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
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 Weber
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
Timed scratch feeder
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
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
above stamps a flat of eggs. Each egg shows the name of the farm,
region produced, date, and/or organic certification.
The finished product
The egg above 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
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 organic agriculture.
Jim Riddle is an active member of the organic
community. During the past 22 years, JIm 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 questions visit
The New Farm Certification Page.