Lessons from Canadian hen housing’s major overhaul

“Change is the only constant in life,” said Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher.

For millennia, this adage has held true in agriculture. Farmers regularly adjust to weather, trends, technology, trade agreements, global production and consumers’ evolving preferences.

But sometimes, a change comes into play that makes us rethink everything – and this is what egg farmers across Canada are managing right now.

Early in 2016, Egg Farmers of Canada (EFC) announced that, on behalf of more than 1,000 Canadian egg farms, they would begin a co-ordinated, market-oriented transition away from the conventional egg production housing systems. EFC opted to instead use enriched, free run and aviary systems to house laying hens.

The move was based on the demands of customers (grocers, restaurant chains and consumers). Eggs produced in higher-welfare housing systems allow hens greater freedom of movement and enrichments like nesting areas, perches and foraging opportunities. The transition will occur gradually over 20 years, reaching completion in 2036.

Egg farmers have already started building new barns and retrofitting old ones. They’ve had to adjust and embrace the change to succeed.  And whether they are using the term or simply living it – this is “change management.”

One of the world’s foremost authorities on change management is Dr. John P. Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School. The advice in his book Leading Change, including this eight-step change process, is accepted across industries and helps achieve successful transformations for businesses.

Executing these steps well, in the context of a farming operation facing major change, could mean the difference between mediocre performance (or failure) and a stellar performance. Whether it’s a matter of moving from one housing or milking system to another, or adding new land, crops or species, following these eight steps can elevate the outcome. So how is it done, and how have egg farmers been doing this?

1. Establish a sense of urgency

Ensure all family members and employees know that a change is planned, and without it, the business may suffer or even shut down. Urgency should be well-established. For example, new housing for hens isn’t an option, it’s a mandate. Farm management needs to buy in for the next steps to work well. 

2. Create a guiding coalition or working team

Decide who will help implement the change. For any farm, they are the leaders who will help with sourcing and purchasing. They will research logistics on the new way of operating, train employees, work on marketing and price new equipment.

The coalitions on egg farms must decide on new housing types and equipment that can present greater challenges: higher dust levels, potentially higher levels of feather-pecking and more labour to move birds out at the end of a production cycle.

3. Develop a vision and strategy

With key players and details sorted out, a vision and a strategy should be created for what success looks like.  Ensure the coalition can describe a successful future and develop a strategy to get there. 

4. Communicate the change vision

Because success hinges on how the vision is executed, communicate frequently and tie in every aspect of the operation. Egg farmers need new housing sourced, built and performing well – ensuring high bird welfare and human health, minimal environmental impact and sustainability of egg production and pricing.

5. Empower employees for broad-based action

With a strategy and structure in place, check for barriers, and remove them. Obstacles could be emotional (nostalgia or resistance) or situational. Dealing with situational barriers quickly helps empower everyone involved in executing the vision and keeps change moving forward. 

6. Generate short-term wins

Success in the face of major change doesn’t have to focus on one long-term goal – successes should start small and all should be celebrated. It could be an equipment delivery, installation or the first shipment of eggs from a new system. This is a “We did it!” moment.

7. Consolidate gains and produce more change

Take those small wins and build on them. Identify what went right and what needs improving, essentially consolidating gains and producing more change. Don’t declare victory too early – many failures are caused by this trap. 

8. Anchor new approaches in the culture

Finally, anchor new approaches in the culture of the farm. Make your ideals known to everyone: family, staff and your customers. Don’t forget your original change coalition – recognize and reward their efforts, and carry their vision forward, always improving. Make sure your entire team feels proud of the results.

And never lose sight of why the change was implemented in the first place.

From an AgriSuccess article by Kim Sheppard.