Future Housing Systems for Australian Free Range Egg Production
The Australian egg market is a strong one but is going through a transition, of sorts, away from caged eggs. Growth in the free range sector is substantial and investment into new housing systems is incredibly costly and not without risk. Producers need to be careful that free range eggs do not become the commodity egg and this can be done in several ways.
Growth and development should be planned so the market area covered can sustain the production system. There are many examples of small producers in northern New South Wales (NSW) that jumped onto the free range egg idea, spending plenty of time on their vision and marketing, but not enough time on costing their production system and forecasting expenses. This has resulted in many eggs being sold, often direct to consumer, but still end up not making any money. The housing choices that are made long before the hens are ordered must be as efficient as possible, but the farmer must know that it does not have to come at the cost of the hen. Modern housing systems without doubt should put the needs of the hen first and the farmer’s needs second.
All systems should be looked at in person, ideally within a shed with hens. The research carried out for this study investigated several examples of the same equipment installed in different sheds, but the birds’ behaviour could not have been more different. One shed had good ventilation and were using it, the other had the good ventilation system but were not using it effectively, having a vastly different experience with bird behaviour and egg quality. This can be driven by cost, but the initial saving in power will likely be outweighed by the poor production from the hens and lower egg quality.
Another important consideration when viewing sheds is taking time to watch bird behaviour while the birds are living within the equipment. That can indicate how well it is designed and how well the birds have learned to use it.
Independent Australian producers are restricted by the availability of their choice of reared pullets, largely only having floor rear birds to choose from. This is a relatively young industry and will need to grow substantially as Australia grows and egg demand increases.
Investment into aviary rearing systems for birds may need to be incentivised as the cost of the rearing system is very high. How much of the increased cost of the pullet can be passed on to the egg producer is yet to be seen. Do not consider placing floor reared birds into an open aviary system. If floor reared pullets are the only option, then make sure the equipment manufacturer is aware of this from the beginning.
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