Let’s open the barn doors

Hart Attacks: Positive changes are coming in the livestock production world

As I was recently reading about the Canadian egg industry’s commitment to turn its ocean liner around, I figured a motion was in order — if consumers and the food industry are so concerned about animals produced “free range” or in loose housing, farmers should just turn everything loose and then charge four times as much for everything they do take to market (right after they catch or find it).

All in favour say, “aye.”

Opposed?

Motion carried.

My work here is done.

Actually, I shouldn’t be ranting. There are certain aspects of consumer (society), food service and industry demand that represent needed changes for the livestock industry. Animals should be treated humanely, and they should be raised with the least amount of discomfort and certainly without suffering.

In my experience, I don’t believe chickens do any awful lot of thinking, but being crammed in a battery cage with five or six other birds for the duration of an albeit relatively short life isn’t the best way to produce eggs. It is efficient yes, and even though birds have proper feed and care, can anyone really justify it is a great way for a bird to live? That’s a stretch.

So I think it is good the Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) is moving its industry away from battery cage egg production. In a recent news article I read Burger King, Tim Hortons, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Starbucks, Subway and other major food restaurants either have or are all giving notice they will begin only using eggs produced by non-caged birds over the next few years.

Although the size of the enriched or furnished cage laying systems can vary chickens have at least twice as much space compared to battery systems, plus other amenities.

Although the size of the enriched or furnished cage laying systems can vary chickens have at least twice as much space compared to battery systems, plus other amenities.
photo: Lee Hart

McDonalds has a 10-year conversion timetable, Tim Hortons and Burger King have picked 2025, while Harvey’s, Swiss Chalet and East Side Mario’s restaurants, for example, are aiming for all cage-free eggs by 2020.

Those restaurant timetables don’t quite mess with the industry plan to have all barns converted by 2036 — 20 years from now, but egg producers are headed in the right direction. And Canada’s 1,000 egg producers have an expensive job ahead. It’s reported that 90 to 95 per cent of eggs are still produced by hens in battery cages. EFC is planning with renovations and replacement barns, there will be roughly a 50 per cent conversion over the next eight years, about an 85 per cent conversion within 15 years and full conversion by 2036.

So what are egg farmer options? I have seen a couple of barns in Alberta now that use what is referred to as enriched or furnished cages. They were the first in Canada. It is a bit of glossy term, but rather than five or six birds in a single (battery) cage, where each has the amount of living space equal to roughly the size of a standard sheet of paper, (8.5 x 11 inches), the enriched cages are much larger, providing more space per bird for 20 or more birds and the furnished cages also offer nesting boxes, scratch pads, dust baths and perches.

Another housing option is cage-free/free run housing where birds are loose in an enclosed aviary or inside a barn. And then there is the free-range system, which allows birds to roam outdoors. All certified organic eggs in Canada must come from free-range hens.

Candling eggs at the Riverbend Hutterite Colony.

Candling eggs at the Riverbend Hutterite Colony.
photo: Lee Hart

And are consumers ready? Eggs from these new systems will likely be more expensive at the grocery store. One recent California study found that producing a dozen eggs in an enriched system costs farmers 13 per cent more than in battery cages. Cage-free eggs, meanwhile, cost 36 per cent more. And on that note, I just happened to notice on a recent trip to a Safeway/Sobeys store they had conventional large Grade A white-shelled eggs on for $1.99 per dozen — those bins were empty. But, there were still plenty of brown-shelled free-run and organic eggs for $3 to $5 per dozen. I guess, as I have talked about earlier seeing buying preference such as that, makes me wonder exactly where “consumer demand” comes from.

More changes 
for the better

Along with the egg producers, there are other positive changes in the livestock production world. It is not a law, but a recommendation starting in January 2016 that more pain management be used on Canadian livestock operations. The Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle says starting this year that a veterinary-recommended pain control product needs to be administered when dehorning calves after horn bud attachment (about two months of age or older).

And when it comes to castration, calves should be castrated as young as practically possible. With older animals, pain control needs to be applied when castrating animals older than nine months of age and in two years that requirement applies to bulls at six months of age. I don’t really understand the logic of why this doesn’t apply now to all calves regardless of age, but at least it is step in the right direction.

And on the hog production front, any new barns built after 2014 must provide loose housing for sows and gilts, while the plan is to have all existing gestation crate systems phased out by 2025. Again, many of the major food retailers are calling for the end of gestation crate systems over the next 10 years as well. Maturing gilts and mature sows aren’t the cuddliest creatures, but they are smart — crate dwelling is no way to raise a family.

And back to my motion on free-range everything, it would be good for society to see exactly what that would look like. It could be chaos. But if history tells us anything, I have also read that one of the reasons behind the name Wall Street in New York, is that back in the early 1800s a wall was built to keep out a number of things, which included keeping free-range pigs out of the grain farms on Manhattan Island. We should live and learn.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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Comments

  • Ty Savoy

    ‘In fact if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to a lot of animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

    Ruth Harrison, Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming Industry (2013)