Learn About Egg Farming
Egg farming is the process of raising hens to produce eggs for human consumption. Australian egg farmers produce 16.9 million eggs every day to feed the nation, which is 6.2 billion eggs each year. To meet this huge demand, egg farmers across the country look after a combined total of about 20 million hens.
The journey of an egg from a farm to your kitchen table has several steps but the process happens faster than in other agricultural industries. This is because many egg farming businesses raise the hens and collect, wash, grade, pack and transport the eggs to market themselves, sometimes all in the one day.
Breeding and hatching
While egg farmers are responsible for looking after the hens, the journey of an egg actually starts at a place called a hatchery.
For there to be 20 million hens in Australia at any one time, hatcheries have to run breeding programs that keep up with demand. Breeding flocks vary in size but they usually have a ratio of around 1 rooster for every 10 hens. Roosters and hens mate in breeding sheds and the fertilised eggs are then moved to an incubator. The eggs are kept there safe and warm for 21 days so the baby chick can form inside the egg.
The video below of a chicken embryo developing in a fertilised egg is the process that takes place at hatcheries.
Video by Poultry Hub Australia
At 1 day old, female chicks are then carefully transported in climate controlled trucks to rearing sheds on farms where they grow into hens. Some of the male chicks are kept to grow into roosters and the rest are humanely euthanised.
Of course, fertilisation can only happen in breeding sheds where there are roosters and hens together. There are no roosters on egg farms so the hens only lay unfertilised eggs.
From newly hatched chicks to laying hens
The newly hatched chicks are housed in specially designed rearing sheds to support their development into laying hens. At about 16 weeks of age the young hens, called pullets, will be moved to laying sheds so it’s important that the rearing environment mimics the conditions of their future home.
As the chicks grow into pullets they are taught where to find food and water and are vaccinated to protect them from diseases. Rearing sheds are tightly controlled environments and farmers take a lot of precautions to keep the young birds free from outdoor bacteria and viruses.
In the video below, a winch system is being used to teach the chicks how to jump and move vertically to get food and water. Developing these skills will prepare these chicks for their future life in a type of laying shed called an aviary system.
The young hens are moved into their new laying shed environment at around 16 weeks of age. They won’t start laying eggs for another 2-3 weeks but have the time to adapt to the new surrounds.
Eggs in Australia are distinguished by three main farming systems:
- Free range
Eggs from the three production systems are priced differently and therefore appeal to different people. From a farming perspective, each system has its advantages and disadvantages and farmers work hard to keep the birds healthy and productive.
Importantly, the nutritional profile of eggs remains consistent across the three farming systems as all hens are fed a grain-based diet. The difference between free range, barn-laid and cage egg farming is in the way the sheds and farm land is configured for the hens.
Free Range Eggs
Free range eggs come from hens that have access to an outdoor range during the day but are housed securely and comfortably in sheds at night.
To be classified as a free range egg farm, the hens must have meaningful and regular access to an outdoor range during daylight hours. Farmers facilitate this by opening up doors to the sheds (called pop holes) every morning and closing them up in the late afternoon when the hens are back inside.
Hens need sheds to feed, lay and roost. If they lived outside 24/7 they would be completely exposed to the elements, have a harder time laying, and be easy prey for predators like foxes and hawks. So free range hens can use a secure outdoor range area to scratch the grass and move among the trees during the day, while still having the safety of a shed at night.
In the video below of an Australian free range egg farm you can see the farmer opening the pop holes to give the hens their daily access to the outdoors.
Barn Laid Eggs
Barn-laid eggs, sometimes also called cage-free eggs, come from hens that are housed inside large climate controlled sheds. This means the hens have freedom to move around the shed, socialise and perch but are protected from predators and the elements.
The sheds for barn-laid hens have multi-tiered structures that give the birds a more engaging environment to move around in. Encouraging the hens to use the multi-tiered structures also frees up space on the floor of the shed.
As with free range sheds, the hens lay their eggs in specially fitted nest boxes that are gently tilted so the eggs role out onto a conveyor. There are also automatic manure belts that carry the chicken manure to a storage bin where it’s then packed into bags for use as natural fertiliser.
In the video below you can see hens moving throughout a barn-laid system.
Cage eggs come from hens that are housed in cages within a shed. Cage systems allow farmers to carefully control the hen’s environment and temperature, feed and water are all optimised for the health of the birds.
The carefully controlled environment means hens in cage systems rarely get sick, have lower rates of mortality and are not exposed to in-fighting within the flock. The term “pecking order” comes from chickens and it refers to the way the birds peck one another to establish a dominance hierarchy. Because cage hens are housed in small groups – typically 5 or 6 per cage - there is a more stable pecking order and injury is less likely to occur to subordinate birds.
In cage systems, farmers can more easily identify and treat sick hens should they become unwell. In the video below of an Australian cage egg farm, you can see a farmer removing a hen from a cage to check on it.
From the layer house to the grading floor
Eggs are collected at least once a day and taken to a high-tech room called a grading floor where they are cleaned and checked for quality.
Large egg farming businesses tend to have more automated processes, meaning the eggs travel along conveyor belts all the way from the shed to the grading floor. Being such a fragile item, it’s very important that the eggs are treated gently as they move from one conveyor to the next.
From the grading floor to your plate
On the grading floor the eggs are washed and quality inspected under bright lights. If a tiny crack is found in the shell or an internal defect is detected by the light, the eggs are discarded. Quality control on the grading floor also involves measuring the height of the albumen (egg white), colour of the yolk and shell thickness so only the best quality eggs make it to your dinner plate.
Every graded egg is stamped with a unique code that identifies the farm where it was laid. This allows eggs to be tracked back to the farm of origin if necessary.
Eggs are mechanically weighed and placed in different size cartons, such as 600, 700, or 800 gram packs. The cartons then get stacked onto pallets and are taken to a refrigerated room where they await loading into a delivery truck.
Special refrigerated trucks back up to the cool room and create a seal so there is no temperature change between the cool room and the truck. The eggs get loaded into the truck and remain cool all the way to market.