BLACKFALDS, Alta. – Wim and Judith Janssen have proved you don’t have
to be big to be successful farmers.
The central Alberta farm couple raises 7,700 chickens on six acres of
Unlike most laying hens in Alberta, Wim Janssen’s chickens do not live
in cages, but have access to the open floor space in a barn. Free-run
hens are often confused with free-range hens, which have access to
outdoors. Janssen sells free-run eggs to the lucrative city market.
“I can easily make a living out of these birds,” said Janssen.
Three years ago the couple moved to central Alberta from Holland.
Originally they looked at a hog barn in Ontario, but were drawn to
supply managed commodities like dairy and poultry.
The ability to make a living with only 7,700 birds was attractive to
“The supply management system is a good system. You can stay on the
farm and not be a big corporation to make money,” he said.
“It’s expensive to get in, but when you’re in, nothing is safer than
the quota system.”
At the time there were only three layer barns for sale in Alberta: two
conventional barns and the free-run chicken farm. Instead of brushing
aside the small farm as a novelty, Janssen saw possibilities. He had
seen the growing trend toward free-run chickens in Europe. A push by
animal rights’ activists has forced the removal of all cages for laying
hens by 2010.
With experience running a chicken farm in Holland, he took up the
challenge of operating the only free-run laying operation in Alberta.
“I saw opportunity in that.”
The secret to raising free-run laying hens without disease wiping out
the flock is to raise the baby pullets on the floor to build up their
“If you don’t raise birds on the floor, then you’re in trouble.”
He now has a 2.4 percent death loss, half the average loss in
conventional laying barns.
Once the chicks are four months old, they are carried across the yard
to one of two laying barns where they will stay for another 14 months
– two months longer than other commercial laying hens.
It is the laying barns that set his farm apart. Along the centre of the
two barns, about one metre off the floor, are nesting boxes where the
hens have a quiet place to lay their eggs. A conveyor belt under the
nesting boxes carries the eggs out to the lobby of the barn where
they’re put in trays ready for shipment. It takes 20 minutes, four
times a day, to collect the 7,000 eggs that are laid every day.
At the base of the two m ramp up to the nesting boxes is a large dirt
area where the hens can scratch or take a dust bath. About 90 percent
of the eggs are laid in the first four hours of the morning.
About six times a day Janssen quietly walks through the barns to check
the health of his flock and to pick up any floor eggs. The chickens
need to be trained to lay in the nesting boxes.
When the chickens are first brought to the laying barns, about 10
percent of the eggs are laid on the floor. But if the eggs are picked
up quickly, the chickens learn to lay eggs in the nesting boxes. About
two percent of the eggs will always be laid on the floor.
“My eggs are as safe as ones out of the cage.”
After working with both the traditional laying barns where the birds
are in cages and the free-run system, he can see the advantages of the
“For chickens it’s better they have more freedom. They have more
natural behaviour. For birds it’s better, for producers it’s tougher.”
Janssen sells his eggs to Sparks Farm Eggs in Calgary, which has
developed a specialty market for free-run, omega 3 and organic eggs.
Only about half the 13,000-15,000 daily demand for free-run eggs is met
in the province. The rest are imported from British Columbia.
The couple is tossing around the idea of selling their eggs direct to
consumers through the large city farmers’ markets.
“They want to know where the eggs are coming from. People are looking