Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


One producer's journey to next generation poultry housing

The challenges and rewards of building leading edge production systems

Posted: March 20, 2014

Nesting area

Lethbridge, Alta. egg farmer Levi Hofer is like a lot of today's poultry producers. He has one eye on the present, the other on the future.

Like others in his industry, he has an opportunity to change his production system as part of normal business practices. In Hofer's case, at least some of the production facilities at the New York Hutterite Colony where he is egg flock manager were starting to age, so replacement or updating needed to be considered. But that needed to be done in a way that meets consumer and industry demands.

As of 2014, layers at the Colony are housed in new state-of-the-art facilities called "furnished housing." It's a new style that moves on from conventional cage housing and provides a more natural open environment, with nesting areas, scratch pads and perches.

Search for the leading edge

The egg barn in the Colony's system, a conventional cage system, was built in 1994. But it was beginning to show its age, and like any system time and cost of maintenance raised the obvious question of whether to repair or replace with a new system.

The Colony team decided to take a long hard look at their options. In fact they invested more than four years into system research before making their final choice.

Entryway to the new barn

Starting point was to understand all the options. They began with their own producer association, the Egg Farmers of Alberta which had developed recommended production standards. Next, they contacted representatives of the major chicken housing equipment in the province.

Along the way, they decided they wanted to salvage the barn structure. That concrete and wood framework had been well designed to last 50 years, so it had many years left in it. Retaining it would reduce the costs of transition significantly, but like any renovation, fitting a new system into an existing structure took more planning.

"Our ultimate goal was a system that would last 30 years," says Hofer. "We determined there were benefits to free range, free run or enriched or furnished systems, but we decided we needed to see those systems in action to fully understand them."

Equipment suppliers were able to show them operating systems in all categories. Examples of most were in Alberta but the furnished housing system was new enough that they needed to visit an operation in the U.S.

In the end the Colony team decided the furnished housing system best met their needs, and that the equipment supplier who had provided their original equipment had their confidence.

Adapting technology to new system

Scratching area

Once the system choice was made, implementation was the next step. The layer barns were shut down for four months and gutted, and new system installed.

Hofer's belief is the Colony now has met its objective of having a system that will meet production standards for the next 30 years.

However, like any new system, adjustments have been required. For example, it has taken constant management to have birds properly use nesting, feeding and perch areas. At the start, for example, birds stayed in the nesting area because it was comfortable and that produced some fighting. This required adjustments to feeding and lighting to encourage birds to move out of the nesting area to the scratching area.

Each adjustment takes about eight days to see the results, so it takes time to get it running well, says Hofer. But while the system is in its early stages and still going through its orientation, the overall performance signs are positive.

Satisfaction of a good decision

Hofer, like many producers, has a management approach that includes a regular routine of close checking of the flock. One example is that during the transition stage, he went back into his barn after the lights were out with a blue flashlight, roaming the barn passageways, looking in at the birds and seeing how comfortable they are.

"They were nice and comfortable," he says. "Every bird was on a perch for the night just as they would be in a natural environment.

Egg elevators

"As a manager I love it because I can communicate with my flock by adjusting the tools of producing an egg - feed, water, humidity, air quality, lighting. I can talk to those birds and they can talk back to me. For example, we use the lights to mimic sunrise. The lights come on slowly and give birds a chance to wake up. They relax better that way and that ultimately produces a better egg."

Built with consumers in mind

At the end of the day Hofer's team knows there is a premium, perhaps as much as 20 percent to install this new systems but he also knows it appeals to the consumer.

"Keeping the consumer and the distributor happy was a very big factor in choosing and building this barn," he says. "We need to be thinking how we can communicate with the consumer. We need the consumer to walk up to the egg shelf in the grocery store and look at the options and see choices like the furnished housing system."

Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.




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