In 1773, on his second voyage to New Zealand, James Cook gave hens to Māori in both the North and South islands. Missionaries in the Bay of Islands were the first recorded poultry farmers in 1814. Many early settlers had a few hens in the backyard to supply eggs. Chicken meat was a luxury, eaten perhaps only once or twice a year – often a non-laying hen or old rooster. Domestic poultry also included ducks, geese and turkeys, but chickens were by far the most popular and numerous.
In 1896 the New Zealand government appointed its first poultry expert. Soon after, several state poultry stations were set up to evaluate approved strains of poultry and farm and breed them. The emphasis at this time was mostly on egg production, although heavy breeds were recognised as being useful for both eggs and meat.
At the beginning of the 20th century, chickens – often called chooks – were kept in coops and runs in the backyards of about half of New Zealand households. Poultry farmers used similar set-ups, or kept hens in fields in ‘mobile arks’, which could be moved when the ground became muddy. Some farmers kept hens indoors in a barn, with a litter floor and nest boxes for egg-laying. The intensive system, where birds are kept indoors throughout their productive life, was first used in 1915 and soon became the most widespread.
Improved laying strains were imported to the state poultry stations, and their eggs or chicks were sold to the public. These were such breeds as the Campine, White and Brown Leghorn, Minorca, Wyandotte and Orpington. White Leghorns and Orpingtons were the most popular.
Before the mid-20th century, poultry meat was very much a by-product of the egg industry and involved mainly laying birds that had finished their productive life. This changed during the Second World War, when American hospitals and convalescent homes in the Pacific requested table poultry year round. Producers and retailers were pressured to improve standards, and in 1944 a Poultry Flock Improvement Plan was introduced by the New Zealand Poultry Board and administered by the Department of Agriculture.
After the mid-20th century specialised breeds have been developed for either meat or egg production.
Day-old chicks are sexed so that future egg-layers can be segregated. The Department of Agriculture held the first chick-sexing examinations in 1935, and in 1943 chick sexing was considered so important that those carrying out the work were prevented from enlisting for military service.
The scale of production significantly increased after the introduction in the early 1930s of cabinet incubators, which allowed large numbers of eggs to hatch at the same time. This enabled poultry farming to evolve into large-scale commercial operations.
The life of a chicken raised for meat starts at the breeder farm. The most common breeds used in the poultry meat industry in New Zealand are the Cobb (developed by the Cobb Vantress breeding company in the US) and the Ross (developed by Aviagen in Scotland), both of which are white. New Zealand imports eggs from these two companies.
There are strict biosecurity regulations for importing the eggs, which are incubated and hatched in quarantine. The hatchlings become the great-grandparent flock, which produce grandparent stock, which in turn produce parent stock – it is the offspring of the parent stock that are raised for meat production.
The synchronised hatching of commercial chickens is important to ensure they are all the same size and reach maturity together. This is achieved by having similarly-sized eggs and uniform incubation conditions for egg hatching. In some bird species, hatching is naturally synchronised. Before ducklings hatch, for example, they communicate with each other by making clicking noises, signalling when to start chipping their way out of the egg. The ducklings then hatch simultaneously, so they can follow their mother together and reduce the risk of predation.
Eggs from the parent stock are sent to a hatchery, where they are incubated for 21 days. After hatching, day-old chicks are transported to meat-chicken farms.
Meat chickens are not housed in cages, but are kept in large barns. They have access to food and water, and are able to move about inside the barn on wood shavings or paper litter. Each shed generally contains 25,000–45,000 chicks, depending on size and planned processing weight. The chickens are raised until they reach the ideal weight (in 32–42 days).
About 1.4% of meat chickens in New Zealand are raised in free-range production systems, where chickens have access to an outdoor area or range. There are no legal standards for how much outside space each hen must have, but the Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2005 recommends 11 square metres for laying hens.
Poultry-meat processing companies contract farmers or growers to rear chickens from day-old chicks through to their processing weight. The processor maintains ownership of the flock – the contract farmer or grower provides land, labour and buildings, which must meet company specifications. The processing companies provide training, technical and veterinary expertise, feed, and the chicks. To minimise transportation costs, farms are usually less than 50 kilometres from processing plants.
Each grower is given a company manual, and personnel are available 24 hours a day to help where necessary. The grower receives a specified amount for rearing flocks of chickens, and payment generally includes a performance-based component. Growers generally rear around six flocks a year.
In 2009, 137,000 tonnes of chicken meat was produced, with carcasses averaging 1.74 kilograms each – more than 79 million chickens.
The New Zealand poultry industry has been dominated by chickens for many years. While other countries farm large numbers of other poultry such as turkey or duck, the market share of chickens in New Zealand has not slipped below 98% since the 1990s.
Frozen poultry once dominated the market, but now fresh meat is far more popular, with 75-80% of poultry being sold fresh. However, people often buy fresh poultry and freeze it at home.
The speciality poultry industry in New Zealand is growing, as international cuisines become more popular. Specialty poultry breeds grown for meat include turkey, duck, guinea fowl, goose, quail, poussin (young chicken), pheasant and squab (young pigeon).
At the beginning of the 20th century, New Zealanders ate only about 100 eggs each per year; in 2009 they ate 230 – more than Australia, Canada, Brazil and the UK. The government began to encourage domestic egg production in the early 20th century because eggs had high food value and coops were easy to set up, yet eggs were expensive to buy and not readily available in stores.
In the days before organised marketing, local supplies sometimes exceeded local demand, so in 1912 the Department of Agriculture exported a trial shipment of eight 30-dozen cases of eggs to Vancouver. These arrived in excellent condition.
By 1913, organised cooperative ‘egg circles’ sent shipments to Vancouver and London. Between the world wars larger consignments were shipped.
In 1953 the New Zealand Egg Marketing Authority was established, helping farmers form a single, well organised industry. As demand for eggs increased, farmers kept larger flocks. A 1960 survey of 120 poultry farms showed that flock sizes ranged from 750 to over 3,500 hens. Canterbury had the largest flocks of up to 8,000 birds, probably because of the ready availability of grain for feed.
The national average egg production in 1960 was 194 eggs per hen. Today’s laying-hen breeds are chosen for egg yield and size, economical feeding and survival. Specialised egg-laying breeds include the Shaver Brown, Shaver White, Hyline White and Hyline Brown – these hens lay about 300 eggs each a year.
In 2009 New Zealand had some 130 commercial egg producers, with the largest 20 companies accounting for over 75% of total production. An estimated national flock of 3.4-3.5 million hens laid 83 million dozen eggs per year.
Two hatcheries in New Zealand hatch eggs in controlled-environment cabinets and sell day-old chicks to farmers. Producers can also buy 16–18-week-old pullets, which will begin laying eggs a few weeks later.
The time taken for layer chicks to reach maturity and start producing eggs has decreased – from 22–24 weeks in the 1970s to about 20 weeks in the early 2000s. Hens now reach maturity faster because they have been bred to do so.
Feed makes up 60–70% of the total cost of producing eggs. The remaining costs relate to livestock housing and care, and egg processing, packaging, storage, distribution and marketing.
In the late 1980s price and production controls were abolished in the egg industry. Although the prices paid to producers for eggs were reduced, there was no corresponding price drop for consumers.
In memory of Humpty Dumpty and other famous eggs, World Egg Day is celebrated every year on the second Friday in October.
Consequently, the number of commercial egg producers has declined rapidly. Many producers now sell directly to wholesalers and retailers, rather than through cooperatives.
Cage or battery farms supply 89% of eggs in New Zealand. A cage is usually just over half a square metre, while so-called enriched cages are larger and have a perch, nest box and dust bath. Cage floors are made of mesh and are gently sloped, allowing the eggs to roll out. Eggs are collected by hand or in an automated system by conveyor belt. Feed is available from a trough in front of the cage, and water from dispensers. Manure drops through the mesh floor of the cage, and in automated systems is carried away by conveyor belt.
Even in the early days of the poultry industry, hen housing was a matter for debate. An article in the 1910 issue of the Journal of Agriculture stated that ‘The proper housing of fowls is one of the most discussed questions of the day. … The old, closed in and ill ventilated house must go. The open front and draught proof structure is the ideal’. 1
Free-range farms supply 9.7% of eggs in New Zealand. The typical, medium-sized farm has 5,000–10,000 birds, while small farms can have as few as 3,000 hens and larger operations up to 60,000. The birds move freely inside a shed, which is fitted with nest boxes and perches. Pop-holes provide access to an outdoor area called the range, although it is not known whether all the hens spend time there.
Barn production systems supply 1.4% of eggs. The birds live inside a shed fitted with nest boxes and perches, but never go outside.
Occasionally you might find a blood spot on a yolk. They are caused during the egg’s formation by a ruptured blood vessel on the yolk’s surface. Less than 1% of eggs sold have blood spots, as they are normally removed during quality checking. You can eat the egg as usual, or remove the spot.
After the eggs have been collected, they are examined for quality. In a process called candling, a bright light is shone through the egg to show up defects. Dirty, cracked or thin-shelled ones are removed. Those with cracks – about 15% – are processed into liquid or dried form, and used in commercial baking and cooking.
Whole eggs that have been approved by candling are graded for packing. The minimum size for gradings are 35 grams for a pullet (size 4), 44 grams for a medium (size 5), 53 grams for a standard (size 6), 62 grams for a large (size 7), and 68 grams for a jumbo (size 8). Mixed-grade eggs vary in size.
Double-yolked eggs are sometimes produced by birds when they first start laying. They are caused when the bird’s ovaries release two yolks at once which grow together within a single shell. Eggs with two yolks are often larger, although sometimes they are small but heavy for their size. About one in every 1,000 eggs has two yolks.
Eggshell colour varies from white to caramel-brown. There is no difference in quality or taste between eggs of different colours. Shell colour is genetically determined – breeds derived from the Rhode Island Red (such as the Shaver Brown and Hyline Brown) produce brown eggs, while those from the Leghorn (such as the Shaver White and Hyline White) produce white eggs. The colour of a hen’s eggs can be determined by examining her feathers and ear lobes – hens with red feathers and ear lobes produce brown eggs, while those with white feathers and ear lobes produce white eggs. New Zealand customers tend to prefer brown eggs, which in 2009 made up 95% of eggs.
The yolk makes up a third of the liquid weight of an egg. It contains all of the fat and just under half the protein. All of the egg's zinc and vitamins A, D and E are in the yolk, which also contains more phosphorus, manganese, iron, iodine, copper, and calcium than the white. Yolk colour depends on the hen’s diet – hens fed corn produce the golden yolks preferred by most New Zealanders, while those fed wheat or barley lay paler yolks.
In the 2000s a wider range of eggs has become available, including organic, omega-3-enriched, and those produced by hens given whole-grain or vegetarian feed.
The welfare of laying hens is guided by the Animal Welfare (Layer Hen) Code of Welfare 2005, which was created by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, a ministerial committee made up of animal-welfare experts and advisors.
The use of growth hormones is a contentious issue in the poultry industry internationally. The Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand states that hormones have never been used in poultry meat production, and that poultry is the only meat in New Zealand that is regularly and independently tested for the presence of hormones, and found free of them. Producers who label their chicken as having ‘no added hormones’ are simply stating industry policy, not differentiating their product.
Students in New South Wales, Australia, wanted to test the truth of the ‘no hormones’ statement. They raised two groups of chickens – one bred for meat, the other for eggs – and compared their weight after six weeks. The meat chickens were three times heavier – their genes were geared towards faster growth.
The fast growth-rate of meat chickens is due to advances in genetics and breeding, and New Zealand’s high standards of farming and nutrition – and not to the use of hormones.
Antibiotics have been used in meat, milk and egg production in New Zealand since government approval in the 1960s.
Antibiotics are routinely mixed into prepared feed or water to reduce the likelihood of intestinal infection. Their use has been questioned because routine exposure invariably produces resistant strains.
When high doses of antibiotics are used to control or treat disease, a withholding period is enforced to ensure no residue is left in the meat or eggs. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority regularly audits and tests antibiotic use and residues in marketed products.
Salmonella and Campylobacter cause gastroenteritis, which results in mild to severe diarrhoea, and in a few cases death. Although the heat of normal cooking kills both these organisms, care should be taken when handling eggs. In the 1990s the New Zealand poultry industry made efforts to reduce Salmonella levels in meat, and in 2009 it was present on 0.1% of carcasses (compared with 15–20% in the US). Salmonella bacteria was not found in New Zealand eggs, but was present on some shells.
In the early 2000s the poultry industry worked to reduce campylobacter prevalence on chicken meat. This resulted in a 60% drop in the monthly case rate over four years.
Cages were first used to protect hens from predators such as hawks, stoats and ferrets, and prevent birds pecking each other. Cages with automatic waste removal keep hygiene standards high, and minimise contact with wild birds which may carry disease.
Opponents of caging argue that the practice restricts hens’ movement and natural lifestyle, and causes health and behaviour problems. In the European Union battery cages have been phased out, and they will be banned in New Zealand from 2022. The New Zealand public increasingly prefers free-range eggs.
Removal of the point of the beak of newly hatched chickens is practised in all poultry farming systems to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism, which often occur when large numbers of birds are housed together. Modern beak tipping is done with an infrared beam that cauterises the very tip, where there is no nervous tissue. The part exposed to the beam drops off in one to four weeks. The earlier practice of beak tipping with a hot blade is very rarely used in New Zealand.
Opponents of this practice argue that it limits hens’ ability to forage and preen, and that reducing the numbers of hens kept together would prevent the problem.
New Zealand poultry is free from the three major bird diseases: Newcastle disease, infectious bursal disease and notifiable avian influenza. Birds in New Zealand do not need to be vaccinated against these diseases.
New Zealand poultry are unlikely to contract highly pathogenic notifiable avian influenza (bird flu), because the country is not on the flight path of migratory birds that spread the disease, and there are no imports of fresh or frozen poultry meat, eating eggs, or live poultry.
The Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand (PIANZ) represents the interests of poultry processing and breeding companies. Membership is voluntary, but over 99% of the country’s chicken meat producers are members. PIANZ secures representation before boards, committees and commissions. They also co-ordinate research and development in livestock breeding, industry training, promotion and public relations.
Eggs have a reputation for being high in cholesterol, but eating fewer eggs has little, if any, effect on blood cholesterol levels. This is because when cholesterol is eaten, the body makes less in order to maintain the right balance.
Together, the four largest poultry-meat producers supply over 99% of the country’s poultry meat. They are Tegel Foods (operating in Auckland, New Plymouth and Christchurch), Inghams Enterprises (Waikato), PH van den Brink (Christchurch and South Auckland) and Turks Poultry (Manawatū).
The remaining 1% of the market is distributed between about 10 smaller producers who cater for niche markets. They produce a range of poultry alongside chickens, with some specialising in just one species such as duck or turkey.
New Zealanders now eat more chicken than any other type of meat. Consumption has increased from less than 1 kilogram per person per year in the late 1960s to 30.4 kilograms in 2009. Production has increased to meet this demand.
The increase in demand is due to:
The Egg Producers Federation of New Zealand (EPFNZ) was formed in July 1989 to represent commercial egg producers. Membership is mandatory under the Commodity Levies (Eggs) Order 2009 – any person or organisation that buys 100 or more day-old layer chicks automatically becomes a member. The EPFNZ is funded by a levy which is incorporated into the price of the chicks, and is payable on chicks up to five days old when sold for the first time. 60% of the EPFNZ levy is used to fund Eggs Inc., an organisation that promotes eggs.
The ‘best-before’ date on an egg carton tells you how long the eggs are safe to eat. During this period (usually about 35 days) there is little change in the nutritional value of the eggs, but their appearance and cooking qualities may change. Fresher eggs hold their shape better when poached or fried, but hard-boiled eggs are much easier to peel if the eggs are over a week old.
In the early 2000s significant numbers of live day-old chicks and fertile hatching eggs were exported to the Pacific Islands and other regions of Oceania. New Zealand also exports a small amount of eating eggs and egg products, mainly to the Pacific Islands.
Fermor, Charles Edward. Good poultry keeping. London: Hodder and Stoughton for English Universities Press, 1947.
Poultry farming in New Zealand. Wellington: Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, 1974.
Stewart, M. W. Profitable poultry keeping. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1958.