EDWARDSBURGH TWP—There may be a large new roam-free barn in eastern Ontario, if poultry farmer John Beking goes ahead with a tentative plan to construct a facility for approximately 7,000 hens.
Beking and his wife Cora, run a poultry operation located at Oxford Mills, but they are facing a cross-roads decision in their 30-year farming career.
Should they make a major investment in the business by building a new roam-free barn to replace an existing barn which houses 14,000 hens in a conventional system of cages? Or should they sell the farm, and retire from farming, or just cease the operation and work at off-farm jobs?
If they go ahead with their plan to "go roam-free", they will build a new barn and replace existing cages and worn-out equipment with a new roosting area, nesting boxes, and a chain feeder. The eggs would be collected on a conveyor belt which goes under the nesting boxes.
Manure would fall through the grated floor of the roosting area, and be cleaned out by a front-end loader, eliminating manure handling.
The phased-in plan would include building another barn for certified organic laying hens on the concrete foundation of an old building.
While the Bekings have been discussing costs of construction with contractors, they still have to have their plans approved by the township and their options are still open.
Having just turned 50, the couple still enjoys farming, and feel they have years left in their careers. They also must consider the costs of investment or maintaining the status quo.
Since their 19-year old equipment continually needs repair, requiring the constant attention of one person, the Bekings visualize keeping it only until the flock leaves in the spring, and not replacing it.
Tony Wouters, a South Mountain poultry farmer, who shares eggs for sale with Beking on a supply basis, has been faced with similar business decisions over the last couple of years.
His goal is to have two barns, one for white eggs and one for brown eggs, and hopes to have a new building constructed by the time the snow flies. To meet the construction requirements for a new barn to replace a decrepit building, Wouters had a nutrient management plan and a new manure storage pit, which went in last fall.
He supplies eggs to an area ranging from Chesterville, north to the City of Ottawa and west to Seeley’s Bay, and finds the demand for roam-free eggs outstrips the supply. Both he and Beking buy roam-free eggs from small suppliers, which they market to their customers.
Wouters was also considering building a roam-free barn, but could purchase these eggs from Beking.
If Beking also goes ahead with certified organic egg production, Wouters could purchase these eggs for resale.
Currently, there are no certifying standards for roam-free eggs. However, strict standards are set for organic products by the certifying organizations.
The main certifying body in Canada is the Organic Crop Producers and Processors Inc. whose standards are accredited by the Standards Council of Canada, and comply with European Union and United States organic producers standards.
The OCPP requires livestock to have access to free-range pasture, weather permitting, and limits stocking density, with a maximum of six laying hens per square metre, and no more than 3,000 birds in a barn. The poultry must also be fed and raised within organic standards from the first day of birth, and artificial light is limited to a maximum of 16 hours a day.
Certified organic hens must also receive no antibiotics or drugs in their feed, as in the Bekings’ current management practice.
On the plus side, the Bekings believe a roam-free barn would eliminate much labour, and could well result in healthier birds, but would involve significant up-front costs.
In addition to the cost of new construction, a certified organic poultry barn would also include higher costs of pullets and feed.
John Beking says, there are numerous eggs which are being sold as organic, and they may well be, but they are not certified organic.
While the price received for organic eggs is considerably higher than for conventional eggs, the consumer must still be willing to pay that cost.
"At the end of the day, the birds still have to pay the bills. With the market we have now and the building we’re looking at, I can pay the bills. The next step is can I do it?" says John Beking.
If this family goes ahead with their decision, it will be one of the few roam-free barns in Eastern Ontario, and perhaps one of the largest as well.