Visitors to the the Rondeel Berkoeve in Wintelre don’t get past the front entrance without first saying hello to thousands of curious layer hens pushing up against the outside fence for a closer look at the newcomers.
A scenic path leads to the front entrance which features informational posters on the facility and a place to buy some of the eggs that have been produced on site. A meeting room is available for public use and a visitors’ gallery lets you see the birds face to face in their free-run facilities, separated of course by glass.
Oh yes, and the facility is home to 30,000 layers producing about 200,000 eggs per week.
Vencomatic’s Rondeel layer system may be less than half the size of a typical layer operation in the Netherlands, and it costs more than twice as much per hen placement to build. But it is proving to be a commercially viable way to produce eggs.
“The farmer can make money from it,” said Peter Vingerling, Vencomatic’s chief operating officer.
That said, the design is still in the experimental stages.
“The first one was built with the private investment of the owner of the company,” he said. But for the others, the Dutch government stepped up to work with banks to guarantee the producer full compensation if the system failed. “So there is a guarantee that you as a farmer don’t go bankrupt if the system doesn’t pay off,” he said. “Fortunately it does.”
There are now three such facilities operating in the Netherlands, and demand for the eggs they produce still surpasses the supply. That’s despite the premium that rises and falls in concert with feed prices, and is currently six cents per egg.
The eggs are sold locally as well as through a supermarket chain in the Netherlands and Germany. Selling locally is one of the company’s prerequisites for farmers using the system. “Ten per cent of his turnover on his eggs we want him to sell locally. It connects society with this whole system,” Vingerling said. “People are coming here by bicycle, buying eggs.”
Consumers so far have been happy to pay the higher prices for the eggs packaged in a unique round biodegradable carton containing seven eggs — one for every day. The system has the seal of approval from the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals in the form of three stars — the highest ranking under its Better Farming logo. Rondeel eggs are the only non-organic farm product in the Netherlands to receive three stars.
The Rondeel system features a night quarters where the hens eat, drink, rest and lay their eggs, a day quarters where they can express natural behaviours such as foraging and indulging in dust baths, a wooded area for them to experience the outdoors and a central core area from where the workers can operate and visitors can observe.
The hens have daily access to the outdoor areas when weather allows, but those areas can be sealed off if there is a disease outbreak that requires a quarantine, such as avian influenza.
The system’s key selling features from an animal welfare standpoint are that the hens are not debeaked and they retain their feathers. They use Lohman Brown layer hens, a breed noted for its easygoing nature but allowing them to express natural behaviours is credited for the lack of pecking losses.
“Maybe it is because we give them a lot of distraction and a lot of space — six animals per square metre,” Vingerling said.
While it is customary in conventional systems to cull the birds after 50 weeks of production, hens of that age in the Rondeel system are still at 95 per cent production. Company officials are considering whether they can economically extend the productive life of the hens.
Vingerling said the system is slightly more labour intensive than conventional systems because the birds are hand fed grain every day, a practice that encourages foraging behaviour.
Critics predicted that would lead to a drop in feed efficiency, but it hasn’t affected overall performance of the flock. “If you look to our commercial results… we do not do worse than conventional systems. We have better results when it comes to dead animals,” he said, noting the system even surpasses organic systems on that front.
It remains, however, a hard sell to conventional producers.
“Conventional producers don’t think they can have a business out of 30,000 hens. They still think that you need large numbers. They don’t see the advantages of working in a system like this,” he said. “But it is rather fun to be working in a system like this.”
Co-operator editor Laura Rance recently participated in an animal industry tour in the Netherlands courtesy of the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C.