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It's all for the birds

Egg farmers to provide better facilities for chickens

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How do you like your eggs?

For me, the answer is easy -- cooked by somebody else.

But how about eggs that have been laid by healthier, more contented hens?

They don't look or cook up any differently, but Manitoba Egg Farmers is betting its new hen-housing policy will leave a positive aftertaste in consumers' mouths.

The egg industry here has started a conversion from the traditional caging system used for laying hens, called battery cages, to a housing system that offers hens more freedom to do what birds do naturally -- flap their wings, scratch, perch and nest in a private space.

'They seem to understand very quickly where that nest is'

-- egg farmer Kurt Siemens, who was surprised to learn hens value privacy when laying eggs

As of Dec. 31, 2014, any new or retrofitted barns in Manitoba will be required to install so-called furnished housing or one of the alternative systems, such as free run, in which the birds are free to roam in the barn, or free range, in which the birds have access to the outdoors.

It's a bold acknowledgement of growing pressure on the livestock industry to show more respect for the basic instincts of animals while maintaining productivity and food safety. And Manitoba egg farmers are the first in the country to move en masse toward a more animal-welfare-friendly production system.

One of the reasons behind conventional cages, which have been accused of wedging birds in so tightly they can't move, was to improve food safety by separating the hens and the eggs from their manure. "Furnished" or "enriched housing" provides that same benefit, but the hens have nearly twice as much space, plus the other fixtures that allow them to act like birds.

The farmer-elected directors of the provincial marketing board were met with stunned silence when they served notice at the producers' annual meeting in 2010 they were headed in this direction. But producers could also see the animal-welfare train gaining momentum with consumers, food services and retailers. They could either get on board or get run over.

They made their transition plan official earlier this month -- with a strategy that sets the bar well above current industry standards.

Kurt Siemens, one of the board directors, has so far converted one-quarter of his operation to enriched housing. At first, the life-long egg farmer was a little baffled at why he had gone to the expense of installing perches when he saw no evidence of the birds using them -- until he went into the barn one night with a flashlight to find his hens comfortably perched as they slept.

He has since observed other differences, behaviours they exhibit they never had the opportunity to do before, such as laying their eggs in privacy behind a coloured curtain -- things he never imagined before were important to their quality of life. The birds take turns entering the nesting area during the day.

"They seem to understand very quickly where that nest is," he said.

All this might make egg production more acceptable for the public, but it won't make egg producers rich.

Physiologically, the hens in enriched housing are healthier: They have more bone density and feathers. But from a production-efficiency standpoint, this transition could be seen as a step backwards. Although the hens do produce more eggs, the increase in production is not statistically significant and not enough on its own to justify the 25 per cent increase in housing costs. Nor is there a marketplace premium for eggs that come from happier hens.

For now, the marketing board is offering producers making the switchover a four-cent-per-dozen rebate on their levies to help compensate them for the extra costs. But as more producers make the transition, those costs will eventually fall into the formulas used under supply management to establish the price of eggs.

There is no denying the supply-management system, with all its foibles, has clear advantage over other livestock sectors when it comes to making this kind of change. The producer-elected boards have the mandate to make the hard choices, they have the staff to put them into action and the ability through levies to help finance the upfront costs.

But given supply management is essentially a social contract --farmers receive adequate compensation for ensuring Canadians have adequate supply -- these commodity groups must stay on the forefront of changing consumer attitudes.

There will always be those who complain about supply management driving up the cost of food. But I doubt there will be much, if any, backlash from average consumers if the price of eggs goes up a few cents a dozen due to this change.

Because the other thing egg farmers have become very good at is telling their story.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 28, 2013 B6

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