By Jim Knisley
Enriched cages of one form or another may be the tidal wave of the future, but for now, in Canada, it is a small wave driven by a breeze rather than a strong wind of change.
Companies that sell standard, enriched and other systems told Canadian Poultry magazine that there is little demand for enriched systems, but some producers are hedging their bets with enrichable systems.
The enrichable cages cost about the same as standard cages to install, but can be enlarged and fitted (at a cost) in the future with nests, scratch pads, perches and other furnishings.
Jim Currie of Hellman North America in London, Ont., said the situation is unsettled. From a financial perspective there are currently no financial rewards for installing fully enriched cages but there are costs. The systems cost more to buy and install and, because there are fewer birds for a given amount of space, they cost more to operate.
“It’s a dilemma for the farmers,” he said.
The lack of Canadian standards for enriched cages means farmers look elsewhere to try and determine what may be coming.
In Europe, conventional cages are to be banned in 2012. Colony or enriched cages have been accepted, but some European retailers are insisting on eggs from free-range birds. In the United States, California seemed to be heading cage-free, but a major producer has opted for a colony cage system and won the endorsement of the American Humane Association.
In Canada, Manitoba took the lead this spring. The Egg Farmers of Manitoba announced that anyone building a new facility or doing a major retrofit after 2018 would have to install a system that meets the five freedoms. Farmers operating standard cage systems would not have to change over their existing systems.
However, three producers who won a draw in Manitoba to enter the egg business this year had to agree to install enriched or furnished systems.
Penny Kelly, general manager of the Egg Farmers of Manitoba, said the organization has been closely following the research and debate over bird welfare for five or six years. This year it concluded that science and public attitudes were moving in the direction of change and it would be sensible to get in front of the coming change rather than dragged behind it.
Kelly, who prefers the word “furnished” to enriched, said a number of Manitoba farmers have installed systems that can be converted later and another is taking a long, hard look at installing a fully furnished system.
Farmers, she said, will look to science when they make a decision. The science indicates there are lots of benefits of having cages. It also indicates that furnished cages meet the behavioural and welfare needs of the birds.
Hens will, for example, “go to great lengths to nest and perch.”
Cage-free systems can present operational and financial problems. Enriched or furnished cages resolve many of these as well as meeting the welfare needs of the birds. “They are an excellent middle ground between cage-free and standard cages,” she said.
Chris Bill of Meller Poultry Equipment of Jarvis, Ont., said farmers he dealt with this year are very aware of shifting public attitudes and their own financial realities. With cage systems designed to stay in service for up to 20 years, they are trying to decide not just what will be best for today, but what will be need a decade or more into the future.
With that in mind some Quebec producers have opted for enrichable cage systems. They allow the farmer to adapt if rules governing cages size and attributes change in the future.
This year Meller has installed two enrichable systems – one for a farm with 67,000 birds the other on a farm with 27,000 birds – in Quebec this year. Another larger installation is scheduled for next summer.
“It is all about the future. I think they want to be one step ahead,” Bill said.
Meanwhile Martin Kanehl of Specht-Canada of Stony Plain, Alta., said a significant concern is the lack of clear Canadian standards for enriched cages.
“Nobody knows what the guidelines are,” he said.
Many, many farmers have decided to wait until they know which way the wind is blowing, he said.
Those who are replacing old, tired systems are at least considering enrichable systems “because they allow people to change their minds,” he said.
Rick McVay of Faromar, based in Shakespeare, Ont., said the key to the dilemma facing farmers is the clash between economics and policy.
If enriched cages made economic sense for the farmers “the industry would have already gone that way,” he said.
But the debate isn’t driven by cost of production or economics. It is being driven by public attitudes to cages and political responses to public pressure.
“Worldwide enriched or cage-free systems only come when the government mandates it,” he said.
Phil Carey of Farmer Automatic Canada said there is growing interest in enrichable systems with some early adapters moving that way. But conventional cage systems still lead the pack.
Another force that could drive a change is corporate interests such as restaurant chains or grocery stores. If they decide their customers want a specific product, they will instruct suppliers to provide it. For example, McDonald’s and Burger King specified minimum cage sizes a few years ago and some producers adjusted their systems to meet that demand.
Europe and U.S.
Elsewhere, the situation is very confused or confusing. In Europe, conventional cages are to be banned in 2012. But different countries are headed in different directions to comply with the order.
For example, in Britain up to 40 per cent of the birds are free range. It is forecast that this could rise to 50 per cent by 2012 and continue to rise due to the demands of British grocers.
In Sweden, up to 60 per cent of the flock is housed in free-range barns. The 40 per cent of the flock in cages, are in enriched and not conventional cages.
All conventional cages have been banned in Germany. However, leading German retailers are stocking only eggs from non-cage systems, making it difficult for producers who have converted to colony cage systems to find market outlets.
In Southern Europe, the change from conventional to free-range or enriched systems is proving slow, difficult and expensive.
It is anticipated that up to one-third of Europe’s 450 million layers will still be in conventional cages by 2012.
In the U.S. farmers are wrestling with state-by-state changes that followed California’s Proposition 2.
One large California producer has tried to resolve its dilemma by opting for a colony system that it believes meets all of the welfare needs of the layers and complies with the spirit of California’s regulations.
The situation for producers is, as one Canadian cage supplier said, “a dilemma.”
To Comply, Close or Move?
The following is a condensed version of an article written by Steve Adler,
California Farm Bureau Federation, and reprinted with permission.
When California voters passed Proposition 2 in November 2008, egg producers were faced with three choices – comply, close up shop or move out of state.
The owners of one of the state’s leading egg producers, family-owned JS West in Modesto, said the company is determined to stay in business in California and is taking steps to follow the directives of Proposition 2.
“People like us are vacillating. We very much want to stay in California. We’ve been here for 100 years. We’d hate to leave all of the infrastructure in place. We are pretty committed to being here, but without that level playing field it is tough,” said Eric Benson, JS West president and grandson of the company’s founder, James Stewart West.
Proposition 2, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups, prohibits specific farm animals from being confined in a way that prevents them from being able to turn around, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs.
The measure targets housing systems used for veal calves and pregnant sows as well as for egg-laying hens. In California, the bulk of the impact will be felt by egg farmers.
Although the proposition won’t take effect for three more years, JS West has phased in state-of-the-art housing units on one of its ranches.
The new housing units provide more room for the hens, and are similar to the colony housing system used in parts of Europe.
The facility opened in mid-June and houses 150,000 laying hens. Upon the opening of the new facility, American Humane® Certified, the nation’s largest and oldest third-party certification of farm animal welfare, announced that it has certified the new system at JS West.
“The enriched colony housing system, proven in the European Union for more than 10 years, provides a humane alternative to conventional cages,” said Jill Benson, vice-president of JS West and Eric Benson’s sister. “We are honoured and proud to be the first to install this new humane housing solution and be certified by American Humane. Based upon the language of Proposition 2 that states a bird must be able to sit down, stand up, turn around and extend her limbs without touching another bird or the sides of an enclosure, this solution meets the requirements regarding the housing of laying hens.”
The Big Dutchman enriched colony system, installed in the JS West barn, promotes the welfare of laying hens.
“Throughout the world over 30 million laying hens are being raised in these enriched colony housing systems,” said Terry Pollard, Big Dutchman’s representative. “These systems promote the healthiest environment for laying hens on a commercial level. The birds have the ability to move about freely while at the same time enjoy the comfort and safety associated with being a part of a colony group of birds.”
Stay or Move
Building new egg-laying facilities is a costly undertaking, and there is a possibility that some California producers may opt instead to move to another state that has less stringent rules.
Debbie Murdock, executive director of the Association of California Egg Farmers, said representatives Georgia and Nevada have already approached some producers in an attempt to entice them to relocate.
Idaho has also done some recruiting in California.
“Idaho called us immediately after the election,” Benson said, “but Iowa is where the corn is and there are opportunities there and in South Dakota.”
For JS West, which plans to stay, the question revolved around creating housing for hens that satisfies Proposition 2.
“We know through scientific research and experience that hens that are housed and kept indoors are protected, they are healthy, and as a result they produce a very clean egg,” said Jill Benson.
“Consumers want and deserve economical, safe, locally produced and nutritious food and that is what we strive to bring them. We also work to retain consumer choice. We don’t feel society is ready to have the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of what they eat dictated to them by activist groups,” she said.
Big Dutchman’s AVECH system, which is an Enriched Colony Housing System, was installed and is in operation at J.S. West, Livingston, California.
The AVECH system earned the American Humane® Seal of Approval. American Humane is the largest and oldest third party certification of farm animal welfare. “We recognize that reasoned and science-based evaluation tells us that enriched colony housing, when implemented properly, is a humane way to raise hens and produce safe eggs for the marketplace,” said American Humane Certified vice president, Tim Amlaw, Vice President of American Humane’s farm animal welfare program.
The AVECH housing system provides room for 60 hens per enclosure with a nesting box surrounded by curtains, an area for “free roaming”, eating troughs, nipple drinkers, manure belt, an area for perching, and a scratch pad for the hens to do their normal dust bathing activities. The system installed at J.S. West is just the beginning of a larger project. This first system includes 10 rows and 6 tiers with each row measuring 498 feet long. There will be approximately 150,000 birds with 116 square inches per bird. As a complete and integrated package, everything from automatic egg handling, feeding, watering, and ventilation to manure handling is being managed by a tightly integrated Poultry Management Systems, Inc. computer controlled system.
There will be a live video feed of the system at work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This feed will broadcast one AVECH section over the Internet for anyone to see.