, particularly from illness and cannibalism, are better for the birds, and the system produces eggs more cheaply, saving consumers money.
“When eggs hit the shelves and the consumers continue to buy the cheapest eggs in the store, then the retailers will say we need more $2 a dozen eggs,” Kaiser said. “What sells is the cheapest egg, which does not come from a cage-free farm.”
Some farmers who’ve already made the switch to cage-free are already having trouble getting consumers to pony up the premium.
Beking’s Poultry Farm in Eastern Ontario switched to free-run hens in 2005 but couldn’t get customers to pay a premium for the first two years. Said owner John Beking: “I think people liked what we were doing but weren’t willing to pay the extra price. It’s getting better than it was.”
He’s still yet to see that market surge. He figured that maybe 5 or 6 per cent of Canadian consumers buying eggs are willing to pay a premium for cage-free eggs. “It’ll be a long time before it’ll be 10 per cent.”