Navigating the Housing Transition: Insights and advice from Canadian egg farmers
By Treena HeinFeatures Barn Management
The current best resources and thorniest challenges for making the transition to enriched or free-run layer housing.
Making any major transition in a farming business is difficult, especially when it directly involves production. But at this point, the transition to enriched or free-run layer housing for Canadian egg farmers should be easier than ever before.
There are more sources of help available and overall industry experience relating to how to achieve smooth transitions has never been stronger. However, some challenges still exist that can complicate the process or otherwise cause a bumpy ride if not circumvented effectively.
While there are still 13 years left before transitions must be underway, in reality, it’s eight years. That is, in 2031, conventional cages will have to be retrofitted to provide 90 square inches per bird instead of the present 67 square inches, and spending the required sizable sum to do that makes little sense when the same farmer would need to spend again to transition to new housing within five years.
In any case, at this point we present to you a list of the most important current opportunities and resources for producers, as well as a look at various potential pain points for those farmers whose transition out of conventional cages still lies ahead.
A large percentage of Canadian egg producers have already transitioned at least one barn to alternative housing, so there is now quite a large pool of people now available from whom to seek out for advice.
“To me, speaking to other producers is one of the most important steps for a farmer to take prior to building,” says Harley Siemens, vice president at Siemens Farms in Rosenort, Man., which was started by his grandparents Pete and Laura Siemens in 1955 and taken over by his father Kurt.
“Listening to sales reps and builders is great, but to get firsthand experienced knowledge from a farmer is invaluable. To take this one step further is to get out and tour those farmers’ facilities. Understanding the reasons in how others built their barns will surely help on our own project.” Siemens and his father talked to peers across Canada.
He suggests asking these farmers for each and every reason they chose their style and brand of housing and rejected others. Also, ask about transition tips and what they’ve learned about management practices.
In addition to speaking to housing company representatives and barn builders, smart farmers facing transition also attend poultry shows. “The London poultry show, Midwest poultry show and Atlanta poultry show are great events where farmers can see lots of equipment in a short amount of time,” Siemens explains. “It really got our ideas flowing and helped us picture what our barns could look like.”
Whether you’re doing a retrofit or new barn build, there are various funding programs that help defray the cost. Everyone in the industry can likely name the main one, the Poultry and Egg On-Farm Investment Program (PEFIP), a compensation scheme created by the federal government to compensate farmers for market access given up in trade agreement negotiations. Under the program, each farmer is entitled to a certain amount of funds for the quota they had at the time agreements were finalized.
“PEFIP is open to producers in all provinces and territories, but the disclaimer is that the funding is based on quota holdings on January 1st, 2021,” adds Jonathan Giret, CEO at Elite Agri Solutions in Glencoe, Ont., which provides help with applications and more. “Anyone that entered the industry after that date is ineligible.”
Giret notes that rollout of PEFIP is going well. “There are delays in processing, but claims are getting approved consistently,” he reports. “The key is to get started. The more organized the farmer is the easier it will be to submit a claim. If you’re not going to start today, then consider hiring someone. Carrying the interest payments on projects for another year typically outweighs the fees many consultants would charge.”
There’s now a large body of research around alternative housing type and features (for example, nest box placement and curtain style), including preparing pullets for these systems. Check out past issues of Canadian Poultry magazine for articles on lighting systems, bird welfare, ventilation, rearing pullets for aviaries, pullet behaviour and much more.
In making the decision about housing, there is, of course, the revised Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Layers, released by Egg Farmers of Canada and the National Farm Animal Care Council in 2017.
It includes research from Canadian scientists such as Dr. Tina Widowski, Egg Farmers of Canada Chair in Poultry Welfare and Professor at University of Guelph. She and other poultry scientists are pleased that producers have a very solid base of research on bird welfare, costs, air quality and many other factors to make informed decisions about trade-offs relating to housing.
1. Type of housing
At the same time, the choice to transition to enriched or free-run housing may be difficult for some producers. For those under contracts, remaining barn transition decisions are straightforward. However, in the bigger industry picture, there’s uncertainty around whether various retailers and restaurant chains will stick to their cage-free pledges.
“When spending millions of dollars, farmers want to be assured that they are making the right decision,” Siemens says. “I think some are waiting it out to hopefully get a clearer picture of what the future may look like in egg production. This issue is the hardest one to predict.”
In 2017, the Siemens family built three new barns (one pullet and two layer) with aviary free-run housing. Siemens is also president of another Manitoba egg operation named Manova, which is owned by his family and three other family shareholders. In 2022, one of the operation’s conventional barns was converted to aviary free-run as well, due to Siemens already having experience with that housing.
2. Timing of retrofit or build
Barn builds and retrofits are currently more expensive than they have been in the past. Some producers without an urgent need to replace housing could wait a few years to proceed with a new barn build or swap out their housing, but waiting also means higher ongoing energy and heating costs due to old ventilation and heating systems. It also means a longer time with flocks exposed to lower levels of bird welfare, which impacts production.
“The numbers are high for building new and its tough to justify building something new when what you have is working,” Siemens notes. “With that said, the interest rate today is substantially higher than two years ago.”
He adds that farm succession is another issue that can make the decision on timing of transition very tough. “With no clear direction of who is going to take over the farm, it makes it tough to make a huge investment,” he says.
A good first step is to book appointments with housing company representatives, your banker, accountant, family members and so on to discuss the pros and cons of how long to wait to book a build/retrofit.
3. Sourcing pullets
Pullet sourcing is also a challenge in transitioning, one that requires action to make the transition smooth. “If you are moving from conventional to enriched, the hurdle is not big, as the same pullet barn should be able to supply your new facility,” Siemens notes.
“When moving to free-run, those birds need to be trained in that type of environment to be able to succeed in the layer barn. I would suggest being in contact with your chick supplier and if they know of any barns available for room or of any producers thinking of suppling free-run farmers. If you grow for yourself then you will have to retool your pullet barn as well.”
Siemens’ overall advice to address all of these opportunities and potential pitfalls? Do your best to educate yourself and then choose the system that will make you the best farmer you can be. “There are many reasons that can prevent us from moving forward, but we have to look at the positives and focus on how great of an industry we are a part of,” he says. “We can take pride in supplying Canadians with high quality, affordable food.”
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