Sparks Eggs builds innovative free-run aviary
By Kristy Nudds
Sparks Eggs, the only independent egg grader and processor operating solely in Alberta, recently built what its president Meb Gilani believes is the largest free-run barn in Canada. With a capacity for 50,000 layers, the barn, near Westlock, was designed with labour efficiencies and the future in mind.
Gilani says the barn was a result of the “combined thinking” of Gilani, his son Muneer (the “long-term planner”) and Ken Severson, a former egg producer and Hy-Line International employee who has been Sparks’ business development manager for the last several years. Severson is also the facility’s namesake. Gilani says it “was only fair” to name it the Severson Free Run Barn to honour the energy and time Severson spent planning the facility. “He talked us into doing it right,” he says. “We also thought that if it was named after him, it would be run correctly,” he says with a laugh.
Looking at the industry in the long term, Gilani says he and Severson asked quite a few producers that supply the company with eggs if any of them would be interested in producing free-run eggs. Not finding any interest, the company decided to take it on themselves.
In addition to considering animal welfare, biosecurity and cost efficiencies, the labour shortage in the province also played a significant role in choosing the design of the operation, says Severson. “We’re a small company with a large number of birds, so we were looking to decrease the manpower required to build and run the facility.”
Severson says the Sparks Eggs free-run facility is modelled after facilities he had heard about, and subsequently visited, in Montana that were constructed primarily using concrete.
The barn floor and walls are constructed from poured-in-place concrete, which, although uncommon, has numerous benefits, says Severson. Concrete is more durable, has a longer life span, and greatly decreases the risk of contaminants entering the barn because it is highly rodent resistant, he says. Poured concrete, instead of blocks, does not have thermal breaks, so the barn has an “unbroken thermolayer” for increased energy efficiency. The 10-inch outer walls also contain two-inch-thick Styrofoam with an R28 value.
Infrared heating was chosen and this required the ceiling of the barn to be higher than average, he says. The roof is metal and is white to reflect as much of the sun’s rays as possible. Despite this, there is some solar gain of heat in the summer months so insulation was placed under the roofing tin to keep incoming air as cool as possible.
Ventilation is achieved using chimney fans and inlets on the ceilings. The system was installed by Envirotech Ag Systems Inc. and sales manager William Vis says the Fancom chimney system has an air measurement system known as Exevent ™, which prevents over-ventilation when cold or windy conditions are present, thereby helping to reduce heating costs. The device further saves electrical costs because it can accurately take a fan’s rated capacity down to three per cent of its total, and if conditions are stable enough that a natural updraft can provide the required ventilation rate, the fan motor will shut off, he says.
The barn is divided into “bird” and “people” areas. There are three bird areas – two for the layers (one on the north side of the barn, the other on the south side), and one for pullets in the middle. The pullet-rearing area is its own structure and is fully enclosed by concrete walls, separating it from the layer areas. On each side where the pullet area meets a layer area are several small doors at floor level to allow the pullets to enter the laying area when they reach maturity. They decided to use this design, says Gilani, because it does not require additional labour or handling of the birds.
The people areas are on the east and west sides of the building and consist of hallways, a front office, two washrooms with showers, the egg-packing room and the cooler. Cameras have been set up in the layer areas so that the birds can be viewed on the computer in the front office by anyone, and there is a viewing window for observation of the pullets.
The pullets are raised in Vencomatic’s Jumpstart pullet-rearing system, and the layers are housed in the company’s Bolegg Terrace aviary, the first multi-tier aviary the company has installed in Canada. The layer and pullet areas can house up to 25,000 birds each, which allows for continuous production.
Each layer area has three rows of the Bolegg Terrace, and each is 300 feet long. Each row consists of three tiers, with the nest boxes on the second tier. Each tier has a manure belt underneath, and the birds have full access to the full floor area (i.e., underneath the system) in addition to the tiers. Shavings are laid in the aisles to provide a scratch area and partitions made of wire that run from floor to ceiling divide each layer area into three sections to prevent crowding and provide more management control, says Dave Waldner, manager of the farm.
The system is built for very few floor eggs and works best if the pullets are trained using an aviary training system such as the Jumpstart, says Waldner. The Jumpstart has winchable water and feed lines that can be raised incrementally as the birds’ age. When first placed, these lines are just above a “table” (also winchable) in the middle of the floor. At first the chicks are “caged in” to the system, which also consists of additional “tables” that are, at first, positioned vertically to form walls. As the birds age, sections of the wall can be lowered horizontally, offering different height platforms onto which the birds can jump.
Waldner, who has been working with layers most of his life, says the system is “very interesting” and “if you know how to grow a bird in a cage, you don’t know how to grow a bird in an aviary.”
He’s learned “not to make more than one move at a time, as it takes the pullets about a day to catch up.” After the first week, the middle table is lifted and the lowest side tables come down, and the goal is to have the birds off the floor and onto the table areas when the lights go out, so that when moved into the layer aviary they lay eggs in the nests, not on the floor. It all works with lighting, he says. First, the lights at the sides of the room go out, which brings the birds towards the centre, and then the overhead lights dim, which gives the birds time to jump up and settle in, he says.
The first day he did this, he went to the viewing window with a flashlight and found that there were about 40 to 50 birds on the floor, but by the second day there was none. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it; it was amazing.”
Managing birds in an aviary takes “a lot more skill and attention,” Severson agrees. “You’re dealing with bird behaviour,” he says. He recommended using the Tetra Brown, a European breed with a calm disposition.
He too stresses lighting is key. “Don’t feed when the lights first come on in the morning, so that the birds can lay eggs without distraction,” he says. He says they have also learned to make sure that there is lots of feed left at the end of the day, to further encourage the hens to go to the nests to lay in the morning.
All lights in the barn are LED lights from Vencomatic. The overhead lights on the ceiling are Glolamps, and the lighting under each tier is tube lighting with LED bulbs. “The entire barn is run on a 20-amp breaker,” says David Thompson, president of Vencomatic North America. The lights themselves only consume seven amps, and it only takes 110 volts to light the whole system, he says. They are on timers and dimmers, and are able to go from to zero to 100 per cent in progression, and then go down again, giving a true sunrise to sunset, he says.
Lighting is used to bring the hens off the floor at night, just as it is in the pullet barn. The lights are dimmed in a gradual progression in 20-minute intervals, beginning underneath the bottom tier and each successive tier, and finally the ceiling. The nests are closed about two hours prior to lights off, but Waldner says this can be manually overrun if some birds remain in the nest.
Severson says they have learned a lot from the first flock, which was placed in July. The biggest challenge was “system” eggs – those laid outside of the nest– so you must be diligent and pick them up quickly in the beginning, he says.
“From a management perspective, training the pullets correctly to move up and down the system and keeping the most uniform environment with respect to temperature, lighting and distribution of equipment is critical to running a successful aviary,” says Vencomatic’s Thompson.
Each tier has a manure belt underneath, and the manure is collected and held in a manure shed separate from the barn. The pullet area does not have a manure belt, so it is truly “all in, all out.” When the pullets are moved into a laying area, the manure is removed using a tractor and pushed through a door onto the main manure conveyor belt.
The eggs are taken from the layer areas on belts into the egg room, where they can be packed. Employees working in the egg area have a separate entrance and have no access to the barn areas.
Sparks Eggs held two open houses in August to show the barn. The first open house was for producers and industry representatives, while the second was for former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach and invited guests. Stelmach is also a past agriculture minister for the province and has known Gilani for many years. “He is interested in innovation and wanted to see what we’ve done,” he says.
Gilani says there is a shortage of eggs in Alberta, so he is not deterred by the fact that the facility will produce more free-run eggs than the market requires, as they will be sold primarily as table eggs. “You can’t be shortsighted,” he says. “You have to look at the industry in the long term.”
To view a video of birds in the Bolegg Terrace, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyXX9UU4MNU