Monday, February 28, 2011

Chooks and predators

When I was down in our bottom paddock collecting eggs this afternoon, the chooks kicked up a hellava commotion and I emerged from the laying shed to see what was going on. There was a young fox sneaking up to the electranet fence. It was only about 20 yards from Bella, the Maremma who protects that flock but she was busy cleaning herself and hadn't seen the potential intruder.
When I yelled, she jumped up and the fox shot off into the bush. She seemed to be ashamed that the fox had come so close.

But as I was going back to the grading room, I could hear one of our other flocks going berserk - and I thought 'Oh no, another fox'. But when I got close, I could see a brown falcon sitting on the roof of their shed. It was presumably waiting for mice as I moved that shed yesterday and I had noticed what appeared to be a mouse nest.

The falcon flew off slowly as I approached and swooped over me- so I believe it was probably one that we had raised in the wildife shelter and released last year. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Will this be another bodgy 'free range' deal?

The Victorian Coalition Government has announced a grant of up to $50,000 for the Loddon Shire Council's Agribusiness Development Free Range Eggs project.

It's not known what this project is being desinged to achieve but we hope it's not just another scam to con consumers.

"The Free Range Eggs project aims to develop an agribusiness framework, which will result in the establishment of a free range table egg production precinct within the Loddon Shire," said Deputy Premier the Hon Peter Ryan.

"The framework will allow broadacre farmers and former dairy farmers to branch out into egg production through an integrated supply chain and facilitate the investment of at least $7 million into the region," Mr Ryan added.
The Free Range Farmers Assocation and our national body, the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia, would like to be involved in planning this project to ensure it results in genuine free range production and is not yet another promotion of intensive factory systems masquerading as free range. We have written to Loddon Shire and the Deputy Premier for more information.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Egg Corporation still pushing its 'free range' barrow

The Australian Egg Corporation Ltd (AECL) set a time bomb ticking when it revealed plans for new egg industry production definitions and standards in the middle of 2010.

Few egg farmers and no consumers, were aware of the implications of draft proposals which were first revealed in a series of industry workshops which started to trundle around the country in May.

The notification to AECL members simply referred to production systems and labelling workshops and read:
Based on results obtained from AECL’s recent consumer research, workshops will be held for Australian egg producers to discuss current challenges that are confronting our industry, potential resolutions to the misconceptions held by the general public and proactive measures that could be adopted by the egg industry.

The key issues to be discussed include:
· Awareness, and definitions of egg production methods, and how this relates to purchasing habits;
· Integrity & ethics of egg producers and egg production;
· Perceptions of on-pack labelling and production/brand statements made by egg producers;
· Attitudes toward bird husbandry practices (actual and perceived);
· Significance and value of a robust Quality Assurance scheme.

There was no mention in any of the notices sent out by by AECL that new draft standards had been prepared and would be presented at those meetings.

The standards revealed for cage and barn egg production showed little change and have caused no comment. But the draft standards drawn up for 'free range' production galvanised the industry into action and sparked a request to Federal Agriculture Minister Senator Joe Ludwig to establish a clear national definition for 'free range' egg production.

At the core of the proposed changes was a seemingly innocuous proposal. Allowing a stocking density of one to two chickens per hectare.

The reality was that the proposal took the current maximum allowed by The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry version 4 from 1500 birds per hectare to a potential 20,000. At this figure, the nutrient load would be likely to have significant off-site impacts and would not be environmentally sustainable.

The Australian Egg Corporation claimed that it had conducted consumer research involving 5000 people which demonstrated that egg buyers were happy with the higher stocking density – but has refused to supply details of the questions and the methodology used in its survey.

From the limited information which AECL has revealed, it seems that selected consumers were provided with an electronic device which showed a patch of green, and by moving a cursor, were able to select the number of chickens which they felt was suitable as a stocking density on that patch of green.

There was no attempt to select consumers who were existing buyers of free range eggs, in fact there was a clear bias to ensure that free range egg purchasers were a small minority of the sample.

Since the Egg Corporation survey, the Free Range Farmers Association Inc. conducted its own survey of consumers who actually bought free range eggs. The results demonstrated complete opposition to the AECL proposal.

Information was sought from consumers on-line and face to face with customers at Farmers' Markets attended by members of the Free Range Farmers Association during July and August 2010.

The responses were to the statement:

The Australian Egg Corporation has revealed plans to change 'free range' standards to allow egg farms to beak trim their hens and to increase the maximum farm stocking density to 20,000 chickens per hectare. We believe that the maximum stocking density should remain at 1500 chickens per hectare and that beak trimming should be prohibited in free range flocks.
As sponsor of the on-line survey, FRFA also had the following statement on the survey site:
We are a group of free range egg farmers with strict standards - such as a stocking density of just 750 chickens per hectare, a maximum of 1000 birds per shed and de-beaking (or beak trimming) is prohibited.

On-line and paper-based survey results

On-line survey signatories 2396

Paper survey signatories   1254

TOTAL                            3650

All signatories disagreed that the draft standard reflected their views of the term 'free range' and believed that the proposal was unacceptable

Precise information was not gathered about all participants in the survey but the overwhelming majority were regular purchasers of free range eggs. More than 1000 responded to the survey at Farmers' Markets while they were purchasing eggs.

The results of the consumer survey were sent to the Egg Corporation and to Senator Joe Ludwig, to demonstrate clear opposition to the proposed labelling changes but there has been no indication that the Australian Egg Corporation is having second thoughts.

The latest comment on the issue from James Kellaway, Managing Director of the Egg Corporation was that he expected the new stocking density level to come into effect by January 2011. (Now he says April 2011)

He made the statement in November to UK publications Farmers Weekly and Poultry World.

In the same article, Mr Kellaway insulted existing free range farmers by suggesting that they were not commercial. He said that he “didn't believe producers working to the current stocking density could be commercially viable.

"The stocking rate needs to be high enough so it is achievable, but low enough that it is clearly differentiated from the other two standards,barn and cage. It needs to be obtainable on a commercial scale."

There are many existing commercial free range egg farmers in Australia who are perfectly happy with the stocking density limits imposed by the Model Code and restrictions on de-beaking or beak trimming birds.

It is true that some accredited free range farms are small operations with less than 1000 laying hens, but that doesn't mean they are not commercial. There are others throughout Australia with up to 80,000 birds, providing significant employment in their local communities. On any test they are commercial farms designed to operate as businesses.

There is no link between commercial egg production and the stocking levels being pursued by the Australian Egg Corporation. The only driver for this proposal is the demand by major cage egg producers who want to branch out into a form of 'free range' production which will enable them to capture higher prices from consumers without the additional costs of genuine free range production.

Supermarkets such as Coles have added to this clamour by announcing a phasing out of its home brand cage eggs and a cut in the price of its home brand 'free range' product.

The industry believes that consumers will be seriously misled if stocking density limits are raised significantly and have called for any intensive production system which does not meet the current standard to be labelled as 'cage free' or barn laid rather than misuse the term 'free range'.

In preparing its draft standard, AECL has ignored its own environmental guidelines for egg farms which were released two years ago.

The guidelines state:

6.3. Stocking Density

In accordance with the Egg Corp Assured Program and the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry 4th Edition, the egg industry has agreed maximum stocking densities for birds.

Management practices include:

􀂃 Not stocking birds at densities exceeding those prescribed in the Code.

􀂃 Not stocking birds at densities exceeding those prescribed in any relevant state regulations. This is a mandatory requirement.

􀂃 Consider reducing stocking densities below the mandatory requirements if the specific conditions on the farm don’t allow the prescribed densities to be used without unacceptable impacts on bird health and welfare or the environment.

Sales of free range eggs have jumped from around 15% to 28% in just a couple of years demonstrating a huge consumer swing towards the free range sector.

The rapid increase in demand has already led to problems with the current system but the proposed changes will make it worse.

Revelations in August this year by the respected industry body, the Poultry Co-operative Research Centre, that the term 'free range' didn't mean what people thought, shocked some in the industry. But it merely confirmed what many of us had been complaining about for years.

A project about enriching the range area for free range birds showed that on average, only 9% of birds on free range farms actually used the range area. The rest simply stayed in their sheds.

The CRC revelation sparked some debate, and was probably one of the reasons for Egg Corporation MD James Kellaway to tell The Land publication in December that allowing increased stocking densities on free range farms would 'improve' industry standards.

In the article Mr Kellaway revealed that some 'free range' egg producers currently have a stocking density of 50,000 birds per hectare. And he claimed that the majority of egg producers believed introducing the 20,000 cap early next year would improve industry standards, not make them worse.

"We need to moderate the whole process and take into account the science effectively clipping the wings of those producers who are currently running with inappropriate numbers” he said.

"We don’t want open slather, but we don’t want to disenfranchise producers who are being put under increasing pressure to produce eggs at lowest possible costs.”

The industry believes that if the Egg Corp is aware of any farms breaching the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry, to the extent claimed (the Code stipulates a maximum stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare) it has an obligation to report those farms to the ACCC and to the relevant State authorities.

Push to re-allocate funding for free range promotion

The national Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia Inc. and the Victorian-based Free Range Farmers Association Inc. have both written to Federal Agriculture Minister Senator Joe Ludwig, asking him to change legislation to better promote free range egg production.

Currently a levy is collected from all egg farmers under the Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Act 1991 for industry promotion and the money is handed to the Australian Egg Corporation Ltd.

The free range bodies have asked the Minister to amend the Act to allow the portion of funds collected from free range producers to be allocated specifically for the promotion of free range eggs.

“We have no confidence that the AECL has any interest in representing the interests of the free range egg industry,” said Phil Westwood, President of the Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia.

“The AECL's preparation of a draft 'free range' standard ignores experience overseas and in this country. We have found nowhere in the world where a free range stocking density of more than 2000 laying hens per hectare is allowed, and the unacceptable proposal demonstrates that the AECL is out of touch with the industry.” he added.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Food Labelling Review calls for agreed 'free range' standards

The Food Labelling Law and Policy Review, headed by Dr Neil Blewett  called for submissions in October 2009 to identify issues that the public would like to be considered as part of the Review, and people were asked to provide data, evidence and/or documentation to support their views.

The Results of the Review have just been published.

The desire to make food purchasing decisions based on ethical convictions and personal values by consumers has brought another dimension to the food labelling debate. The Review Panel recognised that consumers feel strongly about the origins of their food from the huge number of submissions that were received.

Consumer values issues such as animal welfare and the environment were raised in a large number of submissions. Issues such as free range and organic were categorized by the panel as specific consumer value issues. The very narrowness of these claims means that they lend themselves more easily to precise and agreed definitions.

The Panel has taken the view that where specific values issues are concerned, it may be advantageous to develop a prescriptive definitional framework to ensure a level playing field. However, self-regulatory measures may need to be introduced or escalated to ensure that the consumer is provided with consistent and accurate information and not polished positive claims made by unscrupulous suppliers and producers.

A range of regulatory mechanisms, in particular of the self- regulatory kind, can cater to the nature of the values issues and structures of the markets. These include voluntary codes of practice, certification, agreed standards or mandated requirements. All have differing levels of consumer acceptance. Governance conditions, compliance levels and effective enforcement also differ with each.

Voluntary Codes of Practice arise mainly though industry agreement but this will only work if there is a unified industry view. If adoption and compliance is variable it could undermine consumer confidence in voluntary codes.

Another option is Certification. Certification schemes involve the use of a values claim eg. Pasture raised, linked to an accreditation program. This is a particularly useful way of tackling generalised value issues. Certification can provide certain marketing advantages, but consumer confidence will depend on their trust in the endorsing organisation and its capacity to monitor and enforce the claims processes. The use, and misuse, of certification schemes is governed by existing consumer protection laws in terms of ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions. Their use is supported by litigation, if appropriate, where a trade-marks or claims are used contrary to, or in absence of a contract between the certifying body and the supplier.

A further method is setting an agreed standard to provide clarity for definitions where there has often been multiple definitions and consumer confusion. The approach is particularly relevant to specific values issues. (such as free range.) An agreed standard is based on extensive stakeholder consultation and has the advantage of being able to be called up in regulations or legislation.

In situations where the market is not capable of effective self-regulation, government intervention will be required to incorporate mandatory requirements within the code or in appropriate consumer protection legislation to ensure adoption and enforcement of clearly defined claims.

The Panel has made the following recommendations:
No. 36:
That Food Standards Australia New Zealand consider adopting, by reference in the Food Standards Code, values-based definitions and/or standards relating to specific food production methods and processes, if requested by industry, to achieve consistency of definitions.
No. 37:
That the relevant livestock industries consider the benefits of establishing agreed standards under the auspices of Standards Australia or Standards New Zealand for terms related to animal husbandry (e.g. ‘free range’, ‘barn laid’ and ‘caged’ in the case of poultry).

Hopefully the Australian Egg Corporation will take some notice of this report before it tries to implement its proposed standard.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Chicken manure is tops

Chicken Manure is a great natural source of potassium, phosphorous, and nitrogen.

An average chicken will produce around half a cubic metre of manure a year, much to the delight of those with veggie gardens.

Commercially, for many years the supply of chicken manure was only available to intensive agriculture such as viticulture or vegetable production. But as the poultry industry has expanded, chicken manure has become more available to broad acre farmers.
Chicken manure has been used for years to improve soils and increase yields. Some cropping farms and vegetable growers use it as a soil conditioner, applying it once every three or four years at two tonnes to the hectare. It can increase protein and yields in cereal crops and there have been reports of up to 3% oil increase in Canola.

It is a sustainable substitute for chemical fertiliser as chicken manure is a complete fertiliser containing many trace elements and a good percentage of organic carbon. It conditions poor soils and over ten years or so can transform them into rich loams, high in phosphorous, enabling them to hold more nutrients and moisture.
Freight costs can be a problem (because chemical fertilisers are lighter) but the benefits are enormous.
Manure that has been composted has been shown to be most beneficial.
We use most of our manure on the property as part of our sustainable farming practices, but we do occasionally supply some to other people.