Andy Hofer slides open the metal door of a chicken cage and reaches in to pet one of his brown chickens. “Come on girls,” says Hofer, the poultry manager at Scotford Hutterite Colony, as the hens skitter to the back of the cage. “Don’t get excited.”
Jodie Sinnema Edmonton Journal staff mugshot Ryan Jackson John Lucas /Ryan Jackson / Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL Andy Hofer holds an Isa Brown hen at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. There are 17,136 hens in the barn. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL Elie Hofer moves stacks of eggs into the cooler at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL Lohmann hens at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. There are 17,136 hens in the barn. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL Poultry Health Services veterinarian Darko Mitevski at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL The egg collecting system at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. The eggs are transported on a conveyor belt after they’re laid and end up here to be counted and packaged. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL The Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL Rosanna Hofer sorts the eggs at the collecting area at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL These are the environmental controls at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. he The barn’s immense technological system automatically feeds the birds five times a day with a wheat-and-barley mixture supplemented with calcium, minerals and vitamins, and constantly gives them fresh water, as well as monitors temperatures and air quality. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
ED KAISER/EDMONTON JOURNAL Just over 17,000 chickens are housed at the Scotford Hutterite Colony poultry farm east of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. Ed Kaiser /Edmonton Journal
SCOTFORD HUTTERITE COLONY – Andy Hofer slides open the metal door of a chicken cage and reaches in to pet one of his brown chickens.
“Come on girls,” says Hofer, the poultry manager at Scotford Hutterite Colony, as the hens skitter to the back of the cage. “Don’t get excited.”
He picks up one of the hens and pets its soft feathers. He doesn’t usually talk to his laying hens, reserving his chatter — a mix of English and low German — for the pullets, or young chickens, in the barn next door.
Does he “like” his 17,136 laying hens? He hems and haws. Nods. “Like” is a tricky word. These aren’t pets. They’re poultry that produce thousands of eggs every day.
A documentary that aired on CTV’s W5 last week has raised interest in the workings of Alberta egg farms. In the documentary, animal rights group Mercy for Animals raised concerns about animal cruelty after sending an undercover employee into Ku-Ku Farms in Morinville and Creekside Grove Farms near Spruce Grove. A hidden camera captured video of hens “crammed for life in tiny battery cages, chicks violently smashed and thrown into garbage bags to suffocate.” Mercy for Animals said hens spent their lives crammed “seven to 10 in a space the size of a filing cabinet” and those that died rotted in cages alongside those still laying eggs.
A visit to the egg barn on the Scotford Hutterite Colony seven kilometres northeast of Fort Saskatchewan shows many laying hens do spend their entire lives in battery cages. While countries in the European Union have banned battery cages because of concerns for chicken welfare — they must now be larger and furnished with perches, litter and claw-shortening devices — 83 per cent of the 157 egg farms in Alberta use the conventional cages.
– 134 farms are located on Hutterite colonies and 23 on non-colony family farms, such as Ku-Ku Farms near Morinville.
– 27 farms (or 17 per cent, up from 1.5 per cent in 2006) are using alternative housing systems, such as furnished cages (bigger cages for between 24 to 60 birds, offering more floor space, perches and dust baths), free-run farms (hens run free within a barn, then lay eggs in floor-level nesting boxes), free-range (hens have access to outdoor runs) and aviary farms (a variation of free-run farms with more climbing opportunities on tiered nest boxes).
Alberta egg farms house 1.9 million laying hens. The average laying hen lays more than 280 eggs in one year, the Egg Farmers of Alberta says. That’s about five or six eggs each week.
Earlier this year, Alberta became the second province after Manitoba to adopt a policy to transition away from conventional battery cages. No new conventional systems will be allowed to be installed in Alberta after Dec. 31, 2014. Three inspectors work in Alberta and visit each egg farm once each year.
The Scotford Hutterite egg barn is divided into two. Each half is lined with four long rows, with each row containing three vertical layers of 102 chicken cages. Each cage of 24 x 21 inches (53 x 61 centimetres) has 504 square inches of floor space (3,252 square-centimetres). With six or seven hens inside each cage, each hen has about 72 square inches (465 square centimetres) of space.
The national standard requires 67 square inches (432 square centimetres) per white bird. Brown hens are bigger and require more space. Some larger cages could hold between seven and 10 birds, the Egg Farmers of Alberta says.
Cramming more chickens in doesn’t make business sense, said Darko Mitevski, a veterinarian and poultry specialist at Poultry Health Services in Airdrie. More crowded conditions increase competition between the birds for water and food, Mitevski says. That drives up injury, infection and mortality rates, reduces egg production since energy is spent on survival instincts, and increases the risk of cracked eggs with more jostling.
Susan Schafers, director of Egg Farmers of Alberta, says chickens don’t need a lot of space. Hens don’t fly, she says, and conventional cages give enough room for the birds to stretch their wings and preen. Even on her farm, where Schafers gives her hens roaming rights around the barn, she says the chickens flock closely together. Most naturally migrate to her nesting boxes to lay their eggs.
Andy Hofer estimates he finds about six dead hens each week. Workers check the cages several times each day and removes dead ones immediately. “The livability of the layers is very high,” Mitevski says, with 97 per cent of most flocks living the entire year they lay eggs. Hofer’s statistics match that, with 1.7 per cent of his chickens dying each year.
The smell of cow manure from fields outside the egg barn is far worse than the smell inside. Mind you, Elie Hofer, who also works in the poultry barn, says the chicken droppings — which fall through the metal floors of the cages onto conveyor belts — were cleaned one evening before the visit as part of a cleaning regimen done every four days. The Hutterite colony uses the droppings in compost.
Because the hens must use their beaks to drink water droplets from dispensers hanging at the back of the cages — tiny gutters catch any leftover liquid — little additional moisture gets onto the droppings, keeping the feces dry and relatively stink-free.
Smells are also reduced by the constantly circulating air, kept at 21 C. If the barn gets too cold, the hens eat more. Too warm, and they eat less. In both cases, they start to produce fewer eggs because they’re focused on survival.
Mitevski says moving hens from straw-lined coops into very controlled environments — the Hutterite barn’s immense technological system automatically feeds the birds five times a day with a wheat-and-barley mixture supplemented with calcium, minerals and vitamins, constantly gives them fresh water, monitors temperatures and air quality — actually keeps the birds healthier and safer from predators, bacterial infections, fights among each other and brutal peckings.
If the water failed — the Hutterite barn sends alarms to the Hofers’ cellphones if that happens and generators kick in — Mitevski said the hens would produce half the usual number of eggs within 24 hours. In 48 hours, there would be no eggs.
The eggs roll from the cage bottoms onto a narrow conveyor belt at the front of the cages, keeping most from being spattered with droppings. Feces easily stains eggs, making them unsellable at grocery stores and can increase the risk of salmonella to consumers.
Each laying hen at the Scotford Hutterite Colony — all white leghorns that lay white eggs except for 96 Isa browns that produce brown eggs — produces about 325 to 330 eggs each year. That’s about 5.6 million eggs each year, some of which are sold uninspected across the counter for $2.25 a dozen at the front of the barn. Many dozens are shipped to Calgary where Sparks Egg Farms sorts them for size, cleans them and candles them. Candling involves running the eggs by a very strong light so any splotches of blood inside the egg or any cracks on the outside are caught and the eggs rejected.
Every day except Sunday, when morning church service takes precedence, eggs are collected at the Hutterite colony at 8 a.m. The egg conveyor belts are switched on, carrying the eggs from the barn, onto mini-elevators and up onto a wider conveyor belt where they are gently roll under an infrared counter. Rosanna Hofer, 18, and Kathy Hofer, 16, sort out the brown eggs and put the dirty ones into a wire basket. The rest are stacked by a machine in plastic trays, which the sisters sort through again. Punctured ones with the white and yolks intact, as well as the dirty ones which are manually cleaned, head to the Hutterite kitchen for use. Ten skids carrying 720 dozen head down to Calgary each week, where they are inspected and sorted. Of those, about five per cent are “undergrades” and rejected.
The Hutterite barn rotates half the chickens at the same time. So after 72 weeks, the hens from one side of the bar are butchered and sold. The other half of the barn continues to produce eggs.
When half the barn is empty, it’s fumigated and disinfected and remains empty for one week. Then chickens between 17 and 19 weeks old that were raised in the pullet barn next door move in. The Hutterites buy 9,000 one-day-old chicks from a chick farm in Manitoba to fill the barns twice each year. Of those, between 15 and 20 turn out to be male chicks. They are sold live, at 19 weeks, for people to slaughter and eat themselves.
For farms that need to kill unsaleable male chicks, the code of practice says it must be done humanely and make the chick permanently unconscious quickly and will little distress. High-speed maceration, with a grinding machine, is considered humane as long as death is instantaneous and there is no chick backlog. Carbon dioxide is also an option, but not drowning or suffocation.
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