Eggs (chicken)

24.05.17

Poultry are commercially farmed to produce meat and eggs for human consumption. They were bought into Australia on the First Fleet in 1788 and until the mid 1900s, egg production was on a smaller scale with a large number of small companies located near the city markets they sold to. The introduction of layer cages in the 1960s saw production become more intensive with large flocks of up to 15,000 birds. With the ability to manage larger flocks and the advent of mechanisation, the number of egg farms in Australia has decreased since the late 1970s from 3,200 in 1979 to 337 today.

Overview

Australians eat an average of 213 eggs per person per year.

Eggs are produced and retailed as cage, barn or free-range which refers to the production system in which the hens are housed. There are both advantages and disadvantages to each of these styles of housing and the decrease in cage housing, and increase in barn and free-range, is driven by consumer demand.

Egg production requires the same husbandry skills and animal care as for meat production, however, there is the added requirement of processing and quality control of the eggs that is associated with food production standards and regulations.

The egg industry in Australia is dominated by large scale producers who sell direct to large retail sellers. As larger scale production enables producers to supply eggs at a lower cost, it is considered quite difficult for small scale commercial farms to compete in the general market. Smaller producers generally sell to local retail markets such as butchers, independent supermarkets, farmers markets and restaurants and food services.

The Australia Egg Corporation Limited (AECL) is the national industry services body for egg producers. The AECL is a public, non-listed company providing marketing and research and development services to the industry.

Facts and figures

  • Australians consume an average of 213 eggs per person per year
  • Commercial egg production is generally located near the market they sell to
  • Local council permits are required for commercial egg production
  • The cost of establishing infrastructure can be high
  • Access to electricity and high-quality water are essential as is selecting a site with good airflow to allow ventilation through the housing
  • Feed costs account for 60-70% of ongoing production costs
  • Strict food handling and labelling regulations apply to egg production

Production status

Poultry are commercially farmed for egg production in every state and territory in Australia except the Northern Territory. With a lack of grain production in the Northern Territory, the cost of transporting feed is prohibitive to commercial production.

There are currently 337 commercial egg farms in Australia.

Uses

Eggs are consumed as a food product and are mostly cooked fresh. An egg consists of a protective shell, albumen (egg white), and vitellus (egg yolk). They are a good source of protein (from the egg white), energy, vitamins and minerals.

Eggs are prepared fresh in a number of ways and used in many savoury and sweet dishes. They are also processed into products such as egg powder and egg liquid.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Eggs are produced commercially in all states and territories in Australia except the Northern Territory where production declined due to the cost of sourcing feed in this part of the country.

The key factors for selecting a suitable location for commercial egg production are proximity to markets, ability to attain a permit from the local council, access to electricity and good quality water (treated water supplied by the local council), the cost of feed and the cost of transporting to markets.

Climate

Adult laying hens perform best at a temperature range of 21-28°C with a relative humidity of 60-80%. To maintain these conditions, the birds are generally kept in housing (or with access to housing) where the sheds can be cooled when necessary. Other important environmental factors that are managed include air composition (oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide) and air movement (speed).

Housing

There are three main types of housing systems used in Australia to house hens for commercial egg production: cage, barn and free-range. All of these systems are considered non-intensive farming due to the amount of space allocated per animal. Poultry houses are designed and built to enable the regulation of the environment to a significant degree. The birds need to be protected from environmental extremes (wind, heat, cold etc.) while being housed in optimal conditions – 21-28°C; 60-80% humidity; and adequate ventilation. In Australia, only cooling of the houses is required.

For barn and free-range systems, the floor of the housing is spread with litter approximately 5cm deep which can be made up of a range of materials, depending what is locally available. The most common materials for poultry litter are sawdust, wood shavings, rice hulls, straw and paper products. For the health and welfare of the birds, litter must be changed regularly to remove the build-up of manure and feathers and other waste. Chicken litter can be re-used as a fertiliser and soil conditioner and this is the most popular method of disposal.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each system and the marketing of eggs is based on which system is used for production.

Cage systems

Cage systems use rows of steel cages located within a hen house. Cage size ranges from 1,800-11,000cm2, accommodate four to twenty hens and can be single tier or stacked up to 8 cages high. For hens in cage systems, the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry 4th edition) requires a minimum of 550cm2space allowance per hen.

The advantages of cage systems are that there is higher density and therefore higher production, lower levels of health issues and rates of mortality, increased protection from fighting and cannibalism, protection from predators and easier monitoring and identification of sick birds. The disadvantages of this system are reduced social interaction for the hens, less space to roam and the inability to display natural behaviours. Cage systems also provide easier conditions for the people caring for the birds, thus reducing Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) issues.

Barn systems

Barn systems house the hens in large houses with litter floors. The advantages of barn systems are protection from predators, ability for the birds to move around freely, socialise and display natural behaviours. The disadvantages are an increased likelihood of fighting and cannibalism, greater occurrence of manure-borne disease and parasites and additional OHS issues for the people looking after the birds.

Free-range systems

In free-range systems, hens are kept in housing but also have access to an outdoor area for at least eight hours per day. The housing provides areas for roosting, laying, drinking and eating. The stocking density rating for free-range laying hens is a maximum of 1,500 birds per hectare. The advantages and disadvantages are similar to those of barn systems but free-range systems are considered as having the greatest biosecurity challenges of the three systems as it is more difficult to prevent exposure to wild birds who can carry disease.

Eggs can also be produced using organic production which requires free-range housing systems where the hens are fed a diet that is at least 95% organically grown. A producer must be certified organic to market and sell under an organic label.

For more detailed information on housing for poultry, refer to PoultryHub’s Housing and Environment website page.

Feed requirements

Chicken layer feed is made up primarily of cereal grain, vegetable proteins and may include some animal protein meals. Other nutrients, such as calcium and phosphorous are added as required. The nutritional requirements of laying hens will vary depending on their stage of growth and the breed.

Chicks (up to six weeks old) are given a feed that supplies high levels of energy and protein to support rapid growth and feather development. As a guide, chicks start at a feed consumption rate of about 13g per bird per day. From 16 weeks old hens enter the laying period and the feed intake increases to a steady level of around 100-105g per bird per day.

In formulating feed, the aim is to optimise egg production and to maintain health and bodyweight. The feeding strategy will depend on the breed of bird and a number of different strategies may be used throughout the life of the hen. A layer hen diet typically consists of energy, protein, lysine, methionine, linoleic acid, calcium and phosphorous with the relative percentage of each of these varying with the growth stage of the bird.

Feed can be purchased from agricultural feed suppliers as a pre-mix or feed can be mixed on-farm. Formulating and mixing feed on-farm requires knowledge of feed nutritional requirements and may require additional equipment.

For more information on chicken layer nutritional requirements, refer to Poultry Hub’s Nutrient requirements of egg laying chickens.

Breeds and breeding

Commercial laying birds in Australia are actually ‘brands’ rather than breeds. Poultry genetics are imported into the country as fertile eggs and the chicks from these eggs are the great-grandparents of chickens that are ultimately used for egg production. The main layer brands used in Australia are Hisex (developed in Holland), Hy-Line (developed in USA), and ISA (developed in France) and chicks are source directly from these companies.

Breeding flocks are generally managed on breeding farms where fertile eggs are incubated in a hatchery until they hatch. The chicks are then sexed (females raised as layers and males are humanely euthanised), vaccinated and the beaks are trimmed. Birds are sold to farms as day old chicks or as 16 week old laying hens. Day old chicks are raised for another two weeks in separate housing (where a higher temperature is maintained) and then moved to a grower site where they are raised in sheds until they are ready to start laying. At this stage they are then moved to/sold to commercial layer farms.

Sourcing stock

Commercial layer hens are sourced directly from the companies that hold the brands – HisexHy-Line, and ISA. Birds can be purchased as day old chicks or as 16 week old layers.

Health care & pests and diseases

Health care management is an important aspect of commercial egg production as it directly affects egg productivity and therefore commercial viability – healthy hens are productive hens. The welfare and care of poultry is governed by legislation and codes of practice which are enforced by both State and Territory governments and the industry. The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry 4th edition) provides guidelines and minimum standards for the care and management of poultry. You should also check your relevant state and local government authorities for any legislation and codes that may apply to production in your area.

The key principles of health management in poultry focus on preventing and minimising disease. In commercial poultry production, disease will spread through a flock very quickly and so the primary goal is to prevent the onset of disease or parasites. Good hygiene practices and the use and application of a stringent farm quarantine program are the key elements for preventing disease.

The poultry industry uses a standard procedure called layer farm sequence which explains the general growing and production stages of hens for commercial egg production:

Brooding – one day to six weeks old

During this stage chicks need additional warmth until they are able to control their body temperature themselves. During this stage chicks are kept in separate sheds to maintain the higher temperature required. Chicks are fed a starter feed which has high levels of energy and protein to aid body growth.

Growing – 6 to 20 weeks old

By about 6 weeks old chicks (at this stage referred to as pullets) are able to control their body temperature. Feed is changed to a pullet grower feed which has 15-17% protein and about 7% less energy than the starter feed used for the brooding stage. The amount of feed given to the birds at this stage becomes more controlled in order to manage the growing rate and to lead to increased egg production when the birds mature. Excessive feeding can be harmful to the birds health and lead to poor egg production.

During this stage vaccinations and beak trimming (if necessary) are carried out to ensure the birds health and well-being for their adult life. Vaccinations are carried out in chicks for Mareks disease, infectious laryngotracheitis, infectious bronchitis, Newcastle disease, avian encephalitis, egg drop syndrome, fowl pox, and mycoplasma gallisepticum. Birds are also wormed using levamisole.

Vaccines can be administered a number of different ways ranging from injection to adding the vaccine to the drinking water. Strict handling requirements must be applied for managing vaccines on-farm and storage and application guidelines must be strictly followed. Some methods of vaccination are time consuming and can be stressful to the birds. For more information on vaccinations, refer to PoultryHub’s vaccination page.

Moving – 16-18 weeks old

Pullets, or growing chickens, are generally moved into their laying quarters at around 16-18 weeks old, before they reach sexual maturity, to allow time for the bird to settle in to their environment before egg laying begins. During this stage of maturing into laying hens, the birds diet is amended to a layer ration.

Adult layer – 20 to up to 78 weeks old

This is the production stage of the hen’s life and of the layer farm sequence. Hens are generally housed in a temperature and light-controlled environment at 21-28°C, regularly checked to monitor their health and feed is managed to maximise performance and production. Laying hens require a steady light pattern to maintain production – typically 16 hours/day. Reducing day length will cause them to cease lay and enter a “moult” phase.

Daily checking of the flock and maintaining a high standard of care and management is essential. If sick or injured birds are found a number of methods for treatment may be required ranging from a hygiene and monitoring program to medication and quarantine.

Avian influenza is also carefully monitored for; avian influenza is carried by wild bird populations and if introduced into commercial poultry can spread quickly and as there is no treatment, infected birds must be destroyed and on-farm biosecurity measures taken. Free-range birds are considered at greater risk due to their increased exposure to open environments.

Other welfare measures may be employed such as beak trimming. This is used as a preventative measure to protect the birds from injury caused by feather pecking and cannibalism. Beak trimming involves removing part of the top and bottom beak of the bird (usually about 2mm). Beak trimming must be carried out by qualified and accredited beak trimmers using specialised equipment; these services are often contracted out to specialised teams.

Basic hygiene and cleaning practices are employed on-farm to prevent disease:

  • Disinfection and washing – of vehicles, personnel and equipment
  • Foot baths at entrances of buildings
  • Careful management of litter in housing
  • Thorough cleaning of housing and equipment after removal of a flock
  • Removing and disposing of dead birds in a recommended manner

For more information on the general health care of chickens, refer to PoultryHub’s health management page.

Infrastructure Requirements

The main infrastructure required for egg production is housing. Regardless of the type of housing system used, all sheds require cooling to prevent the birds from overheating (especially at night).

There are a number of infrastructure requirements that are essential to large scale (>50,000 birds) commercial chicken production and these services/resources must be secured for successful commercial production:

  • three-phase power
  • a suitable land site with adequate land for buffers (separation distances between sheds and any neighbours). The site terrain should allow for vehicle access (including semis and B-doubles), loading pads and shed sites. Very flat sites need to be well drained.
  • good road access; all roads also need to be able to handle b-double weights
  • reliable water supply of adequate quantity and quality

Small scale farms will require buffer zones, good road access and reliable water but can generally operate with a standard power supply.

Processing & Selling

Eggs are collected as soon as possible after laying (collection occurs in the morning on most farms) and placed in cool storage at 13°C. Mechanical collection of eggs is most common where the eggs are laid in a cage or nesting box and the eggs roll onto a conveyer belt which transfers the eggs to a central location for collection.

Eggs are then taken to a grading and packing room or building which must be located in an area where the eggs are not at risk of being exposed to contaminants. They are graded based on weight using an automatic egg grader machine.

Most farms will grade and pack their own eggs, however, some farmers will sell to an independent grading floor (usually a larger scale egg producer who will grade, pack and distribute the eggs).

The eggs are examined using a special lighting system, called candling, and cracked, weak-shelled and abnormal eggs are discarded. A sample of eggs from each collection batch are cracked open and checked for internal quality and freshness.

The eggs are then packed into cartons of 6 or 12 eggs or into trays of 30 eggs. Eggs must be transported in refrigerated or insulated trucks to maintain a cool temperature and therefore quality of the eggs.

Producers can sell directly to supermarkets, retail outlets, food service companies, restaurants, consumers or to processors who use the eggs to make other retail food products. Most Australian produced eggs are sold domestically but some are exported as shell eggs or egg products.

Food handling and labelling regulations apply to the commercial and retail sale of eggs. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) Standard 2.2.2 governs the standard of eggs supplied for human consumption. There may also be state government regulations, see the Resources section for links to state authority food safety information.

Markets & Marketing

As larger scale production enables producers to supply eggs at a lower cost, it is considered quite difficult for small scale commercial farms to compete in the general market. However, smaller producers have a number of options available to them – fruit shops, butchers, restaurants, farmers markets and small independent supermarkets. These buyers need to be sourced directly by farmers but can also see a higher return at the farm gate. Some farmers produce and market specialty eggs, such as organic or omega-3 enriched, which are produced by feeding the hens a specially formulated diet. There is a comprehensive set of regulations that organic egg producers must abide by to gain and maintain the organic certification.

Egg marketing in Australia is based on the type of housing system the birds are kept in – cage, free-range or barn-laid.

There are also a number of voluntary egg accreditation schemes operating in Australia. Egg producers can choose which scheme to be accredited with and consumers can make informed choices about the accreditation scheme they prefer.

Farmers could access export markets but the main limitation is viability of selling into these markets as costs of exporting can be expensive and cost of production in Australia is higher than the world market. However, Australia’s high health and biosecurity standards mean eggs produced here are considered to be of a higher health quality and this could be an opportunity for future marketing but would require further investigation.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

One of the first challenges in setting up commercial egg production is selecting a good site with good air flow, away from water sources attracting wild birds and access to good quality council supplied water. Housing needs to be situated where there is good ventilation, especially during the evening as hens can overheat when they sleep. Sites must have good airflow and preferably cooler evening temperatures, for example, the base of a valley would probably not have the airflow required.

Sites away from open sources of water that attract wild birds are also critical as wild birds can introduce disease into a commercial flock, increasing biosecurity issues. Birds must have a continuous supply of good quality drinking water and so access to treated, council supplied water is critical.

As with many animal industries, activists and groups that oppose intensive livestock production have attempted to discredit the egg industry. On-farm raids can be physically, mentally and financially difficult to deal with. On-farm security is important to prevent unwanted visitors from gaining access to their farms.

There are discussions within the industry on standards and legal requirements for the different production systems, especially free-range. This can cause confusion and uncertainty if trying to determine which production system to implement and be confident that it will meet any future legal requirements. Monitoring these discussions and understanding the legal requirements around the production systems is recommended prior to making any decisions.

Regulatory considerations

There are a range of requirements in relation to various regulatory issues including state animal welfare acts and regulations, industry standards and guidelines, animal transportation and food handling and labelling.

For specific information on the welfare regulations for the management of poultry, refer to the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry 4th edition) and relevant local and state authority requirements.

As eggs are a food product for human consumption, there are also various codes of practice and regulations relevant to handling and storage. These may be applied at a state or national level. FSANZ Standard 2.2.2 governs the standard of eggs supplied for human consumption. There may also be state government regulations. For example, the New South Wales Food Authority issues licences for producing, grading or processing eggs or egg products, while the Food Safety Scheme administered by Safe Food Queensland manages a food safety scheme for eggs requiring producers to be accredited under this scheme. See the Resources section for links to relevant state authorities.

Publications

Publications/information

Commercial layer management – book available for purchase from PoultryHub

Getting Started in Free Range Poultry – book available for purchase from the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Other resources

Poultry and eggs – Department of Environment and Primary Industries Victoria

The Poultry Site – latest news and developments for the poultry industry

Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry – Poultry

Department of Agriculture and Food WA – Poultry & Birds

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) Standard 2.2.2 – Eggs

New South Wales Food Authority – Eggs

Safe Food Queensland – Eggs and egg products

Food Safety Standard and Accreditation for Egg Producers – Biosecurity SA: Food Safety

Biosecurity Tasmania – Egg Industry

Food Safety for Egg Producers – Department of Environment and Primary Industries Victoria

Image Gallery

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Isa Brown laying

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Eggs in cartons

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Eggs stored in mobile crates