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