America’s Egg Powerhouse

by André Dumont | Nov 2011

 

Standing in one of the manure pits at a 1.3-million-layer egg farm can be quite the experience. Picture this: ten 595-foot-long rows of eerie-looking, irregular mounds of manure that seem like termite nests aiming for record heights.

I am at ground level, under House 5 at Rose Acre Farms’ egg production complex in Stuart, Iowa, 40 miles west of Des Moines. Complex manager and Iowa Poultry Association president Andrew Kaldenberg, the association’s executive director Kevin Vinchattle and I enjoy a conversation, while standing under some 220,000 hens.

Three of the six houses at the Stuart complex are built according to the same concept: layers are housed in 10 double rows, five tiers high. A scaffolding on wheels is used to access the top two tiers, namely when checking for mortality.

The excrement from the layers falls 20 feet below, directly into the pit. Tiers two to five are lined with boards that are scraped several times a day, and the manure falls into the pit down below.

The building is 100 feet wide, 595 feet long. At the pit level, both sides are lined with huge fans, which draw air from side openings in the roof, providing the hens with fresh air and also helping to dry the manure. The pit is emptied once a year, for farmers to use the manure in what could very likely be the same fields that produce the grains for the hens’ ration.

 

For my hosts, there is nothing unusual about the size and breadth of this facility. Rose Acre has similar complexes in Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina and Georgia, some housing more than two million layers. Iowa is by far the United States’ most important egg-producing state, with complexes of up to four million layers.

In Stuart, Rose Acre packs more that 750 cases of 360 eggs per day. The in-house processing plant has a capacity of a little more than 295 cases per hour (that’s 102,600 eggs per hour!).

Eggs travel on conveyor belts from all six houses, merging into a single flow of eggs as they descend towards the cleaning station. The eggs are inspected, cleaned, graded and sorted in an in-line process where employees never touch them. “When a customer buys our eggs at the store, he or she is the first human being to handle them,” says Kaldenberg.

Eggs can be separated in up to 12 different grades, before being packed in cases of 30 dozen. All are sold as table eggs. Very few are marketed under the Rose Acre Farms brand. Most of the eggs from Stuart leave in cases bearing the brand names used by clients, who are large supermarket or convenience store chains. 

The Stuart plant employs about 55 workers, including a few part-timers. Kaldenberg says he has no problem finding enough workers. When applicants are not in sufficient numbers, he advertises jobs.

On their applications, candidates must certify that they are entitled to work legally in the United States. A great number of applicants are turned away for providing false identification papers. Human resources at Rose Acres are also able to conduct a quick computerized check on every applicant’s identity.

Workers are paid above minimum wage. “It’s hard to find good workers,” Kaldenberg says. “The work here is nice,” he adds, referring to the clean and safe working conditions employees are offered.

Big, yet local
Even with such large-scale production, “family-owned” and “local” are part of the vocabulary. Rose Acre Farms’ egg production was started by the Rust family in Indiana in the 1930s. 

Today, Lois Rust and her children are board members and are all involved in specific aspects of the company. The company has its own hatchery and breeds all of its pullets.

Feed at the Stuart complex comes from Rose Acre’s own nearby feed mill. “All our corn is bought from local farmers, some of them delivering straight to the mill,” Kaldenberg says. Prices paid for premium quality corn are posted and producers are welcome to sign contracts for immediate or scheduled deliveries.

Local farmers are also the ones benefiting from the layers’ manure. Rose Acre sells it in bulk to a local co-operative, which resells it to farmers as part as a commercial fertilizer program. “We know where our manure goes. Most of it goes to local farmers who sell us their grain,” Kaldenberg said.

In these times of high fertilizer prices, demand is strong for chicken manure. Kaldenberg says he has a waiting list for his. “It’s a very good product,” Vinchattle adds. “You got some organic matter in there, and it increases soil tilth.”

While feed and manure are taken care of in a 50-mile radius, eggs do travel a little more. Rose Acre sells all over the U.S. and exports as far as Hong Kong.

Producing millions of eggs weekly at one location does provide for some economies of scale. But now, with corn prices reaching beyond $7 US per bushel, tight management is even more critical.

“There is no price support for egg production,” Vinchattle says. “It’s the marketplace that tells our farmers what they are getting for a dozen. Then it’s up to them to produce efficiently enough so they can make a profit on that.”
“Everything else has gone up, but the price of eggs is no different now than 15 years ago,” says Kaldenberg. “For $1, consumers still get 12 healthy eggs containing 13 vitamins, protein and minerals.”

In next month’s issue, André Dumont will tell us how Andrew Kaldenberg handles biosecurity and activists infiltrating his farm, and Kevin Vinchattle will offer his take on last year’s salmonella egg recall from another Iowa farm.

Iowa, an Egg Giant
With only a few more than 80 egg producers, Iowa is by far the most important egg-producing state in the United States. Its 57 million layers produce about 14.25 billion eggs per year (2008 USDA data). That’s more than double size of the Canadian flock and twice as many layers as Ohio, the second largest U.S. egg-producing state. The other egg superpowers in are Indiana, Pennsylvania and California.

“If Iowa were a country, we’d probably rank 10th or 11th in the world,” Rose Acre complex manager and Iowa Poultry Association president Andrew Kaldenberg says.

In order to produce 15.4 per cent of the country’s eggs, Iowa egg farmers purchase about 57 million bushels of corn and 28.5 million bushels of soybean per year. Most of the feed comes from Iowa’s 23 million acres of cropland or from neighbouring states.

There are close to 3,000 hatchery, production and processing workers in the egg industry in Iowa.
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