Indoor hen houses mimic outdoors to give Rondeel chickens a better life

In 2003, the Dutch egg industry experienced a horrible outbreak of avian influenza in which 10 million hens — about one-third of the Dutch flock — were destroyed to bring the outbreak under control.

A Rondeel hen house in Holland is an indoor structure that simulates the outdoors, affording hens opportunities to explore a “range” that includes artificial grass, bark and places to jump to and perch.

The event “raised a lot of questions” about how to prevent such a disease and mass destruction of birds in the future, noted Ruud Zanders, general manager of the Rondeel division of Vencomatic.

Accordingly, egg farmers met with poultry scientists at Wageningen University and with retailers, animal welfare leaders and consumer representatives, and their meetings prompted many recommendations, including housing ideas that led to the Rondeel concept, he said.

“All of the people said this was the way of the future,” Zanders said.

It’s certainly the most visible and visited way of the future, as every Dutch poultry specialist who speaks at poultry conferences in the U.S. talks about the Rondeels and as the houses are built to accommodate visitors, on some days as many as 300-400 people.

There are currently three Rondeels in Holland, and a five-member delegation from the U.S. recently visited the newest one in Ewijk, Holland. The delegation, which included Feedstuffs, participated in a tour through the Netherlands to provide the Dutch government with feedback about animal welfare initiatives.

Second of two parts

Rondeels are indoor structures that simulate an outdoor environment, allowing hens to scamper around on “grass” in sunlight but keeping them indoors, where they are protected from pathogens and predators. A biosecurity enclosure separates them from people but allows visitors to get a close look at the birds’ care and welfare.

A Rondeel facility houses 30,000 hens in a large, round structure that’s divided into five sections, each with 6,000 hens. Each section has a day quarters in which hens can engage in natural behaviors, roaming around in sunlight that comes through clear, insulated tarplike roofs and walls that keep out the dirt, rain and wind. The hens roam around on artificial grass much like the type used in baseball or football stadiums and can dust bathe and forage.

Day quarters also include “a wooded fringe,” complete with bark that the birds carry back and forth and trees the birds can jump onto and perch. “It’s our way of bringing nature inside,” Zanders said.

Each section also has a night quarters to which the hens retreat after the sun sets. The night quarters provide places for the hens to drink, feed and rest and nests for laying eggs.

A Rondeel also has a sixth section, or “central core.”

The section’s bottom floor houses the egg-packing operations and provides the work area for the farmer to care for the hens.

The first floor has a conference room for business meetings and for meeting with consumers and other visitors, as well as a store for visitors to buy freshly laid eggs. It also opens into a tunnel that visitors can enter to get an eye-level view of the day quarters to watch the hens.

Zanders said consumers and other visitors come from all over the country “to see what we’re doing here. We don’t have secrets, and we’re very open and willing to talk about” how eggs are produced and how hens are cared for in a Rondeel house.

He said visitors are not required to make appointments, and it’s not unusual for 15-20 people to just show up every week, and on some days, busloads of 300-400 people may stop. (During the U.S. delegation’s visit to the Ewijk site, a carload of women stopped at the farm to walk around looking at the hens.)

The central core’s second floor houses two heat exchangers that are used for climate control in the night quarters and to pre-dry and dry manure that then is marketed to farmers as a crop fertilizer or to processors to produce garden and lawn ingredients.

Three-star responsibility

A Rondeel house produces about 30,000 eggs per day that are packed and sold exclusively to the Albert Heign supermarket system.

A Rondeel carton is referred to as a “Rondeel green box” because it’s made from potato starch and quickly decomposes in the “bio-box” composts that Dutch households keep. Each carton contains seven eggs, emphasizing a message that one should consume an egg every day.

Zanders said the carton has been quite successful in capturing consumers’ imagination. He said studies have shown that a consumer spends just eight seconds deciding if he or she wants to buy eggs and, if so, which eggs, and Rondeel eggs are chosen quickly.

He noted that Rondeel eggs have received the three-star “Beter Leven” quality rating from the Dutch Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals — a rating that actually is reserved for organic products, meaning that the society has high regard for the animal welfare environment in which the eggs are laid.

He also noted that Rondeel eggs have won “Miliekeur” recognition for the production system’s environmental sustainability.

Zanders said Rondeel egg production, therefore, is promoted in corporate social responsibility reports as having resolved “conflicts” involving animal welfare, environmental stewardship and the economics of production.

As for those economics, Zanders acknowledged that an egg farmer needs “a fair income,” one that reimburses him for the additional costs of a Rondeel production system. Thus, he said, in return for having the exclusive market for Rondeel eggs, Albert Heign purchases them on a contract that ties a base price to feed costs and fl uctuates with the feed costs.

At an Albert Heign supermarket in amsterdam, Rondeel eggs, which are brown eggs, were the most expensive, priced at €1.99 ($2.46) per seven-egg carton — or $4.22/doz. The least expensive were Ewo-shopper white eggs, which were €1.25 ($1.54) per 10-egg carton — or $1.85/doz.

Zanders said a Rondeel farmer owns his house, equipment and hens, which are normally paid for in 10-20 years. Zanders said the Rondeel division collects a small royalty from the egg sales.

Vencomatic, headquartered in Eersel, Holland, with offices and plants in Canada, the U.S., Brazil, the U.K. and Thailand, is a global manufacturer and supplier of poultry production equipment and housing and is recognized for animal welfare innovations. It is part of the Venco Group.

This article is written by Rod Smith and reprinted from the Aug. 27, 2012, edition of Feedstuffs Newspaper, USA.

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