Egg Production: Transformative technologies
By Melanie EppFeatures New Technology Poultry Equipment
Automation is disrupting egg production, cutting down on labour-intensive tasks and improving operations. Here's a look at some of the most promising technologies.
Canada’s egg industry has seen significant advancements in automation. Driven largely by labour shortages and the transition to cage-free production, automation is boosting efficiency on egg farms. Here’s a look at which advancements offer the greatest return.
Packing and palletizing automation
When Andrew Penner, 37, of Nest Egg Poultry in Abbotsford, B.C., took over the family farm in 2019, he decided to replace the aging conventional housing system with a free-run system. It meant an entire rebuild that gave Penner an opportunity to adopt brand-new technology.
For the most part, Penner works alone on the farm. He has one part-time employee he can rely on to relieve him when he needs a day off. But other than that, he manages the day-to-day farm operations alone. To do this more efficiently, he invested in automated packing technology.
Nest Egg Poultry’s new barn, built in 2020, has the capacity to house 30,000 layers, but currently Penner houses 20,000. Switching to free-run meant adopting a new lighting system. Lighting in the conventional system had a simple on/off function. In the new barn, however, the lighting system is meant to mimic a natural day. The lighting program helps usher birds to nesting boxes in the morning, roosting areas in the evening, and to feed and water. The success of this system comes down to proper management and bringing in pullets that have already been trained in an open aviary system.
“It’s a big transition going from conventional,” Penner says. “Automation helps.”
Even the nest boxes are equipped with automatic tilting floors. “After a certain period, they actually tilt up and kind of kick all the birds out, so they don’t sleep in the nest box overnight,” Penner explains. “It keeps the nest boxes a bit cleaner.”
Eggs are collected via a central belt that runs down the middle of the aviary system. The belt is programmed to run more frequently at times throughout the day when the hens are laying most. From there, eggs are automatically transported to the packing area once collection begins. Penner has installed cameras in the packing room so he can watch the birds while working.
Tyler de Boer of AgPro West Supply distributes automated equipment for B.C.’s egg sector. de Boer travelled throughout Europe looking for cutting edge equipment manufacturers who develop technology he felt were a good fit for B.C.’s rapidly changing egg industry. He chose to work with two companies, Damtech and Farmtec, both out of the Netherlands.
Damtech is a packing and grading equipment manufacturer. Farmtec manufactures egg conveying technology. He chose to work with the two companies for three reasons: the opportunity to represent them was there, they offer quality products, and they provide excellent support.
“We are seeing smaller farms investing in automation,” de Boer says.
“If you have a small farm, and maybe it’s not your only income, automation can be important,” he adds. “Because you need to streamline your operation as best possible so that you can have time for other things and supplemental income.”
De Boer helped Penner choose innovative technology that best fit his farm’s needs. Penner opted for a Damtech automated packer and stacker, as it made running the farm alone more manageable. Not only does it pack eggs onto the flat itself, but it also stacks them up for palletization.
“The labour is just so much more if you’re trying to hand pack eggs, especially with a free run system,” Penner says.
Penner also adopted a SKOV automatic ventilation and control system with chimney fans and side inlets for minimum ventilation, and tunnel ventilation and cooling pads for days when high ventilation is needed.
The system uses an algorithm to calculate when and how long it needs to run in order to meet pre-set parameters. Penner can control the entire environmental system from his phone.
“They did an amazing job with designing the ventilation,” Penner says. “It gives you a lot of peace of mind having something that’s going to preserve your flock through those hot times.”
Improved quality and cleanliness
Rose Valley Colony runs a 32,000-bird, split-flock operation in Verwood, Sask. In 2020, the colony built a new facility, upgrading their conventional operation to an enriched housing system. Their aim was to design a facility that had more capacity for growth but required less labour.
Ben Kaiser of Kaiser Ag Solutions helped the colony choose the right equipment for the rebuild. The new barn features Kaiser’s KPS enriched system, a Völker stacker and packer, and an Ovoconcept palletizing robot, the first of its kind in Canada.
“The reason we went with automation mainly is for reliability,” Rose Valley’s David Kleinsasser says. “We don’t have to wait for anybody to show up to help gather eggs, and the eggs get handled the same every day. [We have] less cracks and a lot less broken eggs in the gathering area,” he adds.
Most barns today are equipped with automatic packing and stacking equipment. The next step, Kaiser says, is automatic palletization. A palletizer, like the Ovoconcept robot Rose Valley Colony installed, can easily replace one person’s worth of manpower in the barn. Considering labour costs, the return on investment for a $200,000 piece of equipment could be just four to five years, he says.
The robot can palletize 10,000 eggs in approximately 30 minutes. If, during that half hour, an employee can walk the barn and spend that time managing the flock, the result is a better environment for the birds, potentially higher production, and a more efficient farming operation overall.
“My ROI isn’t just on the labour savings, but also I have the added bonus of having a better managed barn, which could pay dividends exponentially,” Kaiser says.
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