Nestled among the prairie fields near Brant, Alberta, lies one of the most progressive and sustainable farming projects in Western Canada. 

When you hear “sustainability,” people typically think of the environment. For egg farmers, that means helping reduce their carbon footprint and minimizing their overall environmental impact, by having a barn with as many environmentally-friendly elements and technologies as possible. It also typically requires a change in farming practices, which can seem more challenging as most farmers have developed their own tried-and-true methods that they have been working with for generations.

Back in 2014, Egg Farmers of Alberta partnered with Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation and Brant Colony to undertake an ambitious project that is changing how egg farmers approach their practices.  With funding from Growing Forward 2, the foundation of the egg farming industry’s first Net-Zero egg barn was poured. This barn uses proven energy-saving efficiencies, as well as serving as a testing ground for some new, unproven technologies. Over a year, the facility will strive to produce enough power through renewable systems to offset power supplied to it by conventional fossil fuels.  The facility now serves as an educational opportunity for industry growth and development, having opened its doors for other egg farmers, consumers, and farmers from other industries to see all the technology at work.

What appears to be a standard structure from the outside, is actually outfitted with six inch thick cement floors with in-floor heating in the office and manure room, eight inch thick exterior stud walls that allow for two extra inches of insulation, and styrofoam insulation on both the interior and exterior sides of the walls.  These adjustments alone would make a significant difference in the overhead for heating and cooling, but they did not stop there. Perched on the rooftop above the office area lies a solar farm of 100 panels, and out the back sits a 40-foot HRV unit attached to the layer barn.

The Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) does what most ventilation systems do – it brings in fresh air and removes stale air.  What makes HRVs special is that in the ventilation process, they capture the heat in the air transfer, which results in significantly lower energy consumption throughout the year.  In colder seasons, it uses the heat from the stale air to preheat fresh incoming air.  In the warmer months, it reverses this process, and removes some of the heat from the incoming air and transfers it to the outgoing.  All the while, it gets rid of many pollutants and excess moisture, creating a healthier environment for the birds. At the time of its building, this facility was the first in Western Canada to have this HRV unit, and only the third in Canada.

The construction of the facility (with the exception of some of the core technological instruments) was completed by members of the Brant Colony, allowing them to utilize their own skilled labour to complete the facility. Construction, plumbing, electrical – you name it, they built it.

The facility is divided into two barns, one for the layers (hens laying eggs) and one for the pullets (chicks being raised).  As the birds are at different stages in their development, their needs are vastly different, so having them in separate barns allows for each flock to receive the care and attention they need without impeding the other.

Over on the pullet side, birds are raised from one-day old to maturity on an 18-week cycle, meaning that they can raise about 30,000 to completion within a calendar year, and be partway into a new flock.  Pullets are extremely sensitive to their environment (lights, temperature, etc.) so it is important to be able to control everything in their barn with limited interaction. As they grow older, the feeders and waterers are raised to accommodate their growth, while also teaching them to jump and fly. Some pullets will move over to the layer barn once they reach maturity, and others will be sold to other farms.

The layer barn is an aviary-style free run hen housing system, meaning that the birds are not kept enclosed, but are free to roam the barn as they please. (Note: the only difference between free-run and free–range is that the birds can spend part of the day outside, weather permitting.) They decide when to go into the nesting boxes (a more private space where they can lay their eggs away from the rest of the flock) during the day. The nesting boxes have a conveyor belt that runs the length of the barn for the eggs to gently roll onto, and then proceed outside the barn to the robotic packaging area.

DYK: Roosters are not needed to produce table eggs (eggs for consumption). Egg laying is a natural process, so roosters are only needed to fertilize the eggs to hatch them.

On an average day, Brant Colony collects around 14,000 eggs from their layer birds, and a machine moves them into flats in just over an hour. They are then moved into the cooler with its own bay door and loading dock, meaning that graders (Sparks Eggs and Burnbrae Farms, in Alberta, complete the inspection process for retail sales in grocery stores) do not have to ever set foot inside of the production area, maintaining a higher level of biosecurity.  The cooling unit itself is high efficiency, allowing them to build a significantly smaller refrigeration space whilst storing over 100,000 eggs (or approximately 2 weeks of production). 

The whole barn is coated with a material perfect for keeping clean.  Nothing sticks to it, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella, with a watertight seal throughout the entire facility. In theory, the entire building could be hosed down from top to bottom without a drop of water getting into the walls (which in the event of biosecurity hazards like avian flu outbreaks, could require full sanitization of a facility). Cleaning happens every single day, and once a week, every single room is cleaned top to bottom.  It is so spotless, you could eat off the floor. Not something you typically think of for a barn!

DYK: Eggs from the grocery store are all graded at a CFIA-certified grading station, where the first step is to wash them. Washing the eggs removes the natural protective coating off the egg, which is why here in Canada we refrigerate eggs to maintain their freshness. Egg shells are naturally semipermeable, so without that protective layer, eggs must be stored in the fridge to prevent gasses and bacteria from getting into the egg. Uninspected eggs that have not been graded can actually be kept on the counter for up to 3 months!

One of the most significant technological advancements is that the entire facility can be controlled remotely from a mobile device. That’s right, all the inner workings of egg farming can be managed from an app on your smartphone.  From individual temperature controls, lighting, ventilation, feeding and water sources – every input and output can be metered, monitored and adjusted without having to set foot in the facility. One of the feeding tanks not pushing through feed? There’s an alarm for that. Water usage increasing too much? The Facility Manager can check in (or be notified) from anywhere with either internet or cell service, meaning that issues can be identified and corrected in a much shorter time frame resulting in better overall care for the birds.

It also allows for the EFA and Ministry of Agriculture to collect more accurate and readily accessible data for measuring environmental impact for the industry.  In 2014, EFA also launched the Producer Environmental Egg Program (PEEP), the Canadian egg industry’s first environmental program. PEEP is a voluntary program intended to help Alberta egg farmers better identify their impacts on the environment and facilitate the use of best practices. This ensures that the Alberta egg industry continues to be recognized as a source of fresh, high-quality local food, and produced in an environmentally responsible manner.  Though a voluntary program, 100% of registered Alberta egg farmers have participated in PEEP, finding tremendous value in the insights it offers.

While there is always some initial uncertainty undertaking the project in the beginning, Brant Colony now says that they would not go back to traditional methods. Given its efficiency and data measuring, net-zero barns are the way of the future for the egg farming industry, with more popping up every year. It goes a long way towards achieving a more sustainable industry and helping to achieve Canada’s climate targets.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that nearly a quarter of total global emissions are related to agriculture, so it is no surprise that sustainability initiatives are making their way across other parts of the farming industry. Dairy Farmers of Canada has committed to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.  The Canadian beef industry is committed to reducing primary production greenhouse gas emission intensity by 33% by 2030. The Canadian government has even committed over $1 billion in new funding to accelerate the agriculture sector’s progress on reducing emissions and remains a global leader in sustainable agriculture.