24 Mar Chickens eggs from small-scale, pasture-raised systems
An account from a small-scale egg production system employee…
“The first thing I notice is the noise; the second the smell. The hens provide a constant chorus of clucks and the ammonia burns my nose. The farmer tells me to come in and I’m scared to show them that I’m nervous. The chickens flock at my feet. There are hundreds around me and I struggle to move at all. The farmer doesn’t care, he just steps as he pleases telling me the birds will move and
We make our way to the caravan where the eggs will be- but not before the farmer cleans up a dead bird from the grass. “One a week”, they tell me. They lose at least one bird a week for “no particular reason”. 5-10% of this flock. I’m told that this farm is lucky because they don’t have to worry about foxes here, but the birds of prey are always active. Lucky seems such a foreign word in this context.
I see birds that are missing feathers and plucked raw. I point to them and ask, but the farmer just shrugs it off and tells me its normal on these small-scale farms to see feather plucking and cannibalism. “That’s why I trim their beaks”. The farmer tells me that they lock the birds in the caravan overnight and the overcrowding stresses them, causing them to peck.
Over 75% of the eggs are covered in blood, or faeces, and I learn this blood is from cloacal hemorrhage; ruptured blood vessels from the constant pressure of daily laying. The farmer says it doesn’t really matter anyway, the birds will only be here for a year and as long as they keep laying then no one worries. I’m told it will be my job to clean the eggs and package only the best ready to be sold. It’s very important to make sure all the eggs are clean.
The farmer tells me that the eggs aren’t his main priority; it’s the cattle on the farm. The hens are just an “easy” side gig to make some extra profit. I’m told that the tourists in the area “go nuts” for these eggs, and that the farm can sell them at an even higher price than standard free range eggs. The farmer laughs at this thought, and after a few days on the farm I start to understand why.
I feel sick, partially from the ammonia and dust, but mostly because this is one of the ‘good’ farms. Or so I am told. A small-scale free range farm. The best of the best. Yet all I can see is negligence, suffering and the lives of sentient animals being turned into someone’s hobby to follow a trend.
I cannot believe that people boasted about their “ethical” choice to buy free range. Under what moral code was imprisoning, exploiting and slaughtering innocent non-consenting beings ever an ethical choice?
For the rest of my time on that farm the constant clucking could only sound of cries for help and my ears would be left ringing long after I returned home.”
The consumers demand for eggs is changing, and in order to stay relevant so too is the production of eggs. In the 2017/18 financial year Australians consumed 245 eggs per capita with the industry worth $819.6 million. There was a major push away from caged eggs and an increase in demand for free range eggs, which now take up over 50% of the market in grocery stores. To complicate matters further, the niche market for small scale rotational free-range farms also boomed.
The market share for volume and value of all types of eggs, from the 2018 financial year
If no one is buying caged/barn eggs then farmers need to change their game to make profit. Cue the free-range trend and the ‘modern day’ consumer. A consumer that believes the reassuring label of ‘free-range’ or ‘pasture raised’ magically erases the cruel and inhumane conditions and practices laying hens are forced to endure. So, what does the facade of free-range really mean for our laying hens, and why does it have us all so fooled?
What is free range?
It’s the same practices from cage/barn eggs, with a shiny new reassuring label and a 30% price increase. Farmers are allowed to continue the same cruel exploitative practices by simply making a few small changes; give the hens access to the outdoors during daylight hours, abide by a 10,000 hens per hectare limit and give the hens the ability to roam and forage outdoors. These are the 3 keys to legally labelling eggs ‘free range’. (For more on standard ‘free-range’ practices visit our page ‘Chickens Used For Their Eggs’).
On small scale rotational farms advertising as ‘pasture raised’ the stocking density is kept below 2,500. However, behind these guidelines lies the same cruel and inhumane exploitation and abuse that caged and barn laying hens endure.
It is clear that the marketing of these eggs has got Australia fooled. Many free-range producers manipulate the consumer with images of green fields and a very small number of hens, often highlighting such words as ‘natural’, ‘happy’ and ‘healthy’. The eggs from hens on smaller rotational farms are often labelled ‘pasture-raised’- creating an image of hens pecking down on green grass all day. Grass that hens do not even have the physiological mechanisms to break down into energy, thus still requiring grains for their primary food source.
The most common laying hen is the Isa Brown (a cross breed designed specifically for laying). These hens have a natural life span of 6-8 years, and in the wild would only lay up to 20 eggs a year. Through extensive breeding and genetic modification the modern day laying hen produces around 6 eggs a week- over 300 a year. The energy demanded from this intensive laying regime leaves the hens exhausted, and after a year of laying, their eggs become larger with lighter weaker shells. At just 1.5 years old the Isa Brown is no longer producing a ‘profitable’ egg, and the once valuable hen is now a burden on the farmer. These hens have not been bred to have a large breast muscle and so are unsuitable for the standard meat industry, leaving them destined to be slaughtered and ‘composted’, or sold as a low-quality meat (just like the expensive ‘gourmet’ food you feed your pooch for dinner). And so a new cycle of hens begins…
What about the males?
When talking about eggs it can be easy to forget about the entire male population. Quite simply; males do not lay eggs and so are not profitable, and sadly are deemed an unwanted by-product of the industry. At just 1 day old the birds are sexed, and the males are slaughtered by being ground up alive in a large macerator or gassed to death. That’s 50% of the birds. The weak are also culled at this stage and those that remain may have their beaks trimmed via infrared. This trimming is repeated using a hot blade at 12 weeks old.
The Environmental Impacts
Like all farming practices, there is great unsustainability in
free range egg systems. It is easy for the chickens waste to become
unmanageable (particularly on small scale farms), and go on to pollute the
environment and nearby water systems. The
water consumption in egg production is also huge,
with 1 egg requiring around 200L of water. This water use is known as “virtual
water” and covers the water indirectly used to produce eggs. Everything from
water intensive supplementary grains, bird hydration to maintenance of
pasture. Every forgotten egg in the back of the fridge is 200L of water wasted.
It must also be considered that the grains used as supplementary feed could be
used directly for human consumption, but instead are being farmed and fed to
free range chickens. Even on small scale farms these eggs require copious
amounts of water, energy and land.
There is nothing ethical about the consumption or production of free-range eggs; from the blatant abuse and misuse of the chicken, right down to the exploitation of valuable land and resources. The glossy labels of ‘free range’ and ‘pasture-raised’ may sound reassuring to the masses, but ultimately these systems do not stray from the barbaric and torturous practices found in all egg production systems.
Author: Isabelle Hally
Occupation: Animal Attendant & Student
Isabelle studied animal health and disease at Melbourne University, focusing on veterinary science and animal welfare. She is currently doing her masters in Environmental Science at RMIT.
Fukumoto, G.K, 2009, Small Scale Pastured Poultry Grazing Systems for Egg Production, Livestock Management, (LM-20)
McCormack, M., 2017, Australian Consumer Law (Free Range Egg Labelling) Information Standard https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2017L00474
CSIRO, 2002, Primary Industries Standing Committee Model Code of Practice for the welfare of Animals, Domestic Poultry SCARM Report, 4
Feltman, R. 2014, It takes 53 gallons to produce a single egg, https://qz.com/171698/it-takes-53-gallons-of-water-to-produce-a-single-egg/
Annual Report, 2017/18, Australian Eggs Limited