'Living in the barns': What it takes to run an egg farm in B.C.'s extreme heat

This week, farmers are better equipped for the heat thanks to lessons they learned during last year's heat dome. But what does it cost to keep livestock healthy, and how much extra work is it to run a climate resilient farm?

Farmers across B.C. learned valuable lessons during last year's heat dome about what it takes to keep their livestock healthy in extreme weather events.Pramote Polyamate/Moment/Getty Images

Farmer Mark Siemens upgraded the barns on his free range egg farm about seven years ago, just after he inherited the Abbotsford, B.C farm from his dad.

Siemens’s new barns tower above the surrounding pastures, built tall to allow room for the multiple tiers inside that his chickens can freely hop between.

But it isn’t the hopping up and down that Siemens’s 20, 000 chickens will be most grateful for this week. Instead, the complex cooling system installed in his newest barns will likely take centre stage. 

Tunnel ventilation and cooling pads are the main reasons Siemens said he avoided becoming one of many farmers who ended up “living in the barns” during last year’s heat dome.

“In some of the older [barns] you need that constant monitoring to make [temperature] adjustments,” Siemens said. “So you'll see other farmers living [in their barn] until they can afford to upgrade or build new.” 

Fans, misters and cooling pads — devices that look like giant radiators mounted on the exterior of the barn — act collectively as a sort of “air conditioning for chickens,” BC Egg Marketing Board spokesperson Amanda Brittain said. 

Additionally, flushing water lines to provide cool water and hosing down barn roofs are two less technical techniques farmers learned to employ during the depths of last year’s heat.

“It's as simple as it sounds: they will put a sprinkler on the roof and run it or they will stand there with a hose and cool down the roof of the barn,” Brittain said.

The cost of farming in extreme heat

However, for some farmers, the learning curve of how and when to employ these cooling strategies was steep and deadly for their livestock.

At least 651,000 farm animals were killed last year between June 24 and June 30, according to data from several industry groups obtained through freedom-of-information requests.

Even Siemens, whose barn is automated to send him temperature alerts, found himself working 16 hour days just to make sure his chickens were healthy and his cooling systems weren’t failing him.

“Only once the lights were out and the barn had cooled off, then I’d go home,” he said. 

“I had my wife bring me my meals out there because we wanted to make sure that the birds were good and we wanted to see what the system was going to do [in the heat].”

No matter how high-tech a barn is, Siemens said heat waves often demand farmers be on high alert because of the constant threat of technical failure. 

“You have to be vigilant because equipment can fail,” Siemens said. “And if you're not there, then the computer can't fix it for you.”

While this week’s high temperatures aren’t nearly as worrying to Siemens as last year’s heat dome, he said he thinks most farmers are feeling generally more prepared for extreme heat in the future.

“Anyone who needed to make upgrades has made those over the past year and is more prepared for these kinds of new highs,” he said. “That makes us more comfortable.”

Help is on the way

With the expectation of more extreme weather events in the future, many farmers are now carrying the financial burden that comes with keeping their livestock healthy in a changing climate.

To abate this burden, the B.C. government just opened applications for its brand new agricultural climate resilience program. 

In its pilot phase, farmers and ranchers in B.C. can apply for the Extreme Weather Preparedness for Agriculture Program until Aug. 15 or whenever funding is fully allocated. 

The program has three streams: wildfire, extreme heat and flooding preparedness. If successful, applicants to the extreme heat stream could receive between 20 to 80 per cent cost share reimbursements for on-farm projects up to $35,000. 

Examples of extreme heat-related projects include improved barn cooling systems, extreme heat protection for outdoor livestock and enhanced livestock watering.

This program is a recognition of the expected long-term relationship with extreme weather events that farmers are learning to adapt to, Brittain said.

“I think this extreme weather is becoming the new normal,” she said. “There's some recognition that longer-term solutions are going to be required and everybody is very interested in keeping up.”

For Siemens, who applied to the program when it opened a couple of days ago, keeping up means installing cooling systems in the barns where his younger chickens live. He’s hoping the funding from this new program can help him install this extra layer of security. 

Even though his youngest chickens actually require warmth to grow, Siemens said if a heat wave hit just before or while moving them to the older chickens' barn, cooling systems could be crucial.

“In the past, we didn't need cooling in those barns at all,” Siemens said. “It's kind of this new reality. The odds are nine years out of 10, I won't need it. But I definitely want that cool air when I need it.”

When does adaption reach its limits?

Camille Labchuk, lawyer and executive director of the advocacy group Animal Justice, said since the data on excess farm animal deaths during B.C.’s heat dome was obtained, nothing has changed to prevent it from happening again. 

While the provincial government is providing funding to make Canada’s agriculture sector more climate-resilient, Labchuk said she would like to see new government legislation.

She said the recent extreme weather should be enough to prompt new laws requiring the agricultural industry to have disaster plans in place for situations such as extreme heat or flooding.

“There's no rules limiting numbers of animals, for instance, to a number that can be reasonably evacuated or cared for,” Labchuk said. “There's nothing in the way of mitigation efforts that farmers have to take, required by law.”

The National Farm Animal Council is an industry organization that sets voluntary guidelines, but Labchuk said they are generally too vague to be effective.

More serious, government-enforced legislations need to be put into place, Labchuk said, because these extreme weather patterns are “only going to get worse.”

“We're sort of at the beginning of this new climate reality,” she said. 

“I think it's very clear that with over 600,000 animals dying in both the extreme heat last summer and the floods in the fall, animals are being left behind right now in disaster planning.”

With clearly laid-out government legislation, Labchuk said it could become less expensive for farmers to protect their animals when climate disasters occur. However, in the long-term, Labchuk said there’s a greater solution that needs to be implemented.

Protecting farm animals from climate disasters is “paradoxical,” according to Labchuk, because agriculture is a major emitter of the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.

“If we don't start transitioning away [from farming animals] and toward a more plant-based food system… we're never going to solve the climate crisis,” Labchuk said. While plant-based foods aren’t exactly immune from climate disasters, Labchuk said slowing down animal-based agriculture would mean that more resources can be directed towards protecting crops grown for direct human consumption.

Egg production conditions remain stable

For now, egg farmers across B.C. continue to operate business as usual and egg consumers can rest assured there are no shortages in sight, according to Brittain.

“There are a lot of hens in this province and they don't all live in the Lower Mainland… so consumers should not be worrying about shortages,” Brittain said.

“Individual farms are going to see a reduction in production, but it'll pick up again as soon as it cools down.”