Tuesday, June 29, 2010

More nonsense from the Egg Corp

The Australian Egg Corporation's media release yesterday (28.6.2010) was complete spin. They were obviously attempting to counter a growing groundswell of publicity against their proposed changes to the definitions of 'free range'.

Without going into all the details of their release, about the only accurate statement it contained was the need for commercial reality – something which we all accept but for major egg producers the bottom line is all that counts and to hell with consumers, farm sustainability or animal welfare.

Just to demolish a few points raised by AECL in an attempt to defend its position:

  •  10 known national and international standards may have been considered in the process of developing this plan, but none of the standards we have seen allows anything approaching 20,000 hens per hectare to be called 'free range'.
  • Independent and robust consumer research into understanding and expectations of consumers was in reality a matter of seeking opinions from people who do not normally buy free range eggs. It would be rather like Rolls Royce conducting a survey about consumer perceptions of luxury cars and asking members of the Holden Car Club.
  • Australian egg farmers have been heavily criticised for the lack of universally recognised definitions for all methods of egg production. The heavy criticism hasn't been for that, it's been because of the misleading definitions approved by the AECL.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Unreal 'free range' definition highlighted in Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

This is the article which apeared in today's SMH and The Age. More to come in the Weekly Times this week and we have done a few radio interiews.
The publicity will keep rolling until the AECL withdraws this ridiculous proposal. A few free range farmers have a meeting with AECL managing director, James Kellaway this Wednesday.

Objections raised over free-range eggs plan

June 28, 2010

CHANGING the definition of free-range eggs and lifting the maximum number of hens in an area would put Australia behind the rest of the world, critics say.
Discussions between the Australian Egg Corporation and farmers could see the maximum number of hens per hectare increase from 1500 to up to 20,000. A free-range farm the size of Centennial Park could have its hen population jump from 330,000 to 4.4 million.
Smaller farmers say the discussions unfairly favour large-scale producers.
''It will install a factory system for free-range eggs,'' Phil Westwood, a spokesman for the Free Range Farmers Association, said. ''To call it free range puts in the minds of consumers that the chooks are out in lush green grass and having a great time.''
NSW Greens MP John Kaye is drafting a bill to standardise the definition for free range. He said even at current densities, the behavioural patterns of chickens prevent all the hens from venturing out even if the door is open for eight hours a day and that increasing densities would only compound the problem.
The bill would also limit egg labelling to cage or free range.
''We don't buy the nonsense about barn-laid,'' Mr Kaye said. ''It's a euphemism of what happens to birds in high-stocking densities.''
Egg Corporation communications manager Jacqueline Baptista said a survey of consumers it conducted about hen densities found on average 10,200 per hectare was an acceptable population.
Nearly two-thirds of consumers surveyed supported beak-trimming if it reduced pecking and cannibalism. Both the Greens and the FRFA reject beak-trimming on any grounds.
Mr Westwood urged the Egg Corporation to adopt a tiered labelling system that would prevent eggs produced in high-density environments from being labelled ''free range''. He said terms such as ''intensive free-range'' or ''cage-free'' would be more appropriate.

Monday, June 21, 2010

De-beaked and full beaked chickens

On the left is an example of a beak-trimmed or de-beaked hen and on the right is a hen with a full beak. In many cases the 'trimming' is much more severe.

It's obviously easier for a hen with a full beak to pick up worms, spiders and grubs etc than for a young one with some of her beak cut off. To see more click here

Some in the industry claim that nowadays birds just have a light 'trim' with a laser. But that sort of comment ignores reality. Most of the 'beak-trimmed' birds I have seen in cage, barn or so-called 'free range' farms (other than members of the Free Range Farmers Association)  have been severely 'trimmed'. There is only one 'quasi free range' farm I have inspected where it was difficult to tell that the hens' beaks had been 'trimmed'.

The dumb thing is that there is no need for this mutilation of birds that are genuinely free range. Some operators choose to inflict this on their hens because it is regarded as industry practice and they think it will improve their bottom line. But if the hens have plenty of room and they are kept in relatively small flocks, they can escape from their aggressive bretheren and cannibalism is not a significant issue.

However, the farms which are chasing big dollars don't want the work and costs associated with doing the job properly. They want to run many thousands of birds and they choose to de-beak their birds 'just in case' there is a cannibalism problem. To see some of the alternatives to de-beaking click here

Great Farmers' Market weekend

We had a good day at the Inverloch Farmers' Market on Sunday and it capped-off a great weekend  following our first venture into the Wheeler's Hill Farmers' Market on Saturday at Jells Park.

We sold out of eggs at both markets and we also did well with our garlic and chillies. So well in fact that we now have no more garlic until the new crop is available in November/December.

I took along the 150 gram egg featured in our local newspaper, the South Gippsland Sentinel Times (left) and I was very pleased that the logo of the Free Range Farmers Association appeared in the published photo.

With all the nonsense about the egg industry dumping standards, the only way way for anyone in Victoria to be sure that they are buying free range eggs from a real free range farm is to look for that logo.
If the farm selling their version of 'free range' eggs isn't a member of the Free Range Farmers Association, be suspicious. The reason they are not a member is not usually that they don't to be - it's because we won't have them as a member.

There will be heaps more national and state publicity about the Australian Egg Corporation's dumb move to trash their already inadequate standards for so-called free range eggs.

We have been told that we should keep quiet about the proposed changes to the definitions because it will damage the industry - but it is these proposals which will damage the industry. We are aware that the big boys will almost certainly win because Federal and State Governments will dance to their tune, but we believe that we should fight for honesty and integrity. Money talks and the big egg producers will 'laugh all the way to the bank' if this definition is adopted..

Friday, June 18, 2010

Free Range Con

The Australian Egg Corporation revealed plans on Wednesday night to relax rules for free range egg production and con consumers into paying for eggs labelled as 'free range' even though they are clearly laid in a factory farming environment. Needlesstosay, this has generated extreme anger amongst genuine free range egg producers.

Under the proposal outlined in Melbourne, hens will be allowed to be de-beaked as a matter of course, they can be locked up in sheds for 25 weeks and the stocking density can increase from 1500 to an incredible 20,000 birds per hectare!

The Victorian-based Free Range Farmers Association had two members at the meeting but Anne, president of FRFA, was locked out of the meeting (probably inadvertently - the lifts were shut down at 6.30 when the meeting was due to start and the stairwell doors were locked). The proposed amendments designed for major industry players reinforce the need for a national definition for 'free range' eggs that doesn't mislead consumers into thinking they are buying welfare-friendly eggs.

The AECL, which is about to publicly launch its Egg Corp Assured scheme, set up a working group some time ago to develop words which will allow major farms to continue to produce eggs which can be labelled as 'free range'.

This stupid proposal demonstrates contempt for consumers as the AECL and the big producers clearly believed they would fall for it!

The current definition of 'free range' used by AECL and the big boys in the industry is contained in the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry 4th Edition. It officially limits the number of birds to 1500 per hectare and requires farmers to manage the outdoor range to avoid muddy or unsuitable conditions – but there is little enforcement of those conditions and some so-called 'free range' farms have more than twice the number of allowed birds.

Apart from the numbers of hens, a fundamental difference between industry practice and FRFA requirements is the issue of de-beaking. The Free Range Farmers Association prohibits de-beaking (or beak trimming) which is standard practice on most big farms. The Model Code states that 'Every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting chickens for reduced feather pecking and cannibalism'

The AECL's Egg Corp Assured program says it requires accredited farms to  meet the standards of the Model Code, but it does not require those farms to demonstrate any attempt to address the potential problem of feather pecking or cannibalism before resorting to de-beaking the birds.

As well as permitting 20,000 hens per hectare, which will be a totally unsustainable farming practice, the proposed change will allow hens to be permanently locked in sheds until they are 25 weeks old. (They currently must be allowed to range outside once fully feathered at around 6 weeks).

On a real free range farm with a low stocking density, cannibalism is not a problem, because the hens have enough room to escape from any aggressors.

Consumer views appear to have been ignored by the AECL. It seems to us that to protect consumers, there is now a real need for a dual definition. Leave the term 'free range' for traditional low density egg farming such as practised by members of the Free Range Farmers Association and introduce a term like 'Intensive Free Range' 'Factory Free Range' or 'Cage Free' for the major players who don't meet the same standards. Currently the only way consumers in Victoria can be sure they are buying real free range eggs is to only buy from a FRFA accredited farm.

The Egg Corp Assured program currently has 19 accredited farms in Victoria. There is a total of 140 throughout Australia out of an estimated 500 – 600 commercial egg farms and many thousands of backyard operators who sell their eggs illegally.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

What is free range?

The Australian Egg Corporation is about to publicly launch its Egg Corp Assured program which currently has about 140 accredited producers throughout Australia (only 19 in Victoria) out of over 500 commercial egg farms. The AECL says the program will give consumers confidence in the eggs they buy. It's a tremendous program to ensure food safety but it will do little if anything to smooth the debate over community perceptions of 'free range' eggs.

From consumer research carried out at Farmers' Markets, a definition that most buyers seem to accept is: 'Free-range chickens are able to spend most of their time outdoors. They should not be de-beaked. The hens should not be confined to small areas. True free-range flocks are generally fed and watered inside and outside their roosting sheds'.

This encourages the birds to scratch around outdoors and keeps the laying sheds cleaner and drier. If fences confine the birds to very small areas, the farm shouldn't be described as free-range, and neither should those where the hens are de-beaked, large numbers are in each flock and feed and water is only provided in sheds to keep the birds inside most of the time.

The broader egg industry view is that the term 'free range' applies to any poultry with access to an outdoor area, no matter how few birds actually go outside and how uninviting their outdoor paddock is.

What's the problem with a yard egg system?

It comes down to the amount of manure the land can handle, and the geometry of chicken yards. An acre of productive grassland can handle about four tonnes of chicken manure per year. That's roughly the output of up to 100 chickens. So, unless you want to kill off the grass and pollute the area with run-off, the limit is around 100 – 150 outdoor chickens per acre – unless you remove the manure.

What's worse is that the droppings are never evenly distributed across the yard. The manure is concentrated near the chicken house. This kills off all plant life near the chicken shed (if its a fixed shed) even if the chickens don't destroy the grass sod by scratching.

100 hens per acre equates to about 400 square feet per hen. Hens don't usually travel long distances. They'll go 100 - 200 metres from the hen houses in good weather, if properly encouraged by outdoor feeders, waterers, vegetation and shade.

How the Europeans manage 400 hens per acre in their 'free-range' flocks.

EU regulations allow 400 hens per acre but require that the yards remain green. If that many hens actually went outdoors, the grass would be destroyed in no time. The manure load of 400 outdoor hens is unsustainable on one acre, killing the grass, producing high nutrient run-off levels, and a muddy yard unless the nutrients are removed from the ground. But as the hens spend most of their time indoors, the grass can remain green. It's similar in Australia where the current Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry sets out a maximum stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare (600 per acre). The Code doesn't limit flock sizes, so large farms have been established with sheds containing tens of thousands of birds – and they are classified as 'free-range' as long as they have 'access' to an outdoor run.

The Model Code states that 'Every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting chickens for reduced feather pecking and cannibalism'

But we would challenge anyone to find a big 'free range' farm in Victoria which has anything but de-beaked (or beak trimmed birds). The industry is geared to beak trim all chicks at day old or soon after, and no big egg producer considers an alternative. The selection of laying hens is based solely on production and all major 'free range' farms buy hibrid hens which were developed for the cage industry and which were bred for one characteristic - to lay the maximum number of eggs. The AECL's Egg Corp Assured program does not require farms accredited to the program to demonstrate any attempt to address the potential problem of feather pecking or cannibalism before resorting to de-beaking the birds.
Chickens eat and drink many times during a day, so their movements can be managed by careful placement of feeders and waterers. The basic scam in Australia (and in Europe) involves only having feeders and waterers in the sheds as far from the outside doors as possible, installing only a few doors and making them as small as possible. Some hens will go outside, providing window dressing for gullible observers, but most hens stay indoors.

The reality is that most 'free-range' hens are really confined in barns surrounded by nice lawns. To produce the coloured yolks associated with free-range flocks, many producers add special colouring ingredients to the feed. Some of these additives are claimed to be 'natural' but nearly all are produced in laboratories by men in white coats. If the hens eat grass, other green vegetation and a corn-based ration, the yolks will be a vibrant golden colour. But yolk colour in eggs from real free range farms will vary depending on the time year and the availability of green feed. If yolk colour never varies, you can be sure that colouring additives are being fed to the hens. Another indicator that shows that the flocks aren't free range at all is if the hens are de-beaked. With true free-range flocks, feather-picking and cannibalism are rare. Those behavioural problems are caused by intensive farming, confinement, farm management and choice of birds. Which is why the majority of Australia's 'free-range' commercial flocks are beak-trimmed as a matter of course.

It's disappointing that the RSPCA encourages the de-beaking of birds by accepting royalty payments for the barn laid and 'free range' eggs which it accredits.

Some of the big producers even claim, after doing everything to discourage the hens from ever venturing outside, that 'chickens don't like to go outdoors.' Everyone who has ever had a small flock knows that chickens will spend most of their time outdoors if the weather isn't too bad and feed and water are provided outside.

The regulations have been written for major operators who have transfered large-scale factory farming techniques to a version of 'free range' farming which provide opportunities for the businesses to maximise profits by allowing them to charge a premium for eggs which should be classified as 'cage-free' rather than 'free range'.

So how do you do it right?

Traditional free-range egg production is just part of a diversified farm. It enables a farm to make full use of the nutrients from the chicken manure. And it adds to the sustainability of the farming enterprise.

Many free range farms use portable hen houses, either on wheels or on skids. They can be moved around with a tractor to prevent the ground around the houses becoming muddy. This is the traditional approach we use at the Freeranger Farm. There is a trend towards using mobile electric poultry netting combined with frequent shed moves probably every 1-3 days. Moving the sheds is labour intensive but it helps to maintain pasture growth. With low stocking density, even if the houses are left in place for several weeks at a time, a scattering of bare rectangles every now and then on the pasture is not significant. The grass will regrow over the season. By feeding the hens outdoors and moving the feeders regularly, it's possible to get most of the effect of moving the houses, but with less effort.

It's clearly much more labour-intensive than the pretend 'free-range' techniques most big operators use, so it's not worth doing unless prices are substantially higher than for eggs produced by other methods – which is why the big producers don't want a legal definition of 'free range' to prohibit de-beaking and limit flock sizes.

It's often possible to get away with infrequent house moves as the manure under a chicken house becomes drier and less obnoxious the longer the house sits in one place. For the first few days a house is in a new spot, the manure can be wet and smelly. If the house has been in one place for a month, the manure is quite dry and there is no smell. Moving the houses too frequently seems to maximize the wetness and smell. Some operators have trays under the sheds to catch the manure and allow it to be spread where it is required rather than simply dropping through to the ground under the chicken house.

On clay soil, the mud problem makes it important to keep a solid turf at all times. Permanent pasture is the simplest way of achieving this, though a crop rotation with grasses or clover as one phase will also work. On sandy or gravely soils, cultivating the soil does not lead to an instant mud problem, so keeping the chickens among growing crops is a viable alternative.

Chickens love shade. It keeps them cool, out of the wind, and protects them from eagles, hawks and owls. Plantings of things like Kangaroo Apples, corn, kale, and sunflowers are suitable in the range areas, and native grasses can help to boost protein levels (as well as being drought tolerant to maintain green feed for most of the year). Adding plants like purslane in the pasture can boost Omega 3 levels in the eggs. To be sure that the eggs you buy realy are free range, look for the logo of the Free Range Farmers Association. Member farms are required to meet all food safety standards, all packaging and labelling requirements and maintain production and sales records to ensure truth in labelling - as well as a strict welfare code which prohibits the de-beaking of birds.