Agriculture and Harvest Public Media
5:00 am
Mon April 15, 2013

New cages and carton labels could come to egg industry

Mark Tjelmeland wears Carhartt overalls over a faded blue work shirt and his face is framed by a baseball cap from the local farmers’ cooperative and a curly white beard. He shows me around his homestead in McCallsburg, Iowa, about 20 miles northeast of Ames. This third-generation farmer grows traditional corn and soybeans on one of his farms. But on this one, he’s got a four-crop rotation of certified organic corn, soybeans, oats and hay. And three acres of pasture for his 700 laying hens.

As he leads me toward the henhouse, he pauses to greet his llama which, along with a donkey, has the job of protecting the chickens from wildlife. The free-range chickens lay 45 dozen eggs per day in indoor nesting boxes, but the rest of the time, unless it’s too cold, they roam and peck in their fenced pasture. Tjelmeland says animal welfare is important to him—and to the growing customer base that buys his eggs. Free range chickens also improve his land.

“Just the fact that we’ve had permanent pasture as opposed to a corn-soy rotation,” he said, “has been a big impact on the environment, where we have a lot of habitat for native pollinators.”

Tjelmeland said the pasture also keeps nutrients in the soil—and out of waterways. The much bigger conventional egg operations also worry about soil and water quality and even greenhouse gas emissions. This week at the 5th Annual Egg Industry Issues Forum in St. Louis, Iowa State University professor Hongwei Xin will share findings from his recent study that show the environmental impacts of large-scale egg production are about half what they were 50 years ago. Xin said stronger genetics and more nutritious feed make today’s birds healthier. They live longer and produce more eggs per bird.

“The land use, that’s another aspect,” he said. “Today’s is much more efficient because we are able to keep the birds at a higher stock and density.”

An industrial hen house may hold a quarter million layers (former Harvest reporter Kathleen Masterson visited one). That size alone attracts attention from activists. But the egg industry seems willing to address both environmental and animal welfare issues. United Egg Producers, the industry’s largest lobbying group, is working alongside the Humane Society of the United States on a far-reaching federal egg bill.

“This is what my industry and my egg farmers want and passionately believe that they need to [have] happen so that they can pass their farms on to the next generation,” said Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers. He said the proposal would require larger cages with perches, nesting boxes and improved manure systems.  

“Housing will improve drastically, the environment will improve drastically and the safety of our product will improve drastically over the next 15 years,” Gregory said, “if we can get this bill passed.”

Gregory will also address the Egg Industry Issues Forum, on the future of the bill, which was introduced last year but did not pass. Gregory said he expects Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan to be a co-sponsor of the bill this time around, though she was not an initial sponsor last year. He’s hopeful it will get attached to the farm bill, as that major piece of legislation makes its way through Congress.

Gregory said the bill also requires strict carton labels describing the hens’ living conditions as caged, enriched cages (the new ones proposed in the egg bill), cage free or free range.  The bill will not impose changes on free-range producers like Tjelmeland, who puts on a respirator to protect himself from the dust before picking up a large wire basket and heading into the henhouse to collect eggs. Hens cluck around him, peck at his boots or flit off to their perches. Tjelmeland said he welcomes progress on animal welfare and labeling and he imagines it could ultimately help his business.

“Maybe this labeling will help generate some more awareness,” he said. 

Mark Tjelmeland wears Carhartt overalls over a faded blue work shirt and his face is framed by a baseball cap from the local farmers’ cooperative and a curly white beard. He shows me around his homestead in McCallsburg, Iowa, about 20 miles northeast of Ames. This third-generation farmer grows traditional corn and soybeans on one of his farms. But on this one, he’s got a four-crop rotation of certified organic corn, soybeans, oats and hay. And three acres of pasture for his 700 laying hens.

As he leads me toward the henhouse, he pauses to greet his llama which, along with a donkey, has the job of protecting the chickens from wildlife. The free-range chickens lay 45 dozen eggs per day in indoor nesting boxes, but the rest of the time, unless it’s too cold, they roam and peck in their fenced pasture. Tjelmeland says animal welfare is important to him—and to the growing customer base that buys his eggs. Free range chickens also improve his land.

“Just the fact that we’ve had permanent pasture as opposed to a corn-soy rotation,” he said, “has been a big impact on the environment, where we have a lot of habitat for native pollinators.”

Tjelmeland said the pasture also keeps nutrients in the soil—and out of waterways. The much bigger conventional egg operations also worry about soil and water quality and even greenhouse gas emissions. This week at the 5th Annual Egg Industry Issues Forum in St. Louis, Iowa State University professor Hongwei Xin will share findings from his recent study that show the environmental impacts of large-scale egg production are about half what they were 50 years ago. Xin said stronger genetics and more nutritious feed make today’s birds healthier. They live longer and produce more eggs per bird.

“The land use, that’s another aspect,” he said. “Today’s is much more efficient because we are able to keep the birds at a higher stock and density.”

An industrial hen house may hold a quarter million layers (former Harvest reporter Kathleen Masterson visited one). That size alone attracts attention from activists. But the egg industry seems willing to address both environmental and animal welfare issues. United Egg Producers, the industry’s largest lobbying group, is working alongside the Humane Society of the United States on a far-reaching federal egg bill.

“This is what my industry and my egg farmers want and passionately believe that they need to [have] happen so that they can pass their farms on to the next generation,” said Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers. He said the proposal would require larger cages with perches, nesting boxes and improved manure systems.  

“Housing will improve drastically, the environment will improve drastically and the safety of our product will improve drastically over the next 15 years,” Gregory said, “if we can get this bill passed.”

Gregory will also address the Egg Industry Issues Forum, on the future of the bill, which was introduced last year but did not pass. Gregory said he expects Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan to be a co-sponsor of the bill this time around, though she was not an initial sponsor last year. He’s hopeful it will get attached to the farm bill, as that major piece of legislation makes its way through Congress.

Gregory said the bill also requires strict carton labels describing the hens’ living conditions as caged, enriched cages (the new ones proposed in the egg bill), cage free or free range.  The bill will not impose changes on free-range producers like Tjelmeland, who puts on a respirator to protect himself from the dust before picking up a large wire basket and heading into the henhouse to collect eggs. Hens cluck around him, peck at his boots or flit off to their perches. Tjelmeland said he welcomes progress on animal welfare and labeling and he imagines it could ultimately help his business.

“Maybe this labeling will help generate some more awareness,” he said.