A visit to a Canadian egg farm

eggsEggs are a Canadian breakfast staple. They’re also popular at other mealtimes and as ingredients in countless recipes. But do you ever wonder how eggs are made and where they come from?

I had the chance to find out first hand a couple of weeks ago during a visit to an egg farm north of Guelph, Ontario. Owner Len, who farms together with his wife Brenda, runs this typical Ontario egg farm of about 128,000 hens that produce approximately three million eggs per year.

The average hen lays eggs for just under a year – one year minus a week, to be exact – during which time she produces about 300 eggs, before being sold for processing, destined for soups and other prepared foods.

egg conveyor beltOnce a hen lays an egg, it rolls onto a small conveyor belt that passes under the birds, collects them and brings them into a small processing area. Here the eggs are sorted for any broken ones or others that are somehow unsuitable, placed into small cartons and then stacked inside a cooler.

egg truckThe egg truck – who happened to be at the farm just as we were arriving – comes and collects the eggs from the farm and takes them to a grading station, where they are checked and sorted according to grade. Grade A eggs – the best ones – are the ones we can buy in the supermarket and farmers get the best price for these kinds of eggs.

So – answers to a couple of fundamental questions…first of all, brown eggs from brown chickens? Yes! Brown feathered hens lay brown eggs and hens with white feathers lay white eggs. I didn’t think it was that simple, but sometimes it doesn’t get more complicated than that.

egg housingThe other question – what’s the deal with the cages? Egg farmers are regularly targeted by activist groups for many different things, real or imagined, including the use of cages as housing for laying hens.

“When we look at it from a human perspective we don’t like what we see”, says Crystal Mackay, Executive Director of the Ontario Farm Animal Council of hen cages. “But it’s important to remember that it’s not about us when it comes to hen housing, but about what the birds want.”

Researchers have spent a lot of time and resources asking the chickens how they most prefer to live, she says, explaining that the modern cage system evolved out of careful observation of the birds’ natural tendencies and behaviours.

Modern laying hens are descended from jungle fowl, which used to live in small groups under tree stumps. This means it is natural for hens to want to live closely together with other birds, and small, enclosed spaces – reminiscent of those ancient tree stumps – make them feel safe and protected.

As well, birds can be quite vicious to each other when they live freely in groups; the expression “pecking order” came from the poultry world for a reason, she says, adding that the strongest birds assert their dominance over the weaker ones and control their access to food and water. In the modern housing system, all birds in the group get equal access to feed and water and don’t have to fight for their chance at the trough.

biosecurity suitsAnother major consideration for egg farmers is keeping birds healthy. Wild birds and other outdoor fowl can carry a lot of diseases – like avian influenza, for example – that can easily and quickly make farm chickens sick.

All of us touring Len’s barn that day had to don special disposable blue overalls and plastic boots (see our sexy looks in the photo at left!) to make sure we weren’t unintentionally bringing germs into the barn that could make the birds ill.

Len keeps careful records of everyone who goes in and out of his barns, so that in case something SHOULD go wrong and a disease broke out, he’d be able to trace it back to see where it might have come from.

Len talking about eggsLen was a terrific host to our tour that day, patiently answering all of our questions and proudly showing off what he, his family and his staff do to provide us with healthy Canadian food. But he also candidly admitted to being a little apprehensive at letting a bus load of food writers, recipe developers and cook book authors onto his farm and into his barn.

“I know that I’m taking a risk in letting you folks tour here today – both from a disease perspective and from the point of view that you might not write very nice things about us if you don’t like what you see,” he said. “But I feel strongly that as farmers we have a duty to tell people how we produce your food – and we’re proud of what we do and how we care for our birds. We have nothing to hide here.”

Some other interesting egg points I learned that day:

  • Egg production in Canada is supply managed. A quota system makes sure that farmers produce as many eggs as the Canadian consumer needs – guaranteeing a stable supply at the grocery store and a steady income for farmers.
  • 40% of all of Canada’s eggs are produced in Ontario
  • It can take 3 – 7 days for an egg to get from the farm to the table.
  • To tour an egg farm yourself (virtually), check out the Virtual Farm Tours website and click on egg farm.

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