About 70 years ago, Nevin Horst’s grandfather was doing the same thing his grandson now does every day: collecting eggs from the family’s flock of chickens.
Of course back then, “they all just ran around,” Horst said of the birds. And the eggs were collected and washed by hand.
Now that he and his brother tend to about 240,000 birds, (still a small egg farm by some standards), Horst’s care has become a bit more precise.
Inside the barn, white birds with red combs are kept in a stacked wire housing design. They live in small colonies and have enough room to move about, but not so much that they don’t brush wings in the process. They have easy access to a feed tray and a constant supply of clean water. Underneath each row of birds, a conveyor belt collects and removes droppings and moves it away from the birds. The floors of the enclosures are slightly tilted so the eggs roll directly onto a separate conveyor belt where they are sent to a building to be inspected, cleaned and packaged.
Horst sees a lot of things right with the design. Among its benefits are clean, fresh eggs, clean, healthy birds and good air quality. But this modern, spare-no-expense barn that the brothers built a few years ago didn’t just happen overnight. In fact, the egg industry has been transitioning to large, indoor barns for many years.
Ohio State University began experimenting with keeping birds in wire housing in the 1920s. Around that same time, the annual mortality rate was 40 percent for birds kept in outdoor systems where they were exposed to predators, weather and disease.
Horst’s dad built his first barn with a wire housing design in the 1960s. The Horst brothers built an improved barn in the mid-1990s, and their latest design incorporates more than 80 years of research into animal care and behavior.
While poultry care has come a long way, there’s no getting around the fact that it doesn’t look as quaint as a small flock of chickens running around a barnyard.
“I think the biggest misconception is that we’re some corporate business that just sits in an office somewhere,” Horst said, adding that his only “corporate” meetings take place at the dinner table with his wife.
According to David White, senior director of issues management and the Animals for Life Foundation, livestock and poultry farming have been evolving over the years with a basic goal of producing eggs efficiently and economically while keeping the birds healthy and safe.
“A lot of this was just by general observation and then we became more scientific,” he said.
But White also noted that animal researchers and behaviorists, including groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, say various animal housing designs each have a long list of pros and cons.
For example, when animals are brought indoors, they may not be able to engage in some natural behaviors like nesting or rooting. But they are given cool air in the summer and heat in the winter. It may be more likely that illness spreads from one animal to another in close quarters, but it is far less likely that the animals will ever catch an outside illness such as Avian influenza if they are kept inside.
In the case of chickens, cage-free birds can wander the barn and scratch around. But they also are in contact with their manure. And while they have more ability to move, they still tend to naturally crowd very close together. The list of pros and cons goes on and on.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to all types of livestock and poultry farming systems,” White said. What matters most is that farmers are managing their system well, he said, whether it’s free-range or wire housing or anything in between. Horst’s farm is audited several times a year through programs such as the Ohio and Pennsylvania egg quality assurance programs and the Ohio Livestock Environmental Permitting Program.
And much like the Horsts’ newest barn that includes improvements such as the manure belt system, White has every reason to believe that farmers and researchers will continue to improve the approach to animal care as new technology and information becomes available.
He says part of this effort includes the proposed Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. If approved by voters on the November ballot, the board of veterinarians, family farmers, consumers and others would carefully study and implement standards for the care of livestock and poultry.
Compare that to the approach of some who advocate simply doing away with, rather than improving, modern animal care systems. White likens this to asking everyone to give up the car in their driveway for a classic 1956 Chevrolet.
Sure, it’s a beautiful machine if you’re a collector, he said, but “would you want to be on the road driving a vehicle without seatbelts, without airbags, without power steering, without power breaks or without air conditioning or satellite radio?”
Luther Tweeten, professor emeritus of agricultural trade and policy at Ohio State University, puts it more bluntly.
“We can’t afford to pass up safe technologies” if we expect to feed a growing population, he said.
In order for many farms to stay in business, they’ve needed to get larger and more efficient, according to Tweeten, and that has kept food inexpensive and plentiful.
“It’s a big part of why we have a high standard of living in this country,” he said. “We need to support it. These things don’t happen by chance.”
Tweeten credits farmers for being good managers of resources, scientists for conducting important research, land grant universities for providing new information to the industry and agribusinesses for supplying the necessary farming inputs. Without an abundance of safe, affordable food, Americans would not have been able to pursue other endeavors, according to Tweeten.
“Our progress in civilization has been largely one of being able to produce cheaper and cheaper food,” he said.
But for Horst, efficiency and animal care aren’t mutually exclusive. If you were to go into his barns, “you would see content chickens, chickens that basically all of their needs are taken care of,” he said.
And after three generations of caring for poultry, Horst has come away with this understanding of what it takes to make a good egg and a profit in the process.
“What’s best for the birds is best for us,” he said.