Manitoba egg farmers have taken a bold step forward with the announcement of their new hen housing policy effective Dec. 31, 2014.
As of that date, there will be no new installation of conventional layer cages allowed by the provincial marketing board. Instead, producers who are building or retrofitting barns will have the option of installing so-called enriched housing, which provides the hens with more room to move, perches, scratch pads, and private nesting boxes. Alternatively, they can install a free-run or aviary system in a barn, or a free-range system with access to the outdoors.
There are several noteworthy aspects of this announcement last week.
First, this initiative is farmer led. Granted, you could have heard a pin drop at the 2010 annual meeting when the board of directors announced their intention to move in this direction. But in reality, producers’ questions were more about how than why.
The only real resistance came from the national level where the perception was that Manitoba was getting too far out front and it would make the rest of the industry look bad.
So while there were quiet preparations, Manitoba held off moving forward until there was approval for a national mission statement sanctioning this direction. Individual provinces have the flexibility to move at their own speed.
Second, the new policy isn’t about rising to an existing standard, it is about raising the bar. Most producers were already providing hens with more space than required under the animal welfare code of practice. This policy leapfrogs them into new territory, providing not only a significant increase in space allowances but facilities that allow the birds to express their natural instincts.
Kurt Siemens, one of the board directors, has so far converted one-quarter of his operation to enriched housing. At first, the life-long egg farmer was a little baffled at why he had gone to the expense of installing perches when he saw no evidence of the birds using them — until he went into the barn one night with a flashlight. His hens were comfortably perched as they slept.
He has since observed other differences, things they do that they never had the opportunity to do before, like laying their eggs in privacy — things he never imagined before were important to their quality of life.
Thirdly, farmers are financing this transition. Siemens receives no financial incentive from the marketplace — yet. While there is evidence the hens are healthier — better bone density and more feathers at the end of the production cycle — there is no statistically significant increase in egg production. But there is no production penalty either.
The additional cost relates to the cost of installing the enriched housing, which is about 25 per cent higher than conventional systems because more space is required. The Manitoba Egg Farmers board is providing farmers who make the switch with a four-cent per dozen levy rebate.
There is no denying the supply-management system, with all its foibles, has clear advantage over other sectors when it comes to making this kind of move. The producer-elected boards have the mandate to make the hard choices, they have the staff to put them into action and the ability through levies to help finance the upfront costs. Plus, once the transition occurs, the consumer can be tapped for some of the cost through the cost-of-production formula.
But given that supply management is essentially a social contract — farmers receive adequate compensation for ensuring Canadians have adequate supply — these commodity groups must be on the forefront of changing consumer attitudes.
We doubt there will be much, if any, backlash if the price of eggs goes up. Because the other thing egg farmers have become very good at, is telling their story.