Since June this year, customers of the supermarket chain Albert Hein in the Netherlands have been able to buy an egg from a new type of multi-tier system that could best be described as a half-way house between free-range and barn.
Commanding a significant premium over conventional barn eggs – the most popular of the alternative egg production systems in Holland – the eggs come from a novel and unique multi-tier housing system known as Rondeel, which was developed at the instigation of the Dutch government.
The eggs are marketed in a box that is as distinctive as the production system, in a seven-egg pack made from coconut fibre. They are being sold under the Pure and Honest (AH Puur & Eerlijk) label at €1.89 (£1.55) for seven, which works out at £2.66 a dozen, midway between the UK price for medium free-range and medium barn.
The system may have limited appeal in the UK, where the market is focused on pure free-range. But it could have a longer-term role as a sexier alternative to the conventional barn egg.
The Rondeel house is a large unit, holding 30,000 birds. The essential feature of the system is that the house is divided up into five separate modules holding 6000 birds, each with its own daytime and night-time quarters. Overall, every bird benefits from an average 1.6sq ft of space.
The building is designed as a giant wheel, 250ft across, with the modules radiating from it. Each module accounts for 54 degrees of the circle, totalling 270 degrees. The remaining “slice” is unroofed and allows access to the central control hub for feed deliveries and egg collection.
“The concept was the outcome of a study by Wageningen University entitled Houden van Hennen, which set out to explore the options for a sustainable future for laying hen husbandry,” says Niels Geraerts of Vencomatic BV.
“The research team studied the areas of conflict between corporate social responsibility, the needs of the laying hen and an optimum working environment for the poultry farmer.”
The night quarters have been designed to meet the primary needs of the birds, such as eating, sleeping, resting and laying. They have been equipped with the latest technology for the laying nests, the perches and feeding pans.
Birds are provided a diverse environment to range through including, grass, wood shavings, dust and trees allowing them to exhibit natural behaviour.
The day annexes are intended to provide an additional ranging area where the birds can exhibit natural behaviour such as scratching and dust bathing. The day section is partitioned from the night quarters by an insulated sidewall that can be fully rolled up to create a uniform climate in both the day and night quarters, which allows many more hens to scratch around and enjoy a dust bath than in traditional systems, claims Rondeel.
“It’s a new concept for keeping laying hens. The entire wall of the night quarters rises up so the hens can easily go outside. The birds like daylight, but we have covered the day quarters to keep out the rain and predators,” says Rondeel general manager Ruud Zanders.
Around the periphery of the house is a further ranging area, giving hens access to what is described as a wooded fringe. This has been extensively planted with a variety of species including fruit trees. It can be sealed off if necessary, for example should there be the threat of a disease outbreak. To encourage hens to venture out from the main housing, grain is scattered outdoors.
So far, only one unit is in operation and is producing 500 cases a week. Later in the year, the eggs will carry the Beter Leven mark, certified by the Dutch animal welfare organisation Dierenbescherming.
Consumers wanting to inspect the system can visit the complex, where a visitors’ tunnel has been installed.