When the Big Bend Colony decided to build a new layer barn with enriched housing in 2009, it was done with the future in mind.
Canadian Poultry magazine visited the colony, located south of Lethbridge, Alberta, this past spring to talk with members about their experience with this new type of housing. Big Bend was the first in North America to order an installation of an enriched system.
“It wasn’t a quick decision,” says Joe Kleinsasser of Big Bend. Although he’s not the chicken boss — that job has been held for the last 11 years by George Gross — Joe Kleinsasser has been involved with the layer operation and currently serves as Vice-Chairman of the Egg Farmers of Alberta.
Looking to replace its old layer barn, which housed just over 10,000 layers in a conventional caging system, Kleinsasser says the colony knew it didn’t want to have to upgrade in five to 10 years time, so they looked to the types of housing systems being used in Europe. Although installing conventional-type cages again would have meant building a smaller barn, “we didn’t want to do that,” he says.
The idea of installing an aviary was decided against because it was “too labour intensive” and they were worried about having to deal with floor eggs, which they felt was a food safety concern. Kleinsasser says they also did not feel that the science had proven the benefits of an aviary, and they saw European producers were moving away from loose housing systems and going back to enriched.
The colony leased an additional 8,000 birds (bringing the total close to 20,000) and built a new barn with Big Dutchman’s Colony Cage System (known as Avech), which provides 116 square inches per bird. Sixty birds are housed within each 146x46 inch unit, and share a large nesting area and perches.
The units offered a scratch area through the use of a rubber scratch pad, however Gross and Kleinsasser say that the scratch pads have since been removed because they were collecting too much dirt. They noted that the birds did use this area, and they would include a scratch area again if the mats were proven to stay clean. After viewing a presentation given by Dr. Tina Widowski, an animal welfare professor at the University of Guelph and the current Canada Chair for Poultry Welfare for the Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) at the Egg Farmers of Alberta annual meeting, they are considering using a flat plastic scratch mat, something Widowski has been utilizing in her studies on enriched housing. Her preliminary research shows that these mats stay much cleaner than the rubber mats (which have piles that can collect dirt).
Gross says that they have had little problem with eggs laid out of the nesting area, estimating that 95 per cent are laid within the nest area. As for production, over three flocks they have averaged 98 per cent, which is “an improvement over our last system,” says Gross. He says there is little fluctuation in production, and mortality has been reduced by half.
When they placed the first flock, Kleinsasser says, they “tried their own research” and increased the density in several of the colony units to 65 or 70 birds. “We didn’t notice any real changes in bird behaviour or production,” he says. However, the first flock was “flightier” (the birds were a Shaver breed) — three subsequent flocks have been Lohmann and H&N, which are calmer, he says.
One of the biggest improvements they have noticed is that the birds have better feather covering than those housed in the old layer barn, even when only a few weeks away from end of lay. “The birds are in better condition, and they look good,” says Kleinsasser. The birds are also more relaxed, he says. Occasionally he will notice birds with their legs stretched out and he feels “there is no way they would be at 98 per cent production” if they were not relaxed.
The birds are more active within the enriched system, and Gross says that feed consumption has gone up a little, but “not substantially.” However, he says that a learning curve for him was timing the feedings so that the birds would eat enough. He and Kleinsasser feel there is so much for the birds to do, that adding an extra feeding (five times per days versus four times a day in the old barn) was necessary to keep the birds focused on eating.
Big Bend raises about 10,000 pullets, and the other 10,000 are purchased. All are cage-reared, but “have no trouble adapting” to the enriched system, says Kleinsasser. The pullets are placed at 19 weeks of age and adapt to the nest area very well, he says.
When the new barn to house the enriched system was built, the colony also built a feed mill to produce its own feed for the layers as well as its hog operation. The mill uses a micro ingredient feed batching method, blending wheat grown on the colony with purchased canola and soybean meal, canola oil, and premix, which has been formulated by a local poultry nutritionist. Although the feed mill is located near the hog barn, when feed mixed for the layers or pullets is ready, it is transported to the layer and pullet barns underground.
Gross says being able to make his own feed has allowed for greater consistency. Although the initial capitol cost to install enriched housing was high (about 40 per cent greater than that of conventional housing), the enriched housing combined with greater feed control has had “great benefits for production.”
The hens produce about 12,000 dozen eggs per week and cracks are less than two percent, and undergrades are less than three per cent — a great improvement over the old barn, says Kleinsasser.
The colony has also begun receiving a premium for the eggs. Their grader, Burnbrae, began marketing eggs from Big Bend Colony’s enriched housing under the brand name “Nestlaid” in Safeway stores and some Sobeys stores throughout the province.
Although many people who came to an open house held by the colony in 2009 thought Big Bend was rushing into enriched and the industry wasn’t there yet, Kleinsasser says, “installing such a system is a very positive thing for the industry.”