On the ground - improving feed efficiency to lower carbon footprint
The egg industry has a relatively low carbon footprint - the lowest of common animal protein sources and comparable to some plant-based foods.
Increased community interest and concern about the planetary impact of our societies has reframed expectations around the carbon footprint of industries. Climate variability, population growth and the significant amount of atmospheric carbon produced by the food system is driving all agricultural industries to examine how their carbon footprint can be improved over time.
The egg industry has an initial advantage in this regard as it already enjoys a relatively low carbon footprint, the lowest of common animal protein sources and comparable to some plant-based foods.
Feed production is the biggest user of energy in the production of an egg, with around 75 percent of total energy coming from off-farm processes such as planting, harvesting and transportation of grain. Because of this, improvements in the ability of hens to convert feed grain into eggs are resulting in significant energy savings.
A hen today consumes five percent less feed than a hen 20 years ago but lays an extra 38 more eggs per year. Across Australia’s national flock of 21 million hens, the feed and emissions savings are 42,000 tonnes less grain and 30,000 tonnes of carbon abatement.
As a predominantly intensive industry, egg farming is highly efficient and involves limited waste. Eggs that are not suitable for retail sale can be converted to liquid egg products for use in food service and manufacturing.
The CSIRO research findings indicated recognition of these benefits by the community, as awareness of environmental impacts has increased. While this is a good start, the scale of the global challenge calls for substantial improvement and the Australian egg industry needs to be a part of this process.
To progress this, the industry is investing in research to more definitively assess the carbon footprint of the entire egg supply chain. This will create a benchmark for comparison purposes and provide information to the community to enable informed choices to be made.
The research will also explore mitigation strategies to reduce the carbon produced through the egg supply chain, as well as opportunities to offset carbon such as vegetation or carbon sequestration in manure. This will assist in identifying a path towards carbon reduction and potentially, the viability of carbon neutral egg production.
This presents an exciting opportunity for the industry, as well as ensuring egg production can remain relatively low impact as other industries surge forward through improvement.
Solar energy is a good fit for egg farming as energy production mirrors the energy requirements of climate controlled sheds across the day.
Egg farming uses a significant amount of electricity as air-conditioned sheds are required to ensure hens are safe from Australia’s harsh climate.
Solar energy works well for the egg industry as energy production mirrors the energy load from cooling systems across the day. As electricity costs have increased over the past decade, some larger egg farms have successfully implemented large scale solar projects to both lower their energy costs and improve environmental outcomes.
More recently, improvements in solar panel efficiency and significant reductions in costs have enabled a broader range of solar applications without the need for subsidies, including households and smaller businesses.
The challenge is that small to medium egg farms often lack the resources to pursue opportunities of this nature. This is for the very practical reason that the headcount required to investigate and analyse the viability of solar energy are not usually available.
To bridge this gap, the egg industry has invested in a solar energy tool to identify options and guide consideration. The tool uses renewable energy expertise and details of commercial offering to work through the viability of solar power system installation and identify the benefits and payback period for each egg farming business.
It is intended that this process will accelerate the adoption of renewable energy in the egg industry, and simultaneously enhance the economic viability of the industry.
Organic fertiliser can contribute to a reduction in the carbon footprint of the agricultural sector by replacing synthetic fertilisers.
One of the most exciting opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of the egg industry relates to one of the least glamorous aspects. Chicken manure is a problem on farm and needs to be removed to manage flock health. Once off farm it is a potential resource as it remains rich in nutrients and a useful input for fertilising plant-based agriculture.
By replacing the use of chemical fertiliser, organic fertiliser can make a significant contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of the agriculture sector. As agricultural industries explore ways to improve environmental outcomes, demand and interest in organic fertiliser has increased substantially and presents new opportunities to animal industries.
There have been a number of factors complicating the use of manure as fertiliser, including food safety concerns in higher value horticulture applications. This safety issue can be overcome by composting manure in which the combustion process reduces the presence of harmful bacteria. However, the most valuable element of manure, nitrogen, can be lost through composting and converted to greenhouse gases such as methane and ammonia.
Adding carbon rich material such as wood by‑products will reduce the loss of nitrogen and emissions but can impact the economic viability of fertiliser supply. In response to increased demand for organic fertiliser, the egg industry has invested in research to improve the viability of the composting process. A range of wood chip inclusion rates were tested to reveal the optimal amount, a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 21:1.
This knowledge has significantly improved the economic viability of manure composting, and will ensure that a broader range of egg farms are able to profitably invest in composting processes and increase the replacement of chemical fertilisers with organic products.