ROSALIND, Alta. — Ben Waldner was skeptical about building a free run, aviary-style, organic egg barn in Alberta.
However, touring similar barns in Europe convinced the chair of Egg Farmers of Canada that it was possible to raise happy and safe chickens, meet consumer demand and make money.
“We came home fairly confident we could make it work,” Waldner said during a tour of the Rosalind Colony egg laying barn that follows the European style.
“We were very encouraged in Europe,” said Waldner, who was inspired to look at building a non-caged barn from the colony’s egg grader. “We needed to be consumer responsive. I thought there was better opportunities in the future.”
Waldner doesn’t know how many new barns will be built similar to this one because of the extra expense required for the aviary roosts and the expense associated with organic poultry feed.
“This is a niche market. The eggs sell for $6 a dozen. Not everyone can afford $6 per dozen eggs,” he said.
The Rosalind Colony is a daughter colony of Waldner’s Byemoor Colony. A pig barn is normally one of the first buildings to be built on a new colony, but Waldner said the colony chose to build a chicken barn instead because of low prices and serious questions about the future of Alberta’s hog industry. The only other livestock on the colony are two milk cows.
There are four aviary-style egg-laying barns in Alberta, and Rosalind Colony has the only organic one.
“As far as technology goes, it’s second to none,” said Waldner.
Alberta agriculture minister Verlyn Olson and Edmonton MLA Dorward recently toured the barn, along with many members of the colony who had never been in the barn.
Layer barn manager Mike Stahl was a plumber for 15 years before being appointed poultry manager when the barn was built in 2010. He quickly had to learn about chickens.
“You’ve heard of cow savvy with cows. When you work with these animals, you need chicken savvy,” he said. “They have a small head. There is not much there, but when something is in there, it’s stuck.”
Unlike traditional barns, where hens are housed in cages, the Rosalind Colony’s 14,000 laying hens wander, flap and roost freely throughout the barn.
However, Stahl said the barn and the hens need more attention in this kind of system.
Day old pullets are placed into the pullet room twice a year, where they are slowly trained to roost and nest on the high platforms that fold down to make a multistory laying facility.
Lights and waterers are used to encourage the birds to roost on the pipes and platforms rather than the floor.
After five or six weeks, Stahl drops more sides down for the chickens to perch higher. By six to eight weeks, all the birds are off the floor.
“In the layer barn, if you don’t get them up, they lay their eggs on the floor and you don’t want that.”
The hens lay their eggs in nesting boxes in the centre of the roosts. Conveyor belts take the eggs out of the barns, where they are packaged and shipped to the egg grader.
The barn is divided into three areas: the pullet area in the middle, which holds 7,000 pullets, and two laying hen areas, which each hold 7,000 layers.
Stahl said the flock’s death rate has been .2 percent over its 18-month life, which is less than the industry average of five percent and better than the cage system.
“I just love this barn.”