US egg market at a crossroad?

24-06-2010 | |
US egg market at a crossroad?

Egg producers in the US carefully follow developments in animal welfare discussions both inside and outside the country. It is questioned if more states will follow California in banning cages. Some farmers have made the decision to change their production method to non-cage facilities. Demand for these cagefree eggs is also growing worldwide.

By Wiebe van der Sluis

By following the domestic demand for table and processed eggs, the US egg industry is witnessing growth each day of almost 0.1%. The majority of all layers are kept in cages, primarily making use of in-line poultry houses. Alternative systems of egg production continue to develop. Today it is estimated that about 5% of all eggs come from cage-free systems, including hens kept in barn and freerange housing. At present, cage-free eggs are seen to be niche products providing consumers with an alternative.
Modern egg farms operate in a completely free market system with no government assistance programmes or quotas. While these farms have grown to meet market demand, they are still classified as “Family Farms” with the owner still present on the farm making day-to-day decisions. Only two egg production companies in the US share ownership with publicly traded stocks.
Californian cage ban
Like in Europe, US egg producers have to deal with increasing pressure from animal welfare activists who want cage housing banned. One of the most powerful and wealthiest animal rights organisations is the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which has accumulated $113 million in assets and built a recognisable brand by capitalizing on the confusion its very name provokes. It does not spend money to finance animal shelters, but spends millions on programmes that seek to economically cripple meat and dairy producers; eliminate the use of animals in biomedical research labs; phase out pet breeding, zoos, and circus animal acts; and demonize hunters as crazed lunatics.
In 2008, this organisation, which strongly promotes veganism, initiated in the State of California a proposed law to ban cages. The ballot held in November 2008 showed that the majority of the voters in the Golden State were in favour of Proposition 2, which will result in a ban on cages by 2015. Big operations in the Midwest and South contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece to the $7.6 million spent to fight the measure, without success. Although Proposition 2 also bans pens for veal calves and gestation crates for pregnant pigs, the measure was really about egg-laying hens, which typically live eight to a 4-sq. ft cage.
Will other States adopt the ban?
The ban of cages in California will not stop people from eating eggs from caged hens, said the President of United Egg Producers (UEP) Gene Gregory at the International Egg Commission’s Spring Meeting in London. It will only stop egg farmers from producing caged eggs. Consumers, retailers, and food service companies will be forced to purchase these eggs from out of state, or ultimately out of country. For the time being the demand for caged eggs has not reduced. The result of the California vote stimulated HSUS to move its initiative to other states. The next target is Ohio.
Non-cage egg production
Meanwhile, various egg farmers all over the US wonder what to do – continue using the cage system, or convert to cagefree housing. Either way, the egg industry will face steep transition costs, and some may even choose to exit the business.
UEP gives full support to animal welfare guidelines that are produced scientifically, said Gregory, pointing at the organisation’s own guidelines. These guidelines suggest a minimum floor space of 67 and 76 sq. inch (432 and 490 sq. cm) for white and brown layers, respectively. There are minimum requirements for feeding and watering space per bird as well as ammonia and dust reduction.
These guidelines are to be followed voluntarily, and most egg producers in the US try to commit. The Pennsylvaniabased Hillandale Farms is one of them. Keeping 1.3 million layers, they are in the process of replacing all old cages by modern multi-tier cages with manure belts made by Tecno Poultry Equipment from Italy. This major project includes the removal of the deep litter pits, so extra space is available for the birds. Each house will now provide space for 186,000 white layers from which eggs are in-line collected and packed. The company is aware of the needs of bird welfare and runs a trial with non-cage layers. On their Gettysburg site they have a two-story house with 60,000 brown layers kept on an aviary system for the production of organic eggs. Despite a high number of floor eggs, results in this house are satisfactory, says farm manager Jim Bailly.
Composting litter
Expressing positive thoughts about non-cage production, the Keller family in Manheim, PA, run a typical Pennsylvanian family farm with just over 52,000 layers kept in two houses. In one house they keep birds on cages while in the second birds enjoy the freedom of a Red-L aviary system. Both father and son Keller are very pleased with the non-cage facility since it is their experience that birds kept on litter are much happier, show a better feed conversion, and produce far less dust. Since the family is producing eggs for the organic market they face high feed costs. Organic feed is three times the price of ordinary feed, but these extra costs, as they say, are not reflected in the extra price they receive for the eggs. They therefore successfully try to generate additional income from composting and selling the manure for organic crop production. Composting is a common practice for egg giant Kreider Farms too. This 5 million layer operation, head-quartered in Manheim, PA, has four production locations. They produce, pack and sell cage and non-cage eggs for major retail and food service companies. Although the company respects the UEP guidelines for animal welfare, it does not always follow them “to the letter”. Most of the layers kept in cages have floor space of 54-67 sq. inch per bird at the beginning of lay. Through replacing the old cages on dip pits by modern Tecno manure belt cages they were able to install 8-tier structures, providing more space for birds and more birds in one house. Kreider Farms collects all manure from the houses and 
transports it to their central composting centre. Here it is mixed with the dry matter from their 1,500 dairy cow unit and by-products from a nearby hatchery to make highquality compost for own use.
Agro tourism
Besides producing eggs and milk, Kreider Farms is very active in promoting agriculture to people living in the city. The company keeps a camcorder in its production units, shows videos on the internet, and organises farm tours to show visitors the reality of what it is like in dairy and chicken farming operations. This year alone it has already received some 20,000 visitors, who all get the chance to see what farming means. As a result of the visit, many develop an appreciation of the dedication that the farmers have toward animal welfare and environment protection concerns.
Many US poultry producers recognise that the attitude towards animal food production of those living in the city, the consumers of their products, as well as their clients, is changing. Through taking initiatives to open up the ‘secrets’ of farming and by showing the reality of the situation, they hope to demonstrate that it is not a cruel business as activists would like them to believe, but a tough animal caring business that only can survive by taking care of the animal’s fundamental needs.
Slow but steady growth in output
Over the past decade the US egg industry has seen slow (0.1-0.5%) growth in annual egg production and the average number of layers producing table eggs. Data released on August 2009 egg production in the US totalled 7.59 billion, according to the USDA, which is 1% up from 2008. This figure included 6.51 billion table eggs, and 1.08 billion hatching eggs. The total number of layers during August 2009 averaged 332 million, down 1% from 2008 (Figure 1). September figures show a similar drop. On 1 September the number of layers in the US totalled 333 million, which is also 1% less compared to figures from a year ago. These 333 million layers consisted of 277 million layers producing table or market type eggs, 52.7 million layers producing broiler-type hatching eggs, and 2.95 million layers producing egg-type hatching eggs (Figure 2). Interestingly, the rate of lay per day averaged 73.8 eggs per 100 layers, which compensates the drop in hen numbers.
Hatch and placement figures indicate that layer and egg numbers may increase soon, since the number of egg-type chicks hatched during August 2009 rose 4% from August 2008 to 37.2 million, while eggs in incubators on 1 September 2009 were also, although slightly, up from a year ago. Leading breeders also showed in August a 4% increase in placements of egg-type pullet chicks for future hatchery supply flocks.