On the ground - Todae Solar
Rising electricity costs have provided strong incentives for egg farmers to explore alternative sources of energy.
All industries have environmental impacts and for the egg industry, the key impact is energy use. The greatest advancement in animal welfare in the past 20 years has been the introduction of climate controlled sheds to protect flocks from harsh climatic conditions. The consequence of this has been an increase in electricity use. Still, the egg industry has a low carbon footprint compared to other protein sources, with cage egg production using slightly less energy than barn and free range systems.
Sharp increases in electricity costs in recent years have provided strong incentives for egg farmers to explore alternative sources of energy. In particular, high electricity transmission costs to remote areas have made establishing large scale solar energy generation viable for a number of large egg farms. It could be expected that as the cost of solar technology continues to fall and efficiency increases there will be further opportunities to transition the industry towards renewable energy.
Carbon footprint is based on inputs sourced off‑farm as well as energy used on-farm and the primary input for the egg industry is feed grain. While the grains industry operates at scale and is highly efficient, the transport of grain increases this impact. Transport costs and distances are largely beyond the control of the egg industry but the ability to minimise grain usage is a major focus. Feed efficiency can have a significant impact on carbon footprint, flock health, and productivity and is therefore an important area of focus as the egg industry continues to expand free range production that is generally less feed efficient than cage systems.
Two studies have been conducted on energy use in the Australian egg industry: a full supply chain life cycle assessment and an energy efficiency study of farms. This work determined that feed production makes up around three-quarters of energy use across the whole supply chain and on-farm energy use across bird housing, feed milling and egg grading is the second largest component.
A major project currently underway is investigating the factors that drive poor feed efficiency in flocks of hens, such as metabolic variation and body composition. The research will provide important information on the physiology underpinning feed efficiency, as well as the influence of a range of husbandry and nutrition approaches on flock performance.
Solar is the most mature of the renewable energy opportunities and significant investment is happening across the egg industry. Solar installations at egg farms with a combined capacity of 7000 kilowatts have been completed over the last two years, equalling approximately 10,000 tonnes of carbon offset, the equivalent of 2,000 cars taken off the road for a year.
An assessment of biogas energy generation found the energy potential of layer manure is moderate and overall manure volumes are sufficient to produce more electricity than is required for on-farm activities. At least one biogas facility has already been established at an Australian egg farm.
The main focus of land management is in the growing free range segment where extensive ranges are required.
Egg farmers have the ability to positively or negatively impact the environment through land management practices, and for the most part, the industry makes a positive contribution.
The main focus of land management is in the growing free range segment where extensive ranges are required. Hens are naturally destructive of the environment through scratching and foraging behaviour and it is very difficult to maintain pasture or cover of any kind immediately outside free range sheds.
Beyond this, egg farmers face the challenge of enticing hens onto ranges where they can be exposed to high temperatures across the day and predators. This process can be assisted through tree cover and new free range farms usually involve tree and shrub planting on range areas.
The success of new plants is far from guaranteed and the industry is experimenting with resilient plant species that have the ability to withstand a range of climates and hen behaviour.
Egg Industry Environmental Guidelines updated and republished in 2018 incorporate the latest scientific knowledge on key environmental issues affecting the egg industry. The Guidelines give egg farmers the necessary information to improve their environmental management practices as well as assisting in the establishment of new farms or expansion of existing operations.
A resilient plants research project currently underway is identifying vegetation suitable for free range layer farms across different soil types and rainfall patterns. A guideline package will be developed for free range egg farmers on what, when and how to plant, as well as strategies to manage plants on farm.
Assess the viability of renewable energy across farming contexts
Explore opportunities to increase feed efficiency
Support improvements in range management