Canadian Poultry Magazine

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11 alternative housing pitfalls to avoid

Common mistakes to steer clear of in your first enriched or free-run flocks.


October 16, 2020
By Treena Hein

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PHOTO CREDIT: Tylor and Robyn Van Kessel

There are very few egg farmers in Canada or beyond for whom the road to implementing a new housing system has no bumps or wrong turns. To assist egg producers from coast to coast as they continue to transition their housing from conventional cages to alternative housing, we’ve contacted experts at several companies as well as two producers for their advice. They’ve kindly provided their thoughts on how to avoid the most common pitfalls when converting to enriched or cage-free housing, and how to otherwise make the transition as smooth as possible.

1: Eggs laid outside the nest
Leo Apperloo, co-owner of United Agri and Central Agri (western Canadian distributors for Valli, Jansen and Chore-time), notes that whether enriched or cage-free housing, the focus must be on having eggs laid in the nest. Nest-laid eggs are obviously cleaner and the chance of cracks is greatly reduced. As soon as they are placed in the barn, hens will search out a nest, Apperloo says, “and if that nest is not comfortable, has the wrong nest pad, etc., they will choose a more comfortable place to lay.”

Lighting is also critical for high rates of nest lay. Muneer Gilani, managing director at Westlock Eggs and Country Hills Egg Farm in Alberta, explains that in their enriched systems, “We went with hanging tubes in the aisles [versus string lighting in the cages], as we felt like we had more control. The key is to make sure they are mounted away from the nest box to give the bird a dimmer nest box than the rest of the cage, even though we have curtains. With the string lighting, it’s difficult to dim in the nest box.” He adds that nest boxes and scratch pads must be located with care to ensure a high rate of nest lay.

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Bradley Mandryk, president of Clark Ag Systems, sees things differently. “Some producers will use both aisle and in-system lighting programs when setting up a new enriched housing system while the birds are in production,” he says. “We have seen no benefit to utilizing both lighting systems simultaneously. In fact, when using in-system lighting only, production was enhanced and energy consumption was reduced.”

2: Failure to ensure electrical capacity (enriched)
Since in many cases enriched cage systems need a large power requirement, Mandryk says you should consult your electrical supplier to ensure adequate service. He provides a couple of examples. “Our first barn conversion required a larger pole transformer and our second barn required a conversion to three-phase service at the road. Depending on where and if three-phase power is available, this can be a costly and large upgrade that needs to be considered in the very early barn planning and budgeting stages.”

3: No pullet training
Manage pullets by thinking about what their needs will be in the layer barn, notes Ian Rubinoff, Hy-Line’s director of global technical services. “Train them to jump, adapt them to the same kinds of materials (slats vs. wire) and ideally match the systems.” He believes that although chickens can be unpredictable, there are certain behaviours that should be predictable and teaching them to jump, perch, go to the nest and eat/drink “are all areas that with a good proactive approach can make everyone’s life easier.”

4: NOT Meeting setback requirements
“Again, during the planning stages, and if a larger footprint barn is required (which is very often the case), the farmer needs to ensure that the new facility will meet all the minimum setbacks required by provincial and county regulations,” Mandryk says. “This can have an impact on how large your new barn will be, which will directly affect your bird population numbers. These planning regulations may make a farmer look at a multi-tier cage configuration in a smaller footprint building in order to keep their bird populations equal to their former conventional housing.”

5: Not monitoring closely, or acting quickly
“Absolutely nothing replaces being in the barn with the chickens,” Rubinoff says. “This helps the chicks get used to humans during rearing and helps the hens go to the nest after transfer.”

He adds that in conventional systems, small challenges can go unnoticed or may resolve themselves, but “in cage-free systems, there can be a snowball effect where a small problem such as wet litter or light flicker can lead to much bigger challenges. The quicker something small is fixed, the better your flock will respond.”

Tylor Van Kessel and Robyn Sitlington Van Kessel agree. They started their own free-run farm in Arkona, Ont., a few years ago. And in August, they had their first flock in their new organic aviary. They explain that you have to be willing to slow down and really observe your flock and watch the birds go to bed and wake up, especially the first few nights. “Since they’re constantly on the move, it can be difficult to see problems,” Robyn says. “The flock is adaptive and will take cues from you and an almost-synchronicity occurs. Achieving that is worth the effort and will pay you dividends.”

She and Tylor also value each other’s observations. “For us, that means Tylor has a mechanical skill set as a licensed millwright, whereas I tend to focus more on the behaviour of the birds. Marrying these two skill sets together has led to our ideal outcomes, but it can make for some interesting table talk when we don’t agree.”

Westlock Eggs farm manager David and his wife Treena.

6: Inadequate manure management (enriched)
Mandryk notes that the manure belts in enriched housing are much wider and longer than traditional conventional systems and need to be cleaned and scraped much more frequently. “Since manure can build up fast and heavy on the wider belts, the risk that a belt snapping or stretching becomes magnified with excessive manure build-up,” he explains. “We recommend that belts are scraped a minimum of two times per week to ensure good belt health. On the other hand, over-scraping manure can lead to inefficient scraper performance and excessive energy usage, so find that happy medium.”

7: Inadequate ventilation (enriched)
Ventilation will very likely be much different in enriched barns compared to traditional barns, Mandryk notes, with dryer manure and better air quality, especially in the winter months. He advises making sure ventilation programs are set properly to minimize over-ventilation, keep humidity levels correct and minimize energy costs. Gilani adds that it’s worth having a little more ventilation than you think you may need.

8: Failure to get help
Rubinoff strongly advises using the experts available to you. “Something always goes a bit sideways,” he says, “and using the expertise of other farmers, salespeople and technicians can be really helpful as you work through the first flocks.”

Sitlington Van Kessel adds, “Don’t leave any question unasked because usually it’s the ones that go unanswered that will cause you the most strife down the line…I think it’s crucial to stay humble and accept that you as an egg farmer won’t have all the answers but be willing to put in the effort to find them.”

9: Incorrect partition positioning (enriched)
It’s critical to place partitions in larger-format enriched housing systems, Mandryk says, because if you don’t in certain systems, there will be too much bird migration to one side of the cage, overloading nests and reducing egg production. Having partitions also makes it easier for catching crews at end-of-lay.

10: Egg back-up (enriched)
Eggs can build up in the nest in the morning as a large percentage of the birds want to use the nest at same time. To reduce this issue, Mandryk advises installing a shunt timer on egg belts and egg collection elevators to move the eggs along away from the belt. Apperloo adds that belt advance and egg-saver frequency should be monitored and possibly changed throughout the flock as egg laying times change.

11: Improper feed management (enriched)
Feed consumption is slightly higher in enriched housing, as bird activity is higher, Mandryk explains. So, your feed program, bird nutrition and potential areas for feed wastage inside and outside the system must be managed closely.

A few other tips
Gilani adds that producers should transition to alternative housing with expansion plans in mind, and to design new barns so that they are suitable for a variety of housing systems (you take more time to decide as the barn is built). “Also, consider how flocks will be depleted,” he says. “We use whole barn gassing so we want carts and aisles that can accommodate movement of chickens and room for equipment. It also means having a space for the gas lines and an access point for trucks.”