Saturday, November 15, 2014


Forced changes in egg production – not all they’re cracked up to be
Tamworth egg farmer Bede Burke produces eggs and chickens, and also has broadacre cropping and cattle on 3,500 acres. He was planning to move into free range egg production, until he heard about the avian influenza outbreak in Young in October 2013. He shares his thoughts about the potential hazards ahead for egg producers. 

In Young, the disease spread from wild migratory birds to paddocks the free range hens had access to, and all the birds in the property – 200,000 free range and 250,000 caged totaling more than 450,000 hens – had to be destroyed.
Once you have an exotic disease, it’s notifiable and you’re no longer in control of your farm.
We watched that happen, and realised that even a one percent chance of outbreak is untenable. We can control the health of our caged birds in their current conditions, and we can protect them from disease and predators.
Sustainable productivity under threat
We have invested a great deal of time and money into developing a sustainable, fully-integrated business. Our grain goes into the chicken feed, and the manure contributes to soil health. We understand that, like all farmers, we needs to minimise our carbon footprint and improve efficiency to meet the growing demands for food.
But all this could be under threat, with moves from the major supermarket chains and some food outlets to eliminate caged eggs from the menu.
Woolworths has announced that it will no longer stock caged eggs by 2018, and in September it ceased stocking caged eggs in the ACT completely. Coles has already removed caged eggs from its home brand offer.
Yet 60 percent of the eggs sold in Australia are still caged eggs.
Because we sell eggs via wholesale channels, we do things a little differently. We ship 80 pallets a week, or 30 million eggs a year, to about a dozen customers. We pack by age groups, keeping the eggs from our older breeders separate. This gives us and our customers a lot more flexibility.
Demand for affordable eggs
From what I’ve seen, consumers still want choice, and there is still a market for price point eggs. As Woolworths in ACT found with its barn laid category. It wasn’t selling at $4.69 per dozen, so the supermarket made successive price movements down to $3.19 to generate sales. I believe this is a test case for new pricing Woolworths may consider adopting across all its supermarkets.
Risk of disease and illness
Victorian Premier Denis Napthine[1], a former veterinarian, has also said publicly he has no objection to eggs from caged hens, if the birds have “appropriate welfare conditions.” The Australian Veterinary Association’s policy is that commercial egg production systems should provide for the health, nutrition and psychological wellbeing of the hens.
I know that egg production moved from floor to cage in the 1960s for good reasons. We can now control the environment for our birds to the extent that we haven't needed to use antibiotics for more than thirty years.
Yet free range farmers tell me they’re running out of options to deal with diseases such as fowl cholera, spotty liver, enteritis, and parasites. The problems with free range farming can be immense – not to mention the regulatory requirements.
I can provide every one of my 106,000 laying hens with the exact nutritional balance they need to produce well and be healthy. It’s a recipe packed with local ingredients including grain grown and milled on our property, protein meals comprising canola, cotton seed meal with vitamins, minerals and the essential amino acids added.
You can't control that with free range. Ironically, a unique cause of death in new free range chickens is due to excess grass consumption, leading to grass compaction. The domestic hen is not a ruminant; they do not thrive in these conditions
Australia’s egg producers made significant investment in caged production facilities in the late 1990s, and with small groups (no more than six) per cage we can manage the birds more easily.
We have eliminated the impact of broodiness as the eggs naturally roll away from the hen in the cage. We can keep them at a comfortable temperature whether there’s a heatwave or frost outside. We remove the manure twice a week, so for the first time we’re farming without flies. You can't do any of that in free range.
Academic research into the health and happiness of hens also indicates free range is not necessarily best. The University of Bristol’s Veterinary College in the UK[2] compared hens in conventional cages, furnished cages (with nests and perches), barns and free-range. The study found that poor animal husbandry had a much bigger impact than the type of housing – and the lowest prevalence of problems occurred in hens in furnished cages, not free range.
Better for humans, and the environment
It may seem counter-intuitive, but research also indicates the quality of a caged egg is better. A 2002 University of New England study[3] found good, consistent diet and care were the main ingredients for a quality egg, and keeping the eggs clean is a big challenge for free range and barn laid eggs – with a high risk of food wastage.
Caged eggs also create a smaller carbon footprint. Because it’s controlled, it takes less energy to produce a dozen eggs. In free range we see feed consumption go up 20 percent but the output is actually lower – and highly variable when the temperature changes.
As Chair of the Egg Committee for the NSW Farmers’ Association, I work closely with the Australian Egg Corporation Limited and I’m worried by the domino effect a decision like Woolworth’s could cause. We want to work with industry and government to find better a solution. 
The impact of the decision by Coles and Woolworths is already massive. It’s changed the mindset in our industry. We can’t invest in new infrastructure; we can't grow this part of our business. It’s disappointing to say there has been no engagement with industry in making this decision.
 You can have healthy, happy caged birds – you just need to be close to them, and do whatever you can to alleviate stress. This is not just a debate about free range versus caged. This is about the future of our industry, and the way we produce a primary food source for Australia.
A butterfly effect
If major retailers switch to ‘free range only’ there are consequences beyond the hens:
·         The cost of eggs becomes prohibitive for low-income families
·         Fast food franchisees can no longer source eggs locally, increasing food miles and impacting smaller local producers
·         The amount of energy needed to produce a dozen eggs will rise
·         More birds will be affected by predators and disease (and the use of antibiotics could rise again)

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