By Ian McKillop, egg farmer and vice chairman of Farm & Food Care Canada
Growing up in the 1960’s, I’ve fond memories of my brother and me helping collect eggs. We had a small flock of several hundred hens in chicken coops. We’d reach into nests for eggs, put them in a basket and wash any dirt or manure off. Often the hens would peck us – or each other, sometimes causing death. If they became scared, they’d flock to a corner and could even suffocate themselves.
In the 1960’s, conventional cages became popular, providing a healthier and safer environment for hens and the farmers caring for them. So in 1967, my parents built a new barn with conventional cages.
The barn held 6,000 hens, large by 1967 standards, with three hens per cage. Pecking and suffocation were virtually eliminated. Gathering eggs by hand was easier, plus the eggs were seldom in contact with manure anymore. Overall, the cages allowed a safer way of housing our hens with fewer deaths, improving the quality and food safety of the eggs, while keeping costs down. The birds were content and so were we.
My brother and I are now the fifth generation to farm on our property. We have three barns, each housing over 22,000 hens. With enhancements in cage design, hen genetics and nutrition, we can provide better care for our hens. Our priority has always been healthy, content hens and today such a hen can lay over 320 eggs per year. There are other ways to house laying hens – using enriched cages or even free-run (aviary) barns – but we’ve found cages work best on our farm, ensuring that the health and welfare of the hen and the farmer come first.
Recently companies such as Tim Horton’s and McDonalds have announced they will only source eggs from free-run hens. With the market share these companies have, farmers have little choice but to adapt. My brother and I had begun planning to build another barn when these announcements were made and now face a dilemma – do we continue to use cages or go with an aviary style barn? You can tour all of these different types of barns, by the way, at www.virtualfarmtours.ca
It takes more space to house the same number of birds in a free-run system. Luckily we have the land base to accommodate this, should we so choose. Equipment is more expensive, so we’d need additional finances. Managing an aviary barn would also take more time and effort, leading to additional costs (free-run eggs cost as much as 36 per cent more) – but this isn’t really our primary concern since the costs get passed on to the consumer. Our main concern has to do with health and welfare of the hens and those caring for them.
In talking with farmers using aviary barns, and from research comparing different housing systems (www2.sustainableeggcoalition.org ), we know hens will lay fewer eggs per year with increased food safety issues from dirt and manure. Working conditions for our family and the additional staff we’d require wouldn’t be as pleasant in an aviary barn with higher dust and ammonia levels (you can’t remove manure from the barn as frequently or easily in an aviary system). While the chickens would have more space, there are greater associated health risks – increased opportunity for injuries and higher incidence of pecking, both of which can lead to more deaths (studies quote 11 per cent mortality per year compared to our farm that has less than 2.5 per cent mortality per year now).
In the 1960’s, my family chose the health and welfare benefits of conventional cages. With large companies demanding free-run eggs, we are now faced with making business decisions focused more on remaining competitive in the market place rather than the health and welfare of the hen. It is a hard choice to make and is forcing us to re-evaluate our priorities. What choice would you make?