Mark Tjelmeland’s 700 free-range chickens lay 45 dozen eggs per day in indoor nesting boxes on his farm in McCallsburg, Iowa. The rest of the time, unless it’s too cold, they roam and peck in a fenced pasture.
“Just the fact that we’ve had permanent pasture as opposed to a corn-soy rotation has been a big impact on the environment, where we have a lot of habitat for native pollinators,” said Tjelmeland, explaining some of the reasons why his egg business is good for the environment.
Tjelmeland’s free-range hens, however, represent only a sliver of an egg industry that faces ongoing criticism over animal welfare and its environmental footprint. The more traditional industrial hen house often holds a quarter-million layers, which represents a massive daily challenge.
But the industry says it’s rising to the challenge .
This week at the 5th Annual Egg Industry Issues Forum in St. Louis, Mo., researcher Hongwei Xin plans to 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, who is a professor at Iowa State University, said stronger genetics and more nutritious feed make today’s birds healthier. They live longer and produce more eggs per bird.
They also take up less room.
“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.”
Translation: The industry -- as a whole, at least -- has been housing birds in smaller spaces.
That development has raised the ire of animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society of the United States. But last year, Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle said, the activists found egg industry leaders willing to work toward a compromise.
“We were adversaries, we had disagreements over how hens would be housed and how animal welfare standards were being observed or not observed,” he said. Then they actually started talking -- and found common ground.
“It was really a landmark agreement where both sides had to compromise in order to try to achieve something that’s good for animal welfare, good for industry and consequently good for consumers and the country,” Pacelle said.
United Egg Producers, the industry’s largest lobbying group, and the Humane Society lobbied for a far-reaching federal egg bill that would require larger, “enriched” cages with perches, nesting boxes and improved manure systems. Pacelle said many other animal welfare groups also supported the bill.
The proposed enriched cages "allow hens to perform some of their natural behaviors. Enriched cages also typically provide each hen with nearly twice the amount of space than a conventional cage," according to United Egg Producers.
The bill never passed Congress. But Chad Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, said it will be re-introduced this year.
“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,” Gregory said. “Housing will improve drastically, the environment will improve drastically and the safety of our product will improve drastically over the next 15 years if we can get this bill passed.”
Gregory, who is planning to address the this week’s Egg Industry Issues Forum on the bill, said he expects Senate Agriculture Committee chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan to be a co-sponsor of the bill this time around. 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 would require strict carton labels describing the hens’ living conditions as caged, enriched cages, cage free or free range.
Tjelmeland, the free-range producer, said he welcomes progress on animal welfare and labeling — and although the proposed bill wouldn’t lead to any changes in how his hens live or how his eggs are labeled, he imagines it could ultimately help his business. Because if explicit labels are required, he hopes more consumers will choose free-range eggs.
Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like Harvest Public Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.