'Conscience is clean': Mainland Poultry

Hens in a colony system at Mainland Poultry. Photo by Mainland Poultry.
Hens in a colony system at Mainland Poultry. Photo by Mainland Poultry.
Chooks in cages - there is no doubt it is an emotive issue.

But emotion aside, when the invitation was issued to view the colony system at Mainland Poultry's site at Waikouaiti, I was not sure what to expect.

Armed with an open mind, I took the opportunity to view a form of poultry farming that is likely to become much more prevalent in New Zealand with the advent of the new Code of Welfare for layer hens.

Colonies provide living spaces for up to 60 birds with facilities for perching, laying and scratching, so hens can engage in their natural behaviours, unlike battery cages which limit that behaviour.

Enter the door of the shed and the first thing that struck me - apart from the sight of thousands of hens - was the very minimal smell. I was expecting a strong ''chooky'' odour and was pleasantly surprised at the lack of it.

The hens appeared very healthy and settled. There was room for them to move around and the set-up was a vast improvement on some of those images of battery hens that have appeared in the media.

It was a high-tech and clean operation - manure dropped on to belts and was air-dried prior to being sold - and, when it came to animal welfare, no doubt also an improvement on some ''backyard'' hen runs.

And, at the end of the day, consumers have the choice as to where they buy their eggs and from what system.

Mainland Poultry technical manager Lorna Craig, who has been involved in the egg industry for more than 25 years, firstly in the UK and then in New Zealand, said it was ''about having an acceptable balance''.

What was ''really important'' for the hen needed to be considered, as did producing affordable eggs.

After completing a degree in agricultural science, she joined Deans Foods - now Noble Foods - the largest egg producer in the UK, where she gained experience in colonies. She did her Nuffield scholarship on organic egg production.

From an agricultural background and both a vegetarian and self-described animal lover, she said her '' conscience is clean'' when it came to Mainland Poultry's operation.

The hens' ''No1 priority'' was to be able to lay an egg in a nest and they wanted to be able to perch, both options which were offered in the colony system.

''Whatever animal you farm, you have to do it with compassion and have to have respect for the animals you are managing,'' she said.

The operation required stockmen as good as if they were looking after non-caged birds and a close eye was kept on the birds' welfare and health, she said.

Mainland Poultry managing director Michael Guthrie described it as a ''really good way of farming'' that had been adopted worldwide.

A comprehensive New Zealand-based study by the Egg Producers Federation, in conjunction with animal welfare experts from Bristol University in the UK and the Ministry for Primary Industries, evaluated the welfare and health implications of colonies, with positive results, he said.

They were ''very, very good systems'' and it was not just about providing more space for the hens. The development of the systems was based on observations and the behavioural needs of the birds, to scratch, perch and nest.

But the birds did also get more space, while operationally allowing farmers to produce an affordable egg, he said.

Mainland Products straddled different production types, ranging from New Zealand's largest free-range farm, Woodlands, at Dunback, to its caged operation.

Free-range farming was not the ''silver bullet'' that most people thought it was for welfare issues. There were a lot of issues involved with free-range farming, of a different variety to caged, Mr Guthrie said.

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