I can’t talk much about the situation across Canada, but I certainly get the impression poultry producers in Alberta are doing their best to produce meat birds and eggs to deliver a high-quality product raised with the best production practices possible.
Poultry operations don’t have a big fit with Cattleman’s Corner, but looking around the livestock industry at poultry, dairy and hogs as well as beef enforces the fact that all these sectors are on the same track — aiming to produce a high-quality product, looking to improve production practices, making a sincere effort to enhance animal welfare, and tuned in to the need for increased consumer awareness of how food is produced.
Egg-laying operations are a good example. Egg producers have come under fire in recent years, not about producing a quality product — the national Get Cracking program does a good job of promoting quality — but over humane production practices. The old battery cage system, with birds cheek to jowl during their one-year production cycle isn’t a good system. Birds are produced within Code of Practice guidelines, but now the guidelines are changing.
Two operations I visited were the New York Hutterite Colony near Coaldale, Alta. just east of Lethbridge and the Riverbend Hutterite Colony, at Mossleigh, about half way between Calgary and Lethbridge. Both of these operations had switched from the conventional battery cage system to what is called the furnished housing production system.
In fact New York Colony poultry manager Levi Hofer last year accepted on behalf of the colony the first Canadian Poultry Sustainability Award for both the table egg industry and the overall poultry industry. That award recognizes not only an improved housing system, but exceptional standards for the overall egg production system — quality eggs, healthy birds, and sound environmental and sustainability practices for the farm itself.
In the conventional battery system, usually about five birds are confined to a relatively small cage for their production cycle. With enriched or furnished housing a larger number of birds are confined in a much larger cage area with more amenities that support more natural behavior.
At the New York Colony, for example, the conventional system was designed so each bird had 67 square inches of space, where as in the new furnished housing system each bird has 122 square inches of space. With about 20 birds in each of these larger areas, they also have access to features such as nesting boxes, perches, scratch pads and dust baths. They are still confined, but if your sole purpose in a day is to lay an egg it is a much better environment.
There are still plenty of the conventional battery cage systems operating, but the poultry industry has policies which are phasing those out — any farm planning to build or remodel has to move to either the enriched or furnished, or free-run or free-range systems. The Riverbend Colony egg operation, managed by Walter Decker, rebuilt its barn around the enriched housing system and operate it with exceptional standards as well.
These changes cost money, but at the same time if you’re planning to stay in business in any aspect of livestock production you have to be hitting on all cylinders — producing a high quality product, with humane yet practical production practices, while practicing good environmental stewardship. It is just reality and it is the right thing to do.