Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A guide to producing cage-free egg products

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By Katie Keiger

Poultry Times staff

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The future is here — at least for the egg market. 2025 is when most companies have committed to transitioning to cage-free eggs and while some farmers have already begun producing such eggs, for others there is a long and complicated road still ahead to creating such a farm.

Step 1: Review the budget

USA Today said that cage-free eggs cost consumers $2.99 in 2016 as compared to conventional eggs which cost $1.29. However, CNBC estimates that the cost of transitioning to cage-free averages about $40 per bird.

It is important to note that transitioning sooner rather than later might be a good thing, since there will be more cage-free operations in 2025 and retailers will have more to choose from.

Research what companies are going cage-free and when.

It might seem like the entire United States egg market is going to be cage-free by 2025, but it’s not. Some companies have pledged to go cage-free after 2025, and some have only pledged that pork and veal products will be cage-free.

While it is a good idea to be prepared for the possibility of banning caged eggs on the market, for some farmers it is not financially ideal at this time and, depending on the company they supply to, might not be necessary.

Step 2: Decide on having a one level farm house or multilevel system

United Egg Producers have said that egg producers would have to buy four times as much land to keep up with the demand of eggs if all the hens were on the floor. Studies have also shown that air quality suffers with cage-free hens on the floor because more dirt and debris is kicked into the air.

However, buying land gives the farmers opportunities to produce both caged eggs and cage-free eggs. Many companies have both types of operations. Having both might be a challenge but it would delay the disposal of expensive caged systems built for birds.

The solution of layered systems somewhat eliminates the problem of low air quality, but the issue of cost remains.

Jennifer Chaussee of Wired has estimated that for 100,000 hens the costs of such systems would be at least three million dollars. In this case, the costly caged systems would need to be removed in order to make room for the new systems.

Step 3: Talk to the bank and research financial assistant options

The USDA Farm Service Agency is a good resource to use as the service can sometimes provide loan assistance or even grants to egg producers.

According to the Times of Wayne County, the State of New York granted $3 million to farms that were becoming cage-free. and local cooperative Extension services can also be helpful for poultry professionals.

Step 4: Prepare for extra feed and shipping costs

Chickens that are not confined in cages consume more energy walking around; therefore the birds require more feed. If feed is being shipped from an outside source then the costs of transport will increase with the increase in feed required. Cage-free chickens are to have unlimited food and water as required by the USDA.

To avoid some of the extra costs, farmers may consider growing and making their own feed.

Step 5: Research the land or aviary system equipment

The land must be evaluated and farmers are responsible for finding out what the zoning requirements are for new land. Local real estate agents and insurance agents should be utilized to help with the process.

Cage-free hens do not require outdoor space, the location of the land is only important for building the farm on. Organic hens require very specific outdoor requirements and free range chickens only require outdoor access.

However, if, in an effort to save money, egg producers want to grow their own food then extra land and soil requirements are needed and should be looked into.

Aviaries and multilevel systems without cages are not new to the egg industry, but there are many different varieties of them.

Michigan State University and University of California-Davis scientists and researchers have produced a study about hen housing systems, including two cage free systems; enriched colony systems and cage-free aviary systems.

Enriched colony systems house hens in larger, more open cages that have perches, nesting areas and material to forage. Cage-free aviary systems allow the birds to roam freely around various sized sections of the farm.

The researchers found that the enriched colony systems had less bacteria and levels of dust in the air, but both cage-free systems had the same levels of egg quality.

Step 6: Prepare for excess waste and extra cleaning time

The European Union has banned caged eggs and studies from there have shown a problem with waste management. Caged systems are equipped with ways to handle manure and feathers but cage-free operations do not have much control over these factors.

The Egg Industry Center is looking into ways to control the manure in alternative housing systems.

Step 7: Become certified

Request USDA certification by filling out the LPS Form, located here. An inspection will be conducted twice a year to ensure cage-free standards are being met.

Step 8: Look into alternative ways to increase profits

Free range, grain fed and omega-3 eggs all create extra incentives for consumers and raise prices on eggs. The USDA’s definition of free-range is the same as cage-free except there must also be outdoor access for the hens. How much outdoor access and space required for each bird is determined by a third party source such as the United Egg Producers.

Omega-3 eggs can cost more to produce due to the strict diets the hens must be kept under, but consumers are willing to pay more for them, sometimes up to $2 more.

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