Egg hatchery a numbers game

TOFIELD, Alta. — The hatching egg business is a detail business.

Ashley and Ryan Rietveld’s barns run like a Swiss watch with exact timing.

The birds are fed, the lights are turned on and the nest boxes are closed at the same time every day.

“It’s very structured,” said Ashley.

Ryan or his father, Pieter, walk through the barns daily looking for warm spots, cold spots, blocked nipple waterers, too much feed, not enough feed or cull birds.

When they are done walking through the barns, they must pick up, look at and package more than 7,000 fertilized eggs that are laid every day during peak production.

“It’s probably the most management intensive, labour intensive industry in agriculture,” said Ashley.

Rietveld Poultry Farms is one of 34 members of the Alberta Hatching Egg Producers (AHEP), part of the province’s supply managed industry producing almost 70 million hatching eggs each year.

The fertilized eggs are shipped to a hatchery where they are incubated and hatched, then shipped to chicken farms across the province to be raised. What started as fertilized eggs on the Rietveld Poultry Farm eventually ends up as chicken on Alberta dinner plates.

Within the province, the Rietvelds are considered a small to medium hatching egg producer, raising more than 13,250 female birds and their eggs each year. In the supply managed hatching egg business, only the females are counted.

For the family, they are the right size.

Ashley and Ryan work with Ryan’s parents, Pieter and Nettie, looking after the birds and handling the eggs.

“The only way to manage the animals is to be in the barn,” said Ryan, who, along with his father, spends 12 to 13 hours a day in the barn.

Nettie and Ashley assist when the workloads become extreme, especially on days when the chicks are placed in the barns.

Ryan and Pieter are the only people allowed in the barn while Ashley is pregnant with the couple’s third child.

“We try to keep the animals as stress free as possible,” said Ryan.

The first few weeks after the chicks arrive are often the most critical. The chicks arrive on their central Alberta farm after a 60-hour drive from an Oklahoma hatchery.

During this time, Ryan and his father often live inside the pullet barn for a week, hand watering the birds and picking up every one of the 5,300 chicks to check their crop to see if they have eaten and making sure the tiny chicks are healthy.

“Placing babies is the most intense time we have,” said Ryan.

Those initial few weeks often set the stage for the flock’s life. If the birds get a good start, they generally stay healthy, something that can mean the difference between profit and loss when they begin to lay eggs 26 weeks later.

Ryan uses good husbandry techniques to keep the flocks healthy.

“For me, it’s a lot of pride. I am very proud of it,” he said.

“We do everything in our power to avoid antibiotics. It’s a very challenging business. I’m doing everything I can to ensure a good healthy product.”

When the birds are 23 weeks old, the amount of day length and light intensity is increased to start the birds laying eggs.

It’s Ryan’s job to know exactly when to start increasing the day length so all the females start egg production at the same time.

An electronic scale regularly monitors the weight of the bird, but Ryan hand weighs the females three times a week to double check when the light should be increased.

Lights don’t get turned on until 90 percent of the birds are at a uniform weight.

“It’s pretty intense,” he said.

While Ryan and his father are in the barn, Ashley is busy on several boards of directors.

In March, Ashley will step down after seven years on the AHEP board of directors.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity,” said Ashley.

“If I had just stayed home and raised the kids and helped on the farm, I wouldn’t have known as much about the agriculture industry.

“It’s a way to create knowledge about the diverse industries. It has helped broaden my whole perspective of our industry. I have learned how people work and how things are done.”

Ashley is also on the Next Generation Advisory Council, a provincial initiative to help guide and encourage young people into agriculture.

“It’s about getting the next generation out there and take over the family farm or start a business and make sure agriculture in Alberta is healthy and viable,” she said.

“How can we get young people involved in agriculture and how can we make agriculture look amazing.”

Through her work on the hatching egg board, she represents hatching egg producers on the intensive livestock working group, Alberta Farm Animal Care, the Poultry Research Council at the University of Alberta and other farm groups.

“I enjoy the diversity of agriculture and learning so much about the different commodity groups,” said Ashley.

While the hatching egg business has its challenges, it is a business that has allowed the couple to stay home on the farm to earn a living, the couple said.