Food For Thought looks at how we use hens as protein factories to produce an egg a day for our tables
By Luisa D’Amato, Waterloo Region Record, 05 Jul 2008
When you walk into the long, dimly lit barn where Gary West keeps 25,000 egg-laying hens, the first thing you notice is the sound.
It’s an ocean of noise — wave upon wave of cackling and clucking — which turns to absolute silence when the lights are turned off each day at 8 p.m., says West, owner of Westlandyn Farms about nine kilometres west of New Hamburg.
The barn is stacked with long rows of cages, four levels high.
The hens are kept four or five to a cage, each cage about 45 centimetres long by 45 centimetres wide (18 by 18 inches).
They stick their heads out, look around and feed from the trough whenever they want. Fresh feed and water are added throughout the day.
The feed is made from corn, barley, soybeans, vitamins and minerals. There are no meat products, antibiotics or hormones.
West picks up a handful of the brown granules. “It isn’t a whole lot different from the cereal you and I eat,” he says.
West’s barn is a little larger than the average egg farm in Ontario. His 25,000 hens produce so much body heat by themselves that he doesn’t need to heat the barn in winter. It’s always at a toasty 25 C or so.
A visitor wonders if the chickens feel crowded in their cages, but West says they’re social animals and have been together in these cages since they arrived at his barn at 19 weeks old.
When a hen is under stress, it won’t lay, he says. Hens are stressed by things such as sudden loud noises, lack of water or a change in daily routine.
“They love the same schedule all the time,” West says. “They love routine.”
The hens sleep from 8 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., when the lights come on and the day begins. They eat, “chat,” drink, then lay their eggs, mostly between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. They’ll lay about an egg a day each.
A chicken destined to lay eggs starts life at another farm known as a “pullet raiser.”
At one day old, the chicks have the tips of their beaks removed by lasers, preventing the birds from pecking at their own eggs later.
At 19 weeks, when the hens are ready to begin laying, they’re shipped to farms like West’s. Then they’ll be in cages unless the farmer is producing “free-run” eggs.
In a “free-run” barn, the hens are able to move at will, without cages.
West said that in some parts of Europe, cages have been declared inhumane to the birds and have been outlawed. But sometimes, if hens panic and aren’t constrained, they’ll all pile into a corner of the barn, and some will suffocate.
Free-run eggs are more expensive because someone’s got to search for the eggs in the barn. When hens are in cages, egg collection is easier. The eggs roll gently from the cage to a soft conveyor belt, straight to the packing area next door.
West holds up an egg. It looks like an oval, tan pearl, perfectly clean and smooth.
It will go to Burnbrae Farms for washing, weighing and quality checks before going into the stores.
The washing and sorting of eggs is fully mechanized at OK Egg Farms north of Elmira, which has an automated line that washes, sorts and “candles” eggs (shining a light through them that makes hairline cracks, double yolks and blood spots visible) at the rate of 140 boxes an hour, with 15 dozen eggs to a box.
Owners Phyllis and Loel Penner run the grading operation on the farm that has been in Phyllis’s family for three generations.
The eggs are gently picked up by vacuum suction and placed on a conveyor belt.
First, they’re washed with food-grade soap and water at 40 C. Then they’re air-blown dry, candled, weighed and packaged.
Unlike Burnbrae, OK is too small an operation to do business with most big grocery chains. OK eggs will go to smaller convenience and grocery stores and some local bakeries, and to local farmers’ markets.
Nothing’s wasted. Eggs that break accidentally are saved. A local mink farmer picks them up for his animals.
Eggs with hairline cracks are sent to a “breaking plant,” where they’ll be turned into a liquid egg product for industrial use, supplying restaurants and some bakeries.
Phyllis Penner said many of the medium-sized eggs are also sent for liquid product, because they’re surplus. Most people want to buy large eggs, not medium.
That’s something she can’t understand.
“Medium eggs are better quality because it comes from a younger chicken,” she said. “The white would be thicker.”
As hens get older, their eggs get larger and they’re slower to produce.
These older birds are called “spent hens” and are usually made into canned chicken soup after slaughter. Their meat is not as tender as that of birds raised for meat.
West says a hen can live, and lay eggs, for longer than a year. But they are less efficient, so he lets them go after a year of laying and gets in a new group. After all, he needs to maximize production, and the cost of feed is soaring.
A hen eats about four ounces, or 112 grams, of feed a day. For a flock of 25,000 birds, it adds up to 20 tonnes of feed a week.
Because of higher worldwide grain prices, the cost of chicken feed has gone up to $330 a tonne. A year ago the price was $230 a tonne.
That’s a 43 per cent increase in one year.
Luckily for West and other farmers who raise eggs, poultry and milk, a profit is guaranteed. If the cost of feed goes up, so does the price West gets for his eggs.
The system, called supply management, means that farmers produce a steady source of food, based on expected demand. They can’t produce more than a certain amount, and so each farmer owns a share of what is to be produced, known as “quota.”
This way, farmers are protected from sudden price changes.
West says it’s a pretty good life, raising eggs. “We’re keepers of the chickens. You look after your chickens, and they’ll look after you.”
Posted by FFC on July 22nd, 2009 :: Filed under Education and public awareness,Poultry
Tags :: eggs, Farmers, free range, Ontario, Poultry
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.