A state and federal government decision on a standardised hen-to-hectare ratio has ruffled the feathers of Gippsland free range egg farmers.
From this month, free range eggs require an outdoor stocking of 10,000 hens or less per hectare as part of appropriate bird density standards.
The bird density figure will also be required to be included on the carton label.
Marnie Ellis of Gippsland Free Range Eggs in Glengarry said her farm was stocked at one per cent of the approved standard with under 100 birds per hectare.
The 1000-hen property supplies eggs locally to restaurants and cafes through their farm gate and once a month at the Traralgon Farmers’ Market.
While recognising such density numbers were not achievable for everyone, Ms Ellis said 10,000 birds per hectare was a “very packed, tight and overcrowded situation”, unlike what customers envisioned when they bought free range eggs.
“When you think about ‘free range’ you conjure up an image of green grass. There’s no possible way there would be green grass in one week on such a property,” she said.
Ms Ellis said she thought the big players in the egg industry were pushing for the stocking density to be higher, giving little say to smaller producers who ensured hens always had access to fresh pasture.
She said a threshold of 1500 birds per hectare would have been a more reasonable limit.
“It’s unfair to call these farms free range, but we fall in the same category,” Ms Ellis said.
Gormandale certified biodynamic egg farmer Ian Onley agreed hens would not be getting any fresh grass with the announced stocking rates, nor would birds go “wherever and whenever they like”.
Mr Onley said grass was an important part of a hen’s diet and decided he would continue to call his eggs ‘free range pastured eggs’.
“We always have green grass as the hens are moved constantly to fresh pasture as part of our certification,” he said.
Rosedale free range egg farmers Greg Forster and Felicity Cassano, with a low rate of 18 birds per hectare at their six month-old farm, said the standard failed to recognise the economy of egg farming practices.
Like other Gippsland free range egg farmers, the couple has opted for a rotational pasture-based system and mobile roosts moved to ensure access to fresh grass.
“There isn’t a way to differentiate how we farm compared to a farm that does 10,000 birds (per hectare), that’s the biggest problem,” Mr Foster said.
In a statement, Small Business Minister Kelly O’Dwyer said animal welfare issues relating to free range eggs would be considered as part of the review of the model code for poultry by the Agriculture Minister with public consultation beginning in September.