Concern over animal welfare is driving demand for ‘pastured’ eggs as an alternative to caged and free range production.
Farmers such as Alexi Cox and Mark Dragan are riding a boom, created by a backlash against new free range stocking density rates in Australia.
On the outskirts of the Sunshine Coast’s trendy Peregian Beach village, Ms Cox, a former film industry assistant, didn’t set out to be full-time pastured egg producer.
But when she and her husband opened Dragan Farms two years ago, their customers made that decision for her.
“We started with 20 chickens and we kept selling out [of eggs]. Then we got another 30 [chickens] and then we went for 300. Now we’ve got 1,200,” Ms Cox said.
Their chickens chase insects and roam in open paddocks, laying and sleeping in a series of mobile sheds that need to be moved every two days to fresh pasture.
Ninety per cent of Ms Cox’s pastured eggs, chemical-free fruit, vegetables and honey are sold directly from the farm, allowing them to keep egg prices to between $6 and $8 a dozen.
So what are pastured eggs?
Lee McCosker runs a licensing and accreditation company called PROOF — Pasture Raised On Open Fields.
It is an independent certification program for producers of pork, chicken, beef, lamb, and pastured eggs, which can retail for up to $11 a dozen.
“We focus on the actual way that the eggs are produced. They have to be outside, they have to be farmed in a mobile system where there is paddock rotation, and the soils and the pasture are also managed,” Ms McCosker said.
“It’s much more labour intensive so therefore the eggs are more expensive than those produced under really intensive commercial systems.”
Ms McCosker said pastured eggs offered an alternative to intensive production.
She described Australia’s new national definition of free range, introduced in April this year, as “flawed”.
Australian Eggs managing director Rowan McMonnies said consumers concerned about stocking rates would find them displayed on free range egg cartons.
Sunny Queen Eggs sets a free range maximum of 1,500 birds per hectare and provides logs, perches, dust baths and trees for its birds. It also live streams a video from a farm.
Australia’s appetite for all types of eggs has increased by 54 per cent over the past decade, setting a new production record of close to 6.2 billion eggs last financial year.
Scrambled, poached, fried and baked, 16.9 million eggs were eaten every day, an equivalent of 245 eggs, per person, per year.
The figures released by Australian Eggs reveal that for the first time last financial year, more free range eggs were sold than caged eggs.
Free range eggs accounted for 45 per cent of sales compared to 44 per cent for caged eggs.
Animal welfare proved a key concern for more than 12,500 people who took part in a CSIRO survey commissioned by Australian Eggs, an industry marketing and research and development group.
It revealed that consumers value the eggs as a household staple but that the industry faces challenges in developing deeper levels of trust with consumers.
Mr McMonnies said caged egg farmers provided an affordable product and stood by their animal welfare practices.
“There are consumers out there that only ever buy caged eggs, for whom affordability is a really key driver, and they’re large in number.
Like dollar-a-litre milk, some eggs are heavily discounted by supermarkets.
Prices are under pressure from increased grain prices due to drought.
Mr McMonnies said a dozen caged eggs generally sold for about $3 a dozen, barn laid for $4 to $4.50 and free range for about $6 to $7.
Then there’s pastured eggs.
But quantifying the rise in the popularity of pastured eggs is hard to do.
“It very regularly is under the radar,” Mr McMonnies said.
“It is local sometimes in its nature and it’s not possible to observe the value or the volume of eggs that are going through those markets, often selling at farm gate sometimes to local cafes and restaurants.
“There are not many very large players that are supplying on a pastured basis to isolate it through a supermarket segment.”
Dean Mayne from Piggy in the Middle at Kilkivan near Gympie in south-east Queensland made a conscious decision to advertise his family’s eggs as pastured rather than free range.
“We’re PROOF accredited and we feel that that’s probably the best for our situation and has probably got the most values.”
The Maynes have increased their flock from 200 to 900 birds but they have no plans for further expansion because of the work involved in producing pastured eggs.
“They’re very popular, we probably can’t produce enough. We sell out at every weekend market, it’s really good,” Mr Mayne said.
“The yolks are nice and orange and the white is so firm when you crack ’em. It just doesn’t compare.”