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Salute to Our Egg Farmers

Egg farming is an integral part of Ontario’s agriculture sector, and egg farming families who help feed Ontarians are a vital part of many rural communities throughout the province.

One egg farming family near Listowel has made many changes in their operation over the years, riding the ever-changing evolution of egg farming.

On R J Steel Farm, Tonya Haverkamp continues to develop ways to better the overall quality of eggs on her farm.

“I literally grew up on a farm in Milverton. My parents started out with 7,000 hens and then expanded the flock in Strathroy. Once I finished high school, I worked at a grocery store, but I always worked on the farm,” Haverkamp said.

“There have been so many changes over the years. We went from collecting eggs by hand, using an egg cart and then we purchased a stacker which really helped save time. Just a month ago, we purchased another stacker which again, is more efficient and time saving. So, we have seen four major changes in just the way eggs are collected.”

Local egg farmers Tonya Haverkamp and Don Storey, Photo: Barbara Geernaert

Haverkamp has managed the farm for the last eight years and her husband, Don Storey, is right on board.

“I grew up farming too, so to see it, you realize how many people you are feeding,” Storey says.

“But there seems to be a big gap between people and what they know about farming. Lots of people don’t. The cage free movement was challenging in the industry and fueled the fire for many activists. I think we have overcome that now. We are just trying to provide an affordable and healthy protein for consumers and the support for Canadian farmers is growing.”

And for Storey too, changes in egg farming never cease.

“Technology is always changing, whether it’s genetics or technology. It’s always getting better and always advancing, whether it’s environmental or the transportation involved in egg farming. The grading station, for example, has to keep up with the demand.  But the one thing that can’t change in this process, is how many eggs a hen can lay,” he says.

“A hen can lay only one egg a day and it takes about 24 to 26 hours for a hen to be able to produce another” says Haverkamp.

Once eggs are produced in the barn, they are stacked and stored in a cooler where they are ready for pickup and are then off for grading.

“It takes about four to seven days from the time the eggs leave the farm until they get shelved in the grocery store,” Haverkamp said.

An average hen can produce about 330 eggs and once they are out, they are out.

“A hen only has so many eggs that she can lay and the older she gets, the egg shell quality decreases,” Haverkamp said.

And each egg is traceable because there is a farmer code on the packaging which might be calming for the consumer if they are looking to buy local.

There are currently 400 egg farming families in Ontario and 1,100 in Canada.

The average egg farm houses about 25,000 hens, but Haverkamp’s farm houses 92,000.

“Yes, we are larger but it’s all about manpower. It’s an overwhelming number to the average person but we are here 365 days a year, nine hours a day and we walk through the barns twice a day,” Haverkamp says.

The method of housing hens has evolved, and so too has Haverkamp in her farming method.

“Housing hens has really changed from conventional housing to enriched housing, both of which Haverkamp practices.

It’s all about the hens at RJ Steel Farm, Photo: Barbara Geernaert

“The enriched housing includes a perch, scratch pad and a nesting box. Small groups are kept together so it’s private for them. Birds of a feather, flock together,” she says. “This eliminates a pecking order and stops bullying. Consumers can know that their eggs are not coming from hens on a floor.”

Having 92,000 hens roaming around on a floor is unimaginable for Haverkamp who is used to her controlled, quiet and ventilated barns.

“I didn’t believe in the enriched system at first and now it’s the system we have chosen. Many farmers choose different ways, it’s whatever suits their needs and their size,” she says.

Eggs are picked up four times a week at the farm and are then taken to a grading station where they are washed. They are graded by weight, not by size, which is why a consumer might be confused when seeing different sizes of eggs in their carton, according to Storey.

“People also wonder why sometimes eggs don’t peel easily. It’s because the eggs are too fresh, so it’s always a good idea to buy eggs and store them for a couple weeks,” he said.

A hen naturally produces a coating on each egg, but once at the grading station, the coating is removed.

“People also wonder what the difference is between white and brown eggs. There is no difference. The brown hens eat more so that is why brown eggs are more expensive,” Storey said.

As for omega 3 eggs, the hens are fed flaxseed which adds extra vitamin D to the egg.

A typical day on the farm is full of activity for the couple as they begin their day at the laying barn at 7 am.

“We have to record everything. We write down the temperature and how much each hen eats and drinks. We write down cooler temperatures and then we walk the barns. We check each row, making sure there is enough feed and we also check the water lines,” Haverkamp says.

“And there’s always ventilation in the barn even in the winter months.”

Egg collection begins at 8:30 am and continues until 2 pm. This is when the packer will be cleaned and then a second check takes place to make sure the hens are in good condition.

The day ends at about 4:30 pm

“Bio-security is also very important,” Storey says.

“It’s a concern when people visit the farm. It’s scary how quickly things can spread and you don’t know where visitors have come from.”

All employees and visitors must take precaution by changing their footwear and clothing. Doors are locked throughout the day and an active log is kept to help keep track of anyone entering or leaving the farm.

“We also have alarms so in case a generator breaks down, we will know about it,” Storey said.

Bullet chicks are day old chicks and are kept in the barn for 19 weeks. And this is when she  offically becomes a laying hen.

“We raise bullets for ourselves and we also do for other farmers,” Haverkamp says.

“Conditions must be consistent throughout the year. A good bullet makes a good laying hen.”

The farm is monitored by an animal care program and safety programs.

Storey says that this is the case with any egg in the grocery store. They are monitored to make sure they are all healthy, so really, a nine dollar carton of eggs is no different from a two dollar carton of eggs.

Inspectors come in regularly to check the hens and they check for salmonella. The Egg Farmers of Canada also does audits. There are three levels of auditing in total.

Each hen is kept 365 days minus 7 days. This is a mandatory requirement in Ontario.

“Nutritionists from Wallenstein Feed know everything about the bird and they ration for every step of life. They know what they require, and at what stage; they mix the feed accordingly. The hens are probably fed better than us. They keep track that the hen is healthy and that the best eggs are being produced,” says Storey.

One egg has six grams of protein, 14 key nutrients and 70 calories.

“But eggs not only provide nutrition. They also help provide so many jobs as well,” says Haverkamp.

“I don’t take this for granted. Farming is in my blood and we are helping feed Ontario,” says Haverkamp.

“It’s about keeping our hens healthy, content and safe. We’ve always wanted what is best for the hens. That has never changed. Consumers can know that our eggs were produced with care every day and we are thankful that consumers put trust in farmers.”

“The hen is number 1.”

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