Alberta egg farmers letting hens spread their wings

Egg farmers in Alberta are taking steps to provide their hens with more spacious cages.

Producers can no longer install conventional small cages after Jan. 1

Walter Decker, who produces eggs southeast of Calgary, said his hens seem to like the new, larger cages he recently installed. (CBC)

Egg farmers in Alberta are taking steps to provide their hens with more spacious cages.

Starting Jan. 1, commercial farmers will no longer be allowed to install conventional, small cages. Instead they will be required to use hen housing systems that provide the birds with more room.

Eggs sold in Alberta in 2013:

  • 34.5 million dozen [up nearly four per cent from 2012]
  • Regular white and brown eggs: 85 per cent [up more than three per cent from 2012]
  • Omega-3 eggs: 10 per cent [down one per cent from 2012]
  • Other specialty eggs (ie: free run, free range, organic, etc.): five per cent [up more than 14 per cent from 2012]

*Data only includes eggs sold at retail not to restaurants, bakeries, processors, etc.

The change is intended to improve the welfare of hens, said Egg Farmers of Alberta chair Susan Schafers.

"Conventional cages, while they have worked very well for a very long period of time, don't allow the hens to express all of their natural behaviour,” she said.

The small cages currently in use will be grandfathered out.

But better housing means higher prices, said Schafers.

Higher costs

"Hopefully, consumers will understand and be willing to pay just a little more to make sure they are getting the best quality hens and the best kind of housing."

Calgary Co-op has experienced a 45.5 per cent year-over-year increase in sales of free range, free run and organic eggs.

The company rolled out a line of locally-sourced free run or open pen raised meats — pork, goat, beef, bison and chicken — last year.

Walter Decker has already updated the cages at his barns on the Riverbend Hutterite Colony 90 kilometres southeast of Calgary. They are bigger, with a perch and a nesting area.

Decker said it was an easy decision to move away from the much smaller, conventional cages.

"Because that's where we saw the industry evolving to,” he said.

Decker said he has no regrets about making the switch.

"When I come into the barn, they crane their neck forward — it's almost like they greet me. They are happy in that cage."

In Manitoba, egg producers are also phasing out the small cages.

The Egg Farmers of Canada is recommending other provinces adopt the same policy.

Some eggs are classified based on the formulation of feed the hens eat, while other eggs are classified based on the housing system the hens live in. The picture above shows free range chickens outside. (Egg Farmers of Alberta)
Egg laying hens are housed in a variety of ways in Canada, like these free range chickens in a barn. Egg Farmers of Alberta say every housing system is designed to provide a clean environment, fresh food and water, and protection from predators. (Egg Farmers of Alberta)
This is an aviary. Egg Farmers of Alberta says every indoor housing system provides consistent temperature, humidity and lighting and all Canadian eggs are antibiotic and hormone free. (Egg Farmers of Alberta)
This is a 'furnished nest box.' (Egg Farmers of Alberta)
This is a 'furnished scratch pad.' (Egg Farmers of Alberta)