Eggs are one of my favorite foods, but it is shocking how little I actually know about egg farming. Back when my family still lived in China, Mama Lin raised a couple laying hens for years. However, her knowledge about raising hens certainly has not passed down to me.
Last month, when Best Food Facts invited me to listen to an expert panel discuss sustainability in egg farming, I was eager to join in and learn. The panel consisted of a wide range of industry experts: Bruce Dooyema from Center Fresh Egg; Cameron Hall, Farm Manager at Iowa State University Robert T. Hamilton Poultry Research & Teaching Facility; Janet Helms, Global Sustainability Developer at Inter IKEA Group; Coby Newbold, Director of Dairy & Frozen Purchasing at Fareway Stores; and Dr. Dan Thompson, Department Chair and Professor of Animal Sciences at Iowa State University. The following is a summary of some of the topics we discussed during this panel.
BASICS ABOUT EGG FARMING: THE HENS
Before diving into a discussion about sustainability, let’s go over some basics about egg farming.
Typically, egg farms consist of laying hens that are responsible for laying the eggs that we consume. Where do these hens come from? Well, hens from breeder farms lay fertilized eggs. These fertilized eggs are transported to a hatchery to be incubated for about 21 days, when baby chicks begin to hatch.
Of course, baby chicks cannot lay eggs right away. When the chicks are 1 to 2 days old, they are transported to pullet farms where they grow and develop until they’re about 16 to 21 weeks. That’s when the hens are ready to lay eggs.
The grown hens are then transported to laying hen farms. These farms are filled with hens that can range from 16 weeks to about 2 or 3 years old. As hens age, their ability to produce eggs decline. That’s why many laying farms don’t keep hens that are much older than 2 years amongst their flock.
TYPES OF HEN HOUSING
There are several common ways in which laying hens are housed and raised on egg farms: conventional cages, enriched colony housing units, cage free, and free-range.
Under this system, hens are housed inside climate-controlled barns with stacked rows of cages. Each cage usually houses 6 to 7 hens and each hen gets about 67 to 86 square inches of space. The hens get their food and water in the cage. The cages usually have wire mesh floors so that the hens’ manure can drop through the mesh and onto a conveyor belt. That way, the manure is kept away from the birds, eggs, food, and water. Once the hens lay their eggs, the eggs roll on the sloped flooring and gradually onto the conveyor belt.
ENRICHED COLONY HOUSING UNITS
With enriched colony cages, hens are similarly housed in climate-controlled barns with stacked rows of enclosures, but the cages are notably larger. They can house between 30 to 60 hens per cage and provide 116 square inches of space per hen. In addition to food and water, the enriched colony units have a nesting area, perch, and scratching area for the hens to perform more of their natural behaviors. As a result, the birds tend to have better bone health than birds raised in conventional cages.
Hens in cage-free systems are housed in climate-controlled barns or other enclosed areas where they can roam. Each hen gets at least 144 square inches of space, which can be configured horizontally or vertically like an aviary, where things like the feed and perches are located in one or more tiers above ground. Usually, in cage-free housing, hens can eat, perch, nest, scratch, forage, and dust themselves, allowing the hens to exhibit even more of their natural behaviors. The benefit of the increased ability to roam means improved bone health for hens. But with more hens roaming about at once, farmers do need to use more effort to keep some hens from pecking at each other.
Typically, hens are still housed in a climate-controlled barn or enclosed area, where the food and water are usually located. However, free-range hens have access to an outdoor area during the day. Not all hens will actually go outdoors but they have that option to roam outside. Hens that spend some time outdoors, however, tend to have better feathering and better colored combs (compared to hens raised indoors all the time), which is an indicator of overall health. They also have better bone structure because they tend to move more. While the hens have the option to roam about and exhibit more of their natural behaviors, the hens also get more exposure to predators or diseases that exist outside the barn. Farmers, then, have a greater responsibility to keep their hens safe from these predators or diseases.
If you want more information about various methods of hen housing, check out this post from Best Food Facts, which discusses various types of hen housing as well as the pros and cons of each.
(This photos of the hens in this post are from my father-in-law’s friend’s home.)
SUSTAINABILITY IN EGG FARMING
As a consumer, my perception of “sustainability” is very much environmentally focused. Sustainability to me means engaging in farming practices and making consumer choices that limit the negative impact on the environment so that we can keep using the land to produce food for future generations.
Speaking to the panel of experts during the call, it was interesting to hear the different perspectives about what sustainability meant to them: sustainable economies, leaving the earth better than what you started out with, implementing practices that keep the business going, ability to grow food in a way that feeds everyone, protecting people and animals under our care, and meeting future and present food needs while leaving a minimal footprint. But how do all of these ideas about sustainability play out in practice?
MAINTAINING THE HEALTH OF THE FLOCK
One thing that all of the experts mentioned in the context of sustainability in egg farming was hen health. Egg farmers rely on a healthy flock in order to produce eggs. Without healthy hens, there would be no eggs to sell. That’s why it is crucial for egg farmers to monitor and maintain the health of their flock.
There are many farming practices that egg farmers put in place to ensure the health of the chickens. First, the chickens have continuous access to food and water. The quality of the feed also matters: better quality food leads to healthier birds. Some farmers feed hens an all-vegetarian diet (typically corn and soy). Others will feed the hens a more diverse diet because hens are natural omnivores (hens naturally eat worms and other insects).
Second, farmers try to raise chickens in the right kind of environment. Often, farmers house hens in temperature-controlled barns or facilities so that the birds aren’t exposed to extreme temperatures. Farmers also try to ensure good air flow inside these barns and facilities.
Next, egg farms often have workers or a veterinary team (in the case of larger farms) to monitor the daily health of hens. This includes temperature checks and checking the flock for diseases. Farmers also need to ensure that the birds are not hurting each other and that their birds are kept away from natural predators, such as foxes.
Some farmers choose to let their flocks roam outdoors to improve hen health. The exposure to natural sunlight improves the feathering and the comb of chickens, which are indicators of hen health. Also, the outdoor movement can help strengthen the bone structure of these hens versus hens raised in cages. Once the farmer lets the chickens outdoors, they will need to take greater care to monitor the health of the chickens, making sure they’re not exposed to any new diseases and that the chickens are kept away from predators.
KEEPING FARMS ECONOMICALLY SUSTAINABLE
Because egg farms are running a business, economic realities need to factor into sustainability. If a farm is no longer profitable, the business won’t survive. Sometimes, the way that economic sustainability plays out may coincide with economic efficiency and the decisions a farmer makes about egg housing.
For instance, let’s compare caged versus cage-free housing. Cage-free hens have more room to roam and more freedom to carry out their natural behaviors (perching, foraging, etc.). As a result, these hens exert more energy and require more food to sustain themselves. The increased food intake can increase operational costs significantly, especially if a farm is managing a flock of hundreds of thousands of birds at once.
There’s also higher instances of aggression among birds living in cage-free housing compared to birds living in caged environments, which can lead to an increase in mortality rates. A farmer will need to put more labor into managing the flock and preventing hen-on-hen violence. Overall, cage-free egg farming requires more labor and capital than conventional caged egg farming (the reason why cage-free eggs cost more than caged eggs).
However, the current increase in consumer demand for cage-free eggs may outweigh the impact of increased costs. As our society shifts its views on valuing the importance of animal welfare and the health of laying hens, it may become a matter of economic sustainability for farmers who raise caged hens to transition into cage-free farming.
This discussion about hen housing illustrates some of the factors that farmers need to consider when thinking about the economic sustainability of their farms.
Of course, environmental sustainability factors into egg farming as well. What this can look like in practice is egg farmers exchanging resources with local producers. For example, one of the experts on the call mentioned that their facility buys corn and soy from local farms for chicken feed. In exchange, their farm provides chicken manure to the corn and soy farmers.
For other farmers, environmental sustainability also means ensuring that the land surrounding the barn is in good shape. The soil surrounding the barn needs to be healthy enough to absorb moisture to prevent potential flooding. They also don’t want the soil to be too dry because dusty soil can blow into the hens’ housing area.
Looking at a different part of the egg supply chain, a company like IKEA might evaluate where they source eggs for their restaurants and take steps to reduce their carbon footprint, such as investing in renewable energy.
As this discussion about sustainability in egg farming hopefully illustrates, sustainability is a multidimensional issue. It’s not just a matter of looking at environmental impact but also about what farmers need to do to keep their business running. There are a lot of factors that egg farmers need to consider, and I appreciate all the effort the farmers make to produce food that I ultimately put on my table.
EGG RECIPE ROUNDUP
Now that we’ve talked a lot about eggs, here are some egg recipes to inspire your next meal!
- Egg Fried Rice
- Savory Oatmeal with Fried Egg
- Guacamole Deviled Eggs
- Chinese Chive Boxes
- Loaded Breakfast Nachos
- Sour Cream & Bacon Deviled Eggs
- Frittata with Fingerling Potatoes, Red Pepper & Spinach
- Vegetarian Ramen with Ramen Egg