A hatchery under construction in Stratford will endeavour to grow a healthier, stronger chicken in an environment that is better for the bird. It's an idea whose time has come – too long a time, in fact. 

Trillium Hatchery is a start-up headed by Ontario broiler chicken farmer Murray Booy and hatching egg farmer Dave Brock. Together with other partners, they are building a 70,000 sq.-ft. state-of-the-art facility in Wright Business Park, scheduled to open later in 2018, that will eventually produce 20 million chicks for broilers (that is, meat chickens) for the industry. 

It's good to see a change in the environment for raising poultry, but the question might be: why has it taken so long? Booy responds that there has been increased growth in the industry and the need for more capacity. It's customer-driven as well. 

"As this industry is growing, the consumer is wanting to know more about their food, how it's raised and where it comes from," says Booy. "This technology allows for a much healthier baby chick to start growing on our farms and therefore prevent the need for antibiotics to be used in the grow-out phase of the birds."

The new hatchery will be able to produce organic chicken and more flavourful chicken, says Brock, with an emphasis on improving animal welfare.

"We think we have the most animal-friendly facility out there. The consumer wants to know that we have a very strong conscience about how we treat our animals," Brock says.

Large numbers

To give some idea of the magnitude of the numbers, currently seven hatcheries produce in the order of 229 million fertilized broiler hatching eggs for the Ontario industry, according to the Ontario Broiler Hatching Egg and Chick Commission. That's a lot of chicken fingers and wings. The chicken industry in Canada is growing rapidly and is by far the most consumed meat, according to Booy. "We're looking at five to six percent increases year over year. The need for capacity right along the value chain is there."

In many traditional hatchery operations, it is dark and chicks may not have access to food for a day or two, though they have retained some energy from eating the inside of the egg before hatching. In this new system, the chick will dry off in the hatch tray and can start to thrive gaining weight, building intestinal development and immunities and staying much healthier as it goes off to the farm. It is a less stressed creature, less susceptible to disease and less likely to need antibiotics.

The new Dutch system and its technology are unique in Ontario; in fact, Trillium Hatchery is only the third such facility to open in North America. There is a similar facility in Nova Scotia, and Booy says he believes that there are many more on the horizon.

Hatchery innovations

The system entails computer control of temperature, humidity and air quality as well as providing brighter, cleaner space. Eggs are placed pointy end down to allow easier hatching. Following the process of jack-hammering their way out of the egg, the chicks are tired and have expended a lot of energy.

With the new system, they emerge from the shell and plop down a couple of inches onto a tray where there have immediate access to food and circulating fresh water. Those factors combine to make for better animal welfare – which is how it should be.

It does seem that this is a better way to raise poultry. "I would say it is probably a happier chicken. It's a content chicken," says Booy. While consumers still won't know exactly where their chicken nuggets come from, as the demand for food provenance increases – it's up to the industry to provide these details – there should be more transparency.

"We're seeing that more and more of the restaurants and even grocery stores have a little bit of a story to tell of where that food is produced and where it came from," Booy says.

"That will be up to the retailers to tell that story."