Woolworths is probably the only supermarket chain in South Africa that has done the most to put free range eggs on the tables of many South Africans. The company was the first retailer to stop selling eggs from the caged chickens when it faced these out in 2004. To date, it is the only local retailer to have to have hit this milestone ensuring many South African farmers have healthy and nutritious from the chickens that have been raised as naturally as possible.
The many negatives of the battery or cage system
The cage system of the egg production is still the most popular globally because of its efficiency and profitability. In this kind of system, the chickens are kept in a small cage that normally has a sloping fall to allow eggs to roll off the cage as soon as they are laid in order to prevent faecal contamination.
The space is normally quite limited, typically no larger than the size of an A4 paper chicken and the chickens are not allowed to express any natural behaviour. The chickens are simply egg laying machines.
Because the farmer in the cage system of production wants to maximize profits, the cages are generally stacked up together and confined in a very limited space. The birds do not see any sunlight or grass range. They are kept in an artificial system where their task is to lay eggs until they hit their end of lay period when they can no longer produce enough at which point, they are slaughtered for meat or culled. This kind of chicken production has always raised a lot of ethical questions and research has also shown that it is not just the ethical questions that we should be worried about; the products from this kind of poultry production mechanism are simply not healthy!
The cramped condition of the cage production system has led to an explosion of organic chicken farming and free range chicken farming and this, too, have proven to be equally profitable systems while giving buyers healthier and more nutritious table eggs. The alternative production systems include the following:-
- Barn based chicken raising
- Free range chicken production in South Africa which can be pastured, grain fed or fed on the formulated feed with a mix of free range or pasture-based feeding..
- Organic chicken farming which is similar to free range production but has additional requirements on stocking density and use of organically produced feeds. Organic chicken farming is generally costlier but these chickens tend to fetch a good price in the market.
For its free range eggs supplies, Woolworths says it puts an emphasis on the freedom of the chickens to behave as naturally as possible. That involves foraging about in the yard, roosting and having nests where they can lay their eggs.
Research has shown that chickens have natural primal preference for laying eggs in nests. There is a strong motivation for them to nest so when you force them to lay eggs on floor, you are forcing them to do something that they are not too motivated to perform that will introduce stress and impact production. For the healthiest table eggs, you need happy chickens and that means providing the right environment where they can feed, interact and lay the eggs.
The chickens will also show a strong preference for littered floor where they can express a lot of their natural instincts such as scratching, pecking or dust bathing. They like perching so it is important to do add some roosting poles or perching areas in the poultry housing. The thinking here is that when you allow the chickens to express as much of their natural behaviours as possible, they are going to be “happy” and perform exceptionally well, including laying very large and healthy eggs for the family. In the battery cage raising environment, the chickens are not able to express any of these behaviours. The space is too small for them to even flap their wings!
How about barn-raised chickens?
Barn raised chickens are an improvement over the caged birds. In this case, the chickens are allowed to roam about but within a large barn or warehouse with littered floors. There are also perches and nests where the chickens can lay within the barn. The main problem is that the barn space is generally quite limited and a lot of barns are quite overcrowded. There is only so much space that a farmer can allow in a barn before the costs begin to skyrocket. However, barn raised chickens are generally counted as free range as long as the farmer provides reasonable access to the outdoors.
Free range egg production in South Africa
This is generally the ideal for commercial healthy egg production although if you can go all the way to organic chicken production, the better for you and your customers. But free range system is the most practical and profitable way to raise chickens healthily for commercial purposes.
The free range chickens will have lots of access to the outdoor areas and they can express all their natural behaviour in this environment including dust bathing, foraging, scratching, flapping their wings and moving about freely in their environment.
If you want to a free range eggs supplier for Woolworths, you will need to comply with the Agricultural Product Standards Act which stipulates the requirements under which free range chickens can be raised in South Africa.
Woolworths generally audits its free range chicken suppliers on a regular basis in order to ensure maximum compliance with the regulatory requirements as well as the strict standards set by Woolworths.
Some of the Woolworths requirements for free range chicken production include given the chickens access to ample food and clean water, enough access to the outdoor range and sunshine, good shade, sheltered outdoors as well as protective shelters in your farm. If you are going to supply free range eggs to Woolworths, your chickens must be given a grain-based diet that does not contain any animal by-products.