The free range poultry farm near Young where hundreds of thousands of chooks have been destroyed. Photo: The Young Witness
An outbreak of bird flu near Young in October could throw free-range egg production in Australia into long-term disarray.
Nervous egg farmers won't risk investing in free-range operations after Langfield Pastoral Company, one of Australia's top 10 producers, stopped production in late October.
All 400,000 hens on the LPC property, and 50,000 on a neighbour's property were destroyed.
Production will not resume until blood tests on sentinel chickens on the affected farms show they are free of the virus.
A NSW Farmers spokesman said Woolworths' goal to phase out caged eggs by 2018 would not happen as a result of the outbreak.
A Department of Primary Industries spokesman said contact with wild birds most likely infected a free-range flock at Langfield. Contaminated equipment from that property most likely infected the second property with the H7 avian influenza.
''Restocking has now commenced and further testing is continuing to ensure the properties are disease-free,'' he said.
NSW Farmers egg committee chairman Bede Burke said Langfield had hoped to be back in production within six weeks, but nearly three months had passed and the operation was still awaiting clearance.
Mr Burke said losing control of operations, losing a market and consequently cash flow would be extremely hard for any producer.
''Others [egg producers] would have moved into the market they have had to walk away from, there are so many issues.
''I would be in a better financial position here if my farm burnt down and I got the value of my insured assets and my birds, than waiting three months to start up again.''
Mr Burke and his wife are in the top 20 Australian producers, with 106,000 birds at Tamworth, and have changed their plans because of the outbreak.
''We had a business plan and funding approval to put in 50,000 free-range birds. We have canned that, it's totally excluded from future operations,'' he said.
''The 1 per cent risk is just not worth it.
''People who have grown and expanded into free range in the past seven years, to be now 35-40 per cent of egg-production base, they are now carrying this risk factor that you cannot insure against and we don't include in our pricing structure for our eggs.''
Like the production of electricity, egg production needed a ''base load'' to meet demand, which was available from the large-scale caged sector.
''It would be foolish retailers who walk away from the cage industry, because we are able to provide that base load, 24/7 supply,'' Mr Burke said.
''To sum up and put things in perspective, we are all very nervous. We are very nervous about the risk of the disease, our price outcomes. We are nervous about investing in free-range set-ups, not just as a result of the disease outbreak but with this interrogation and intense division by regulatory authorities.''