Friday, October 2, 2009

Overview of Egg Industry for AGEC 1114 Students

This blog entry contains an overview of the egg industry for my AGEC 1114, Introduction to Agricultural Economics, class.

Overview of the Egg Industry

The breed of chickens used for egg production is an entirely different breed used for egg production. The egg production process starts at the hatchery, where hens and roosters breed naturally in a cage-free environment. Male chicks cannot lay eggs and they are not profitable to grow for meat, so they are killed soon after birth. The slaughter process can be viewed here. The female chicks are then sent to an egg farm, where 95% will be raised in a cage facility and the remainder are raised in a cage-free or free-range setting. (Show videos of cage and cage-free production, the UEP would not let me post them of free-range production available here).

Before the 1950's egg production took place on rather small, free-range farms. The hens were given access to the outside partially because the feed formulations in those days (animal nutrition was a nascent science at the time) were lacking in certain nutrients. The hens had to have sunlight for Vitamin D and to forage for nutrients lacking in the feed. Over time scientists learned how to formulate feed containing all the hens' nutritional needs. They also learned that it was less expensive to raise hens permanently indoors. By providing a constant, comfortable temperature, protecting the animal from predators, reducing the animals' movements so that they don't burn much energy, and and other technological advancements the industry reduced the cost of production. Between 1950-today those who did not transition to these factory farms had to go out-of-business because their costs were too high. The low production cost also led to a greater supply of eggs, and lower prices. These hens are egg factories; they will start laying at 17 weeks of age and until they are spent (slaughtered, harvested, whatever word you like) at 115 weeks of age. During this period she will lay more than 500 eggs.

The welfare of hens has received much attention lately. Let us discuss the pros and cons of the various available egg production systems.

Cage System - the hens are housed in a small, barren cage with five other hens for their entire lives. Their biological needs are met in that the house provides them with a comfortable environment, protects them from predators, and the cage protects them from aggression by other birds. Still, they must have their beaks trimmed at an early age to reduce aggression and injury from fighting birds (the trimming causes significant pain, but when done properly the pain is not permanent). The disadvantage is that birds undeniably have biological needs. They strongly desire to walk and move around. Yet the cage only provides 67 square inches per bird when the bird needs 75 square inches just to stand comfortably (and much, much more to flap their wings). The hens desire to utilize perches, forage for food, dustbathe, scratch in the dirt, and lay eggs in nests, but all of these needs are denied in the cage system.

Cage-Free System - the hens are housed in a large flock (greater than 20,000 birds) without a cage. The birds have two to three times the space per hen than in a cage system. To meet their biological needs they are given an area to scratch in the dirt for food, perches, and nests. The disadvantage of the cage system is that the large flock size encourages aggression. Birds regularly injure and cannibalize one another. For example, the mortality rate in a cage-free environment is 7-15% compared to 3% in a cage system. Beak trimming is performed to reduce injury and mortality, but mortality is still higher in the cage-free system compared to the cage system.

Free-Range System - birds in a free-range system typically have all of their needs met and are happy birds, were it not for predators. Some farms have lose 25% of their birds or more to predators.

Economics, Efficiency, and the Environment - the cage system is the less expensive system because it requires less inputs for each egg produced. This means that less water, pesticides, corn, and the like are used to produce an egg. Those who are concerned about the environment sometimes tout the efficiency of the cage system because it produces less environmental pollution than cage-free eggs.

Public Debates - in the last ten years the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has begun a campaign to ban cage egg production. For example, they arranged a petition to allow a ballot initiative in California which essentially asked taxpayers if they wanted to ban cage egg production. It passed with a large majority of Californians. A similar effort may pass in Michigan, but through the legislature and without a referendum. The HSUS is undoubtedly trying to ban cage egg production everywhere they can. The egg industry, represented by the United Egg Producers (UEP) argues that cage egg production is humane and that the real agenda of the HSUS is to ban the eating of animal products. The directors of HSUS are typically vegan and can be considered animal rights activists. However, the HSUS membership is largely comprised of meat-eaters and the HSUS board is filled by both vegans and meat-eaters.

Cage-Free Egg Production - a market for cage-free egg production does exist, but only comprises 5% of egg production. Part of the reason is that the premiums charged to consumers at the grocery store is often three times more than the higher cost of cage-free production. If grocery stores charged a price more consistent with the cost of production the market for cage-free production would be much larger. The current environment is one where the UEP and HSUS are battling over whether cage egg production is banned, but one in which there is very little effort on anyone's part to actively promote cage-free production. That is, the battle is being waged on whether we force consumers to consume cage-free eggs, not a battle for market share between cage and cage-free egg production.