Down on the Farm
- It all starts at the hatchery: eggs from breeding flocks are placed in incubators. After 21 days, the eggs hatch and the chicks are housed in a pullet barn (a pullet is a young hen).
- At 19 weeks of age, the hens are transferred to another barn to begin producing eggs. In Canada, hens continue to lay eggs for about 12 months.
- Younger hens are more likely to produce double-yolked eggs than older hens.
- Hens are more productive when they're healthy. In 1945, the average hen laid 151 eggs per year. Now, with breed selection, better nutrition, improved housing and lighting programs, and more efficient management of facilities, the average hen lays approximately 300 eggs per year—that's one egg every 1½ days.
- A hen's diet does not contain hormones or antibiotics, but plenty of grains, proteins, vitamins, minerals and fresh water.
- Pullets are vaccinated for the same reason children are—to prevent disease. Veterinarian-prescribed antibiotics are administered only in the rare event that a hen requires medication.
- The most common laying hen in Canada is the White Leghorn, a small bird that lays white eggs. Another common breed, the Rhode Island Red, lays brown eggs.
- A hen's feed determines the color of the egg yolk. A hen that eats a wheat-based diet (more common in the western provinces) produces a pale yellow yolk, while a hen consuming a corn- or alfalfa-based diet produces a yolk that is dark yellow.
- As a hen ages, the size of her eggs increase. The younger the hen, the smaller the egg.
- The cage system is the preferred housing system for today's egg production and ensures the highest possible food safety and egg quality standards. Because Canada's climate is so variable and frequently harsh, indoor housing is necessary if hens are to be properly cared for.
- Cages provide a safe, healthy environment for hens by maintaining an appropriate group size and keeping them safe from predators, such as foxes, wolves, hawks and weasels. Cages also support the hens' natural instinct to cluster together for security and social interaction.
- Most of the eggs produced in North America come from hens housed in cages. Birds have ready access to the feed troughs directly in front of their cages, and water is easily accessible from each cage.
- Cage systems also help keep the eggs safe from the bacteria that can be found in chicken manure. They are designed to allow manure to fall outside of the cage, away from the hens and from the eggs. In today's modern egg production, the eggs roll from the cages onto a conveyor belt leading to a temperature-controlled central packing area before they are transported to a grading station. It is important to cool the eggs after collection to keep them fresh and prevent the growth of bacteria. In some cases, the eggs flow directly into a grading station where they are washed, graded, and packaged for distribution to the grocery store.
- Other housing systems such as free-range or free-run are also available at some farms.
- Free-run refers to a production system where hens can roam inside a laying barn.
- A free-range system is similar to a free-run system, except the hens have access to the outdoors in a fenced-off pasture.
- These other production systems offer consumers choice and are reasonable alternatives, provided that the eggs are kept away from manure and the hens are protected from bad weather, predators and disease-carrying wild birds.
Providing good care for farm animals is the top priority of Canada's egg farmers. Farmers will often work with poultry specialists and veterinarians to design flock health. The hens are checked daily to ensure that they are healthy, and are eating and drinking as needed.
- Egg farmers adhere to the national guidelines of the Start Clean - Stay CleanTM program, which is a national producer program to ensure that farmers are producing safe, clean, high-quality eggs. Egg farms are inspected regularly to ensure that farmers are following program requirements.
- In January 2003, an updated Code of Practice was published by the Canadian Agri-Food Research Council. The Code contains science-based recommendations for hen care. The Code is the most up-to-date and documented Canadian reference for the proper hen care. The Canadian egg industry is developing a verification program to demonstrate that egg producers take the health and care of their hens very seriously. Under the verification program, inspectors will check for best practices used in poultry farming and handling, and for the farm's adherence to the Code's recommendations.