Bob & Dave Ottens
Elora, Ontario

Swan Creek Layer Farms

By Lisa McLean

A different kind of hen house

Diversification motivates egg farmers to adopt innovative aviary system

(Elora) It takes a few minutes for the hens at Elora-based Swan Creek Layer Farms Ltd. to adjust to visitors. They move quickly out of the way when the gate opens, fly across the aisles to new levels, and move out of reach. Eventually, their curiosity gets the best of them and they return to fill the empty spaces they abandoned just moments ago. The birds settle on their perches that are close to the visitors. A few hens walk along the ladders that connect one level to the next.

The hens – egg-laying “layer” birds – live in an aviary-style egg barn, which allows them free access to move through various levels of their space. Lighting helps guide them to private nesting boxes in the back of each level where they lay eggs in sheltered areas and access food and water on demand.

For Ontario egg farmers, this is a different kind of egg barn. Conventional layer barns house several hens in cages, or in newer “enriched” facilities that have built-in perches and nesting boxes. The aviary barn is designed to allow the hens to move freely in a large space.

And the new barn provides a benefit for farmers too – Dave and Bob Ottens, brothers who own the operation, can sell eggs from this barn into a certified “free run” market, which fetches them a premium on the eggs produced here.

“For us, this is a way of adding choice for consumers – the aviary gives us the opportunity to diversify by producing free-run eggs,” says Dave Ottens. “I don’t have a problem eating eggs from conventionally-raised hens, but some consumers want the option of free-run eggs, and they are willing to pay more for that choice.”

The free-run market

The Ottens are no strangers to chickens – they grew up on a broiler chicken farm, run a poultry services business, and in addition to their free run barn, they also produce white and brown eggs in traditional egg barns at other locations.

“We like variety,” Ottens says. “It was a large investment to build this barn, but we’re proud it worked out, and we’re always focused on continuing to do better.”

The larger investment is due in part to the amount of space available to the hens where the birds average 1.2 square feet per hen.

To date, there are still only a handful of aviary-style barns in Ontario. That leaves lots of access to a premium market for innovative farmers like the Ottens.

“So far, demand is good,” Ottens says.

Aviaries new to Canada

Aviary systems are well-established in Europe, where the brothers travelled to research facilities before they began plans to build their own. The barn is now in its second year, and the Ottens plan to build a second barn sometime in the future.

“We looked at enriched systems as well, because it seems to be where the market is heading, but we decided to go with the aviary instead,” Ottens says.

From a business perspective, the Ottens estimate building an aviary-style barn costs at least twice as much as building a more traditional barn. For now, consumer demand helps keep prices higher to offset the higher costs of producing eggs in this system.

Because many customers are interested in seeing the barn, the Ottens have toured food service representatives, grocery executives and curious farmers through. Aside from the physical characteristics of the two housing systems, Ottens says many of the other aspects of egg farming are very similar.

“Bird health in this barn is the same as more traditional barns,” Ottens says. “But this is a new system to Ontario, and we all have some things to learn as we fine-tune the process.”

Ottens uses lighting programs with staged LED lighting, as in his other barns. Biosecurity programs and food safety continue to be top-of-mind for all egg farmers. He says good ventilation keeps the birds calm and comfortable, and pecking has not been a problem to date. Daily duties include checking bird health and walking the barn for a small percentage of eggs laid on the floor, and emptying nest boxes.

Advice for new entrants

So what advice do the Ottens have for farmers interested in building an aviary? Research, research, research.

“You need to do your research and ask lots of questions to make sure it’s a good fit,” Ottens says. “And don’t buy anything without looking at it first. It’s an investment, and you want to make sure it will work for you.”

Bob (left) and Dave Ottens inside their aviary style layer barn