How in the world can you manage a successful egg laying operation
without trimming beaks, without feeding synthetic methionine,
and by providing real outdoor access? Those are among the
questions a group of Midwestern organic livestock farmers
went to Switzerland to answer.
From October 4-15, 2002, 25 Midwestern organic farmers took
part in a tour of organic dairy and poultry farms and cheese
processing facilities in Germany, northern Italy, and Switzerland.
The trip was sponsored by the Mid-America International Agri-Trade
Council (MIATCO), and organized by Perry Brown, Wisconsin
Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.
While we visited very interesting biodynamic and organic
farms and facilities in Germany and Italy, this article focuses
on organic poultry production in Switzerland, beginning with
a visit to the FiBL research institute, just outside the lovely
town of Frick.
Poultry research plots at FiBL
At FiBL, more than 85 agronomists, environmental scientists,
biologists, veterinarians, sociologists, and experts in other
fields work full time on organic research projects.
FiBL recently published a dossier entitled, “Organic
farming enhances soil fertility and biodiversity”, which
presents the results from a 21 year field trial. FiBL also
released “An evaluation for Organic Plant Breeding.”
FiBL has research projects underway in viticulture, veterinary
medicine, animal welfare, fruit production, marketing, and
international cooperation. For more information, visit www.fibl.ch
2000 bird layer house on the Dieter
Researchers from FiBL conduct many on-farm research projects
at numerous locations. We visited the Dieter Weber farm. Mr.
Weber raises produce for a roadside market and has a pick-your-own
flower operation. He also raises 2000 laying hens. The flock
averages 96% productivity with less than 2% mortality.
Inside the laying house
None of Mr. Dieter’s laying hens are “de-beaked”.
Pecking is prevented through a variety of strategies. The
house and outdoor areas are subdivided into units of 500 birds.
There are equal numbers of brown and white breeds, breaking
up the pecking order. There are a few roosters in each flock.
Birds are given plenty of space, both indoors and out. They
are provided with a variety of roosts and activities to satisfy
their natural behavior. They are provided a balanced ration,
ensuring that they have plenty of protein. The building is
well ventilated, with excellent air quality.
The “winter garden”
A fundamental component of the Weber laying house, and all
of the poultry operations we visited in Europe, is the “winter
garden”. This is essentially a screened-in porch with
deep wood chip bedding. Birds have access to the winter gardens
year-round. The winter gardens have roosts, oyster shell grit,
dusting areas, and water. Hens are provided with fresh air
and sunlight. Mr. Weber’s winter garden is located on
the south side of the building.
Time for a bath
When birds move between the laying house and winter garden,
they pass through a sand dust bath. Judging by the number
of birds “bathing” during our visit, this appears
to be a popular activity. The dust bath helps prevent external
parasites such as mites and lice, and satisfies a natural
need of the hens.
Doors automatically open at set times to give each flock
access to outdoor runs. At the time of our visit, the doors
were set to open at 11:00 am. When asked if the birds actually
go out, Dieter laughed, and said, “The birds are lined
up – they know when the doors will open.” The
paddocks are managed rotationally. There are 4 paddocks for
each flock, meaning that 3 paddocks are idle at any time.
The runs connecting the paddocks to the winter garden are
covered with netting to provide protection from birds of prey.
Timed scratch feeder
According to Deter Weber, the challenge with the outdoor
runs is getting the hens back inside. The doors automatically
close at 4:00 pm. To coax the birds back in, scratch feed
is automatically dispensed in the winter garden at 3:45 pm.
Scratch feed mix
The scratch feed used once a day to lure the birds back into
the winter garden consists of whole small grains (wheat, oats,
and barley), cracked corn, and sunflower seeds.
Finding out the ration
Esther Zeltner of FiBL shares the secret formula – a balanced
poultry ration with no synthetic methionine. The ration is made
by a local organic feed mill from small grains, sunflower seeds,
field peas, alfalfa meal, corn gluten meal, potato starch, yeast
extract, vitamins and minerals. The corn gluten meal, potato
starch, and yeast extract (all non-organic sources) provide
most of the methionine and amino acids. (Under European Union
and Swiss regulations, organic livestock can be fed a low percentage
of non-organic feed.) The birds also get essential amino acids
from field peas, alfalfa meal, sunflower seeds, and from grazing
and scratching outdoors.
Egg stamping machine
Throughout Europe, eggs are stamped when they are packed.
The machine at right stamps a flat of eggs. Each egg shows
the name of the farm, region produced, date, and/or organic
The finished product
The egg at left was laid in Freiland, Germany,
not on the Dieter Weber farm. It was certified biodynamic
by Demeter. Note the conspicuous display of the Demeter
logo on the egg carton. Many products in Europe prominently
display the name and logo of the certification body similar
to a “brand” identity. Note also that the carton
carries the “best buy” date for the eggs and
the carton is designed to be easily sold in half dozen units.
The Swiss may be known for watches, bank accounts, and cheese,
but with over 10 percent of the farms in organic production,
ground breaking research conducted by FiBL, and advances in
organic poultry production, Switzerland is also a leader in
Jim Riddle is an active member of the organic community.
During the past 22 years, he has been an organic farmer, gardener,
inspector, educator, policy analyst, author, and consumer.
Now he can add journalist to his resume. Jim also heads up
the New Farm™ organic certification answer team. To
read more of Jim's work and get answers to your organic certification
The New Farm Certification Page.