By André Dumont
Maurice and Alain richard are the first to use enriched cages in Quebec
By André Dumont
After being housed in conventional cages for decades, you’d think layers would have forgotten some of the natural behaviours of their ancestors. At least that’s what Maurice Richard thought, but in his all-new layer barn, he’s observing hens doing things they never do in his other two barns.
Ferme Paul Richard et fils is located in Abitibi, Quebec’s northernmost agricultural frontier. The farm is the first in the province to install a fully enriched housing system. The layers arrived in mid-September, and co-owners Maurice and Alain Richard immediately noticed how the birds took full advantage of the extra space and the accessories the system offers.
In the new 28,000-layer house, birds are housed in groups of 60, in cages 3.6 m long and 1.25 m deep. The system chosen by the Richard’s was Farmer Automatic’s Layer Cage ECO system, distributed by Clark Ag Systems Ltd. This system meets Europe’s 2012 animal welfare regulations (Directive CEE 2012). Each cage provides perches, a large nesting area, a scratch area, 80 per cent more floor space and a volume of air that is three times greater than in conventional cage systems.
The cages are designed specifically for layers to express their natural behaviors. “At night, they all get on the perches to sleep, and 95 per cent of them use the nesting areas to lay their eggs,” says Maurice Richard. He says the birds are also fond of the scratch pads and seem to enjoy using the ample space to open and stretch their wings.
The system also features automatic manure removal. The manure is dried with a drying system and each row of cages has a manure belt underneath. The Richards also installed Farmer Automatic’s Manure Pellitizer, which takes the dried manure and compacts it into small pellets. The Richards some of these pellets to other farms or for mine site rehabilitation, and use the balance on the farms’ 1000 acres.
Before making the change to enriched housing, Richard says he weighed out the options for two and a half years before going ahead. He visited farms in England, France, the Netherlands and Germany and read several studies. Although he incurred a cost overrun of $400,000 for a total construction cost of $ 1.5 million, he is convinced he made the right decision.
The difference with conventional cage systems is stunning, says Richard. “It’s a lot better for the birds and we also feel better when we look at it. The hens are a lot calmer. They feel at ease and they are not the least bothered when we walk by them.”
On October 11, 2011, the Richard family held an open house for industry members. They insisted on hosting the event after the birds arrived. “People were allowed to go everywhere in the building. They saw the difference in the birds’ behavior,” Richard says. The guests had to abide by biosecurity measures, even Pierre Corbeil, the provincial agriculture minister and the local Member of the National Assembly.
Some of the system’s benefits can already be measured. The hens start laying at a younger age and mortality is a lot lower, says Richard. If it wasn’t for the few birds that fall asleep below the perches and remain stuck too long before they are freed, mortality would be almost inexistent, he says.
The birds also seem to be eating a little less, but Richard suspects this could be because the building is better insulated than the farm’s two other houses. According to Richard, layers in enriched cages are more active, but this does not translate in higher feed consumption than in conventional cages.
Humidity levels are also lower in the building. That could be due to better ventilation, but also to the greater volume of air per bird, allowing excrements to dry faster.
He says it is too early to observe and measure other possible benefits, such as whether there is a difference in bone strength, feather cover and eggshell quality.
Ferme Paul Richard et fils is one of the few farms in Quebec to have an on-site grading station and market its own eggs. The eggs are sold mainly in Abitibi, under the brand name Les Oeufs Richard Eggs Inc.
Maurice and Alain Richard are still trying to figure out how to market the eggs from the enriched barn to fetch a higher price than their regular eggs. The Abitibi region is too small a market to absorb one third of the farm’s production as specialty eggs. Marketing of enriched cage eggs as a niche product would probably structure itself once more Quebec farmers opt for this system.
Richard believes these eggs will compete with free-range eggs. “Our layers are also free,” he says. “The greatest difference is ours don’t have access to their excrements. This is a lot cleaner and more sanitary.”
If the eggs don’t fetch a higher price, Richard admits that production costs in the enriched system will definitely be higher, since the cost of construction was significantly more expensive. However, better feed conversion, coupled with lower mortality rates, could bring costs more in line with those incurred with conventional cages.
Maurice and Alain Richard have their eyes turned towards the future. “When you make a big decision like building a layer barn, it’s for 20 or 25 years,” Maurice says. He believes sooner or later, enriched cages will become the norm in Canada. The public’s pressure for better animal welfare is something we can’t ignore, he says.
But the decision to install enriched housing was not only about anticipating future regulation and giving their birds a better environment. The Richards are preparing a farm transfer. Maurice’s sons Jean-Philippe and Alexandre will soon be back from school, ready to take over the farm. “They have the farm at heart and they already participate in decisions,” he says.
With retirement approaching, Maurice Richard knows it is a lot easier for him to borrow money and to invest than it will be for his sons, who are in their early twenties.
This first barn with enriched cages with help to evaluate the costs and advantages of such a system. But Richard already knows the next construction on the farm will also be enriched. “We are not going back. That’s for sure.”