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.
Counting your eggs
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.
World Egg Day
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.