As a consumer and lover of eggs I felt that I was fairly educated on the different types available at the grocery store and methods of farming eggs. I typically buy organic eggs and feel the extra price is worth paying for a high quality product – that’s a philosophy I stick to. You get what you pay for, right? I will almost always pay a bit extra if I get something that is better, will last longer, will retain resale value etc. I felt organic eggs are better because the shells are usually harder and more robust. That has to indicate a better quality egg…right?
Last week I went to a commercial egg farm.
Farming is no longer of red barns and crowing roosters, in fact, there wasn’t a rooster in sight at Burnbrae farms where we toured. Instead, here’s what I saw.
Types of Chicken housing in Today’s Egg Farming
Conventional: Conventional (also called battery caged) farmed eggs have 5 or so chickens in a cage, side by side along the barn in rows and stacked several rows high. Chickens have free access to food and water. Manure falls down to a belt that carries it away from the birds-it does not fall onto the birds below. Eggs fall to a different belt and are carried to the grading facility. Not much else to say. These birds looked to be in good condition from what I could see. I was looking into the barn from a viewing window in all instances. Conventional housing will be phased out over the next 20 years.
Furnished: Eggs from this type of housing are sold under the “Nestlaid” label by Burnbrae. Other brands may not differentiate between conventional and furnished housing. In these cages, chickens have access to nest boxes for laying eggs in (the yellow area,) as well as perches. There are typically more chickens in these cages than in conventional housing but the cages are also twice as big, about 8-10 birds will live in each. As with conventional housing, chickens are held in stacked rows in the barn with manure belts to keep them separated from their refuse. These birds also looked to be in good condition from what I could see.
Free Run: This type of housing allows the birds to run the space of the barn – there are no cages. Chickens have access to nest boxes and perches as well as access to the floor for dust bathing (or rather, manure bathing!) There were several levels for the birds with ramps for them to walk up and down. Birds in this system need to be trained to use the levels and nests And the farmers need to be more vigilant at protecting them from feather picking. These birds seemed to like scratching around on the floor but from what I could see, some were missing feathers.
Organic and Free Range: I did not see birds housed in these systems as I believe they did not have these sorts of egg farming facilities at the location I was visiting. Free range birds have access to the outdoors weather permitting. Organic eggs come from chickens that are both free range AND are fed an organic diet.
Chickens operate in a system of dominance where higher order chickens can peck at lower order birds. This means that if there are many birds in a flock there will be many hens vying for the top spots. They can be aggressive and will pluck the feathers out of birds they see as weaker to show them ‘who is boss.’
Chickens in the wild are usually found in flocks of about 5.
Chickens really love to have a nesting box and perch as it makes them feel safe.
Chickens will flock together and leave empty space in the barn. They don’t spread out even if they have the space to. You can see this in the second photo of the free run barn above. They may even pile on top of each other to get close to a farm worker or doorway out of curiosity.
Chickens are tropical birds and should not go outside in poor weather.
Chickens are omnivores and should not be fed a vegetarian diet no matter what A&W tells you. In the wild chickens will eat bugs, worms and even dead animals they come across.
Chickens in Canada are vaccinated but are not given steroids nor hormones. Antibiotics are used as necessary but methods are in place to reduce usage.
Margaret Hudson, President of Burnbrae spoke a lot about sustainability. She was passionate about the welfare of the chickens but revealed that much about the industry is ruled by marketing in response to consumer wants. For instance, consumers will not buy free run eggs with white shells. Consumers generally believe that brown shell eggs are ‘better’ than white ones and the reality is that it’s just a different breed of hen who lays a brown egg vs a white egg. There is no difference in nutritional value. Still, free run eggs are usually brown because that’s what consumers expect to see.
Margaret shared that when it comes to a sustainability standpoint, conventional and furnished housings are more efficient and have a much lower carbon footprint than free run housing. Conventional and furnished housings also have lower bird mortality rates because birds are caged in more natural flock sizes. Egg farmers, however, are trying to please consumers by providing free run, free range and organic eggs, despite the higher costs and larger demands on resources such as land.
Will I change my buying habits?
Yeah, you know, I was firmly in the organic camp prior to visiting Burnbrae. I believed the chickens had a better life and that organic eggs were better for the planet. Now I am not so sure that I was right. Sustainability is about finding the best way to feed our people by balancing out the welfare of the animals with the impact on the planet. By those standards, furnished housing is by far the winner. The birds were in great condition, they had nest boxes and perches to make them happy but were protected from disease and each other. Carbon footprints were lower and conditions for workers were better.
Along with buying eggs at the grocery store, I’ll also be mindful of the marketing that comes by way of restaurants and fast food industries trying to get my business. So many chains are advertising that they now only provide eggs that are cage free. What they are doing is driving the industry in the wrong direction not because they believe in sustainability but because they believe consumers want cage free eggs. Consumers like you and I, who just don’t want to pay for animals to suffer. It turns out that chickens are better off in a cage than in a large herd of thousands of birds. I didn’t know that and I’m sure I’m not alone in my misdirected thinking. I’d like to call on marketers to be more responsible with their communications. The education of consumers falls partially on their shoulders – not every consumer has the ability to visit a farm and see for themselves like I did.
If it were a perfect world and we could raise our egg laying hens in a chicken paradise we would have organic birds in free range flocks of 5 or 6 that would never be stricken with disease. Right now, we can’t have that. We have millions to feed and it seems folly to subscribe to a free run system that’s less efficient, worse for the environment, and results in a higher cost product for the sake of a perceived chicken happiness value that as far as I could see, just isn’t there.
Humane Society – Understanding Mortality Rates of Laying Hens in Cage-Free Egg Production Systems (although this is biased, there is still some good information here. Just know that at the end, they basically say that a shorter, better life is more desirable than a longer, not as good life. Like, sure, I’ll choose to live 5 years less if I could just have a chair to sit in. Come on. Still, it’s worth the read)
BCSPCA – The Future of Confinement Housing for Egg-Laying Hens This was a good article that goes into greater detail regarding conventional housing systems and their alternatives.
The Globe and Mail – The cage free egg trend; is it just a shell game? This details more about the marketing aspect of why the industry is moving towards cage free.
CBC April 2021 – Are Cheaper Eggs as Nutritious as Organic Options?
Canadian Food Inspection Agency – Avian Bio-security This is information on avian flu and bio-security – a huge risk for organic and free range birds. Avian flu greatly impacts the sustainability factor.
Chicken Farmers of Canada – On antibiotic use
The Egg Farmers of Canada – The Journey of the Egg
Burnbrae Farms – Animal Care