Something Eggstra

A Manitoba egg farmer transitioned his flock to new, larger housing more than 20 years before new laws take effect.

By Jodi Helmer | Photos By John Dietz

In 2014, when Jacob Doerksen was between flocks, he remodeled all the hen housing in his 9,000-square-foot barn. “We worked day and night for two weeks to get it done,” recalls Doerksen.

The switch to larger, enriched cages has, for a variety of reasons, increased the workload for Simon Doerksen, pictured here, and his father Jacob. For instance, they now need to check those hens housed in a new fourth tier of cages using a rolling cart.

The switch to larger, enriched cages has, for a variety of reasons, increased the workload for Simon Doerksen, pictured here, and his father Jacob. For instance, they now need to check those hens housed in a new fourth tier of cages using a rolling cart.

When the new flock arrived, 15,200 Dekalb hens were housed in cages furnished with perches and private nesting boxes. Compared with conventional cages, which provided just 72 square inches per hen, these “enriched” cages increased the space to 116.25 square inches per bird. The enriched cages also housed 23 hens instead of eight, providing the hens more opportunities for social interactions.

It was a major change for the farm—a change with its ups and downs.

Doerksen, 51, grows wheat, soybeans and canola on his 1,600-acre Prairie Farms operation near Niverville, Manitoba, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Winnipeg. In recent years, he added a laying operation to further diversify his farm.

At a price of about $8 less per hen, the old conventional-style cage would have been the least expensive option. Yet, Doerksen opted for cages with removable dividers—called enrichable cages—that allowed him to set up his layer operation in a conventional or enriched system.

“At the time, there was no incentive to go to enriched cages, but we saw the writing on the wall and knew we’d have to make the change at some point. So, we bought the enrichable cages,” he recalls. Doerksen turned out to be right.

Since 2014, when Doerksen decided to make the switch, Canada announced regulations requiring all egg farmers to transition from conventional cages to new systems. In addition to Doerksen’s enriched cages, also called furnished cages, producers have the option to transition to aviary systems, where hens roam within a barn and have access to nesting boxes and perches stacked in multiple tiers, or free-run housing, a one-level that allows hens to move around an enclosed barn. New operations must install the enriched cages now, while existing operations have until 2036.

If you’re counting, that means Doerksen made the transition 22 years ahead of his deadline.

The decision, according to Egg Farmers of Canada, the national organization representing Canadian egg farmers, reflects a “market-oriented transition” to improve animal welfare and human health. Doerksen believes the change was good for the hens. When he culls his flocks at the end of one year, the birds are more fully feathered instead of plucked to nearly naked, owing to more space and less stress pecking.

A 2010 report from the U.S.-based Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply confirms that there are advantages to enriched cages. From an animal-welfare perspective, the larger cages provide enough space for each hen to sit, stand, turn around and extend her wings. The new-style cages also include amenities like perches and nesting boxes that allow the birds to engage in natural behaviors.

Jacob Doerksen

Jacob Doerksen

“The conventional cage served its purpose at one time,” says Cory Rybuck, general manager of Manitoba Egg Farmers, a provincial supply-management system for egg farmers. “The new systems are better for the birds.”

The wellbeing of his flock was not the only reason Doerksen transitioned to enriched cages. The decision, he explains, was also based on economics.

To encourage farmers to make the switch, the Manitoba egg board has offered an incentive of 4 cents per dozen; consumer demand from more humane animal welfare standards also led the grader—who purchases, washes and inspects the eggs for sale—to offer an incentive of 5 cents per dozen. The incentives are paid for Grade A medium and large eggs. The hens at Prairie Harvest Farms produce more than 5.4 million eggs per year; Doerksen estimates about half are Grade A medium or large, amounting to an additional average annual income of $20,000.

Doerksen paid $210,000 for the enrichable cages, which he says was more or less a cost of doing business, no matter the type of cage. In 2014, however, he spent an additional $100,000 to add perches and nesting boxes into what were then just considered “enrichable” cages; these amenities, and the removal of the dividers to increase the cage size, made the cages fully enriched. Doerksen hopes to recover this latter cost in another few years, if the incentives remain in the offing.

“They may leave the incentives in place for 10 years, or they may take them away after a year, but eventually, those incentives will disappear and we’d have to pay for it ourselves,” he says. “We figured the sooner we jumped on the bandwagon, the more likely we’d be to get it paid for. This way, we’ll get our money back in three to four years.”

For Doerksen, the larger cage sizes meant that maintaining a 15,200-hen quota in the existing footprint of the barn would require creative thinking. So, he took advantage of the barn’s vertical space to add an extra level of cages, increasing from three to four levels. The cages fit, but the addition of a fourth level has created more work for Doerksen, who runs the farm with his 20-year-old son, Simon.

The father-son farmers can no longer simply walk around to gather all the eggs and check the flock because the last level is above their heads. After inspecting the first three levels, Simon climbs on a rolling cart and pulls himself around the barn to check the fourth level.

The process, according to Doerksen, is a lot more labor intensive. “The whole four-tier system is a pain,” he says, noting that the larger social groups have also increased the number of cracked eggs.

Government regulations for increased cage sizes also limit Doerksen’s ability to expand his flock. Adding quota, he explains, would require building an addition onto the barn.

“I could add another thousand [hens] in [the] enriched [cages] with the space I have,” he explains. “In conventional cages, I had space for 5,000 or 6,000 more [hens].”

Doerksen accepts that the new cages were designed to benefit chickens, not farmers. The driving motivation for giving the birds more space to spread their wings and adding amenities to allow them to engage in natural behaviors like perching and nesting in private, he believes, is due to a trend in consumer appetites for more humane animal-welfare standards. “It’s all about consumer demand,” he says. “It’s what people want, and farmers have to give it to them.”