Before I begin, I must disclose that I work for the Egg Farmers of Alberta. While inherently biased towards modern agriculture, I am a strong believer in food choice. Some consumers dislike all caged systems, citing welfare concerns. That’s okay – we work with all producers caring for more than 300 laying hens, and this includes free-run, free-range, and organic producers across Alberta. I believe all of our producers’ top priority is the health and well-being of their animals, because healthy, happy hens produce the best eggs.
Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to travel to one of our producer’s farms with local foodies and food bloggers.
We traveled to River Bend Colony, a Hutterite colony located one hour from Calgary. Walter Decker, the egg manager at this farm, graciously opened his barn doors and gave us a tour of his facilities.
We started in the pullet barn. A pullet is a young hen that hasn’t started to produce eggs. She’s the teenager of the chicken world. The pullets in this barn were eleven weeks old, and they will begin laying eggs at nineteen weeks of age. These girls were very curious – one even tried to peck me!
In the laying barn, we met the older girls. The hens in this barn were seventy-two weeks of age, which means they’re the senior citizens of the chicken world. Typically, hens are euthanized at, approximately, seventy weeks of age, and the farmer replaces his laying flock with young birds. In this case, the farmer has decided to keep his hens longer, or as long as egg quality and hen well-being can be maintained.
This farm uses a modern housing system, which includes furnished cages. Furnished, or enriched, cages provide all of the comforts of a caged system (enhanced food safety, efficient egg collection, decreased hen aggression) while providing the hens with the ability to perform more natural behaviours. Each cage contains a nest box, because hens like to lay eggs in private. Each cage has several perches, because birds like to perch. Walter described that, at night, he observes the birds resting on perches as they prepare to sleep (the barn’s lights are set to mimic day and night – these girls need their beauty sleep). Each cage also boasts a file, so hens can scratch and trim their nails/claws. Even hens like the occasional manicure. All of these features help keep the hens calm and content. These birds were very curious – a sign that their stress levels were low. It’s the mark of a good egg manager.
The next stop on our tour was the egg collection and processing room. There are four tiers of cages in this farm, and there are four levels of collection belts. A machine in the collection room moves to each level, so eggs can be collected and moved onto the main conveyor belt without issue. At the bottom of the belt, Walter uses a red light to “candle” the eggs. Candling helps identify any shell abnormalities and hairline cracks that cannot be spotted with the naked eye. Whole eggs with small cracks are rejected by the grading station, and these eggs are separated for use in the colony’s kitchen. Eggs with severe abnormalities, large cracks or holes are tossed.
Eggs are packaged on plastic trays, arranged on pallets, and wrapped for storage in the barn cooler. A truck from the grading station (there are two in Alberta) picks up a load every week. These eggs will be in local grocery stores within 4 to 7 days of being laid. The colony also sells approximately 40 to 60 dozen eggs at the Calgary Farmer’s Market every Saturday.
Our final stop was the kitchen, where we were invited to have lunch. We had roast beef, which was served with potatoes, steamed broccoli and cauliflower, fried onions, fresh buns, and carrots plucked from the garden. Everything was amazing, but the carrots were absolutely outstanding. They were crisp and flavourful, unlike anything you can find from your local grocer. Dessert was homemade raspberry pie, which had been made that morning. The crust was perfectly flaky and, if given the chance, I would have indulged in seconds and thirds.
Our goal, at the Egg Farmers of Alberta, was to showcase our producers’ efforts to produce a quality product, without sacrificing hen welfare and profitability (we want our farmers to make a living, too). We also hope to clear up misconceptions about modern agriculture. I hope our guests found this visit insightful and educational, and we look forward to hosting more tours in the future.