Cage-free egg production: the Lone Cactus Egg Farm in Bouse (Arizona)

Hans-Wilhelm Windhorst - The author is Prof. Emeritus and Scientific Director of the Science and Information Centre Sustainable Poultry Production (WING), University of Vechta, Germany

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Photo 1

In June and July 2017, the Author had the chance to visit new large cage-free egg farms in Texas and Arizona. The main results of this research project are presented in two papers. The first paper (see Zootecnica International, December 2017 issue) presented the Red River Valley Egg Farm in Bogata (Texas). This article will focus on the Lone Cactus Egg Farm in Bouse (Arizona).

The Lone Cactus Egg Farm in Bouse (Arizona)
When driving from Santa Fe via Sedona in a south-westerly direction, a wide plain opens after leaving the mountainous region. The semi-arid plain is only sparsely covered by Creosote bushes, Yuccas and cacti. Only a few irrigated areas interrupt the semi-desert. Parallel to State Highway 72 which leads to the west, runs a railroad spur. Suddenly, the white buildings of the Lone Cactus Egg Farm show up on the right. The hot air is whirring and one understands why the Spanish conquistadores called this region Arizona (dry land). The closest village is Bouse with only 125 inhabitants. It is an agglomeration of degraded houses and trailers without any infrastructure. Larger cities are Wickenburg with 7,100 inhabitants, 160 km to the East, and Needles with 5,000 inhabitants, 160 km to the West. Most of the 120 employees commute daily from small settlements in a distance to the farm of 50 to 70 km.
Rose Acre (Seymour, Indiana), the owner of the egg farm, chose this location in a semi-desert far away from larger settlements for several reasons. The isolated location without any other egg farms reduces the risk of the introduction of the Avian Influenza virus considerably. During the AI outbreaks in 2015, Rose Acre lost almost one quarter of its laying flocks. Other reasons were the comparatively short distance to California, the main market for the produced eggs, the railroad spur and the availability of underground water, because of the closeness to the Colorado River.
Because of the high losses resulting from the AI virus in 2015, the biosecurity has reached a very high standard. When entering the farm premise, a security person asks about prior visits to egg farms, the car is disinfected and the buildings can only be entered with an overall and after hand disinfection.

Photo 2

A new way in building an egg farm
After the purchase of 800 hectares in 2014 and the construction of a road to the future location of the farm, building the barns started in 2015. In fall 2016 the first house was populated with white hens. The short time between starting the building and populating the barns is a result of a new way in erecting layer farms. It was developed by Summit Livestock Facilities (Remington, Indiana) and is called the “wrap-in method”.
In contrast to Europe, where the building is completed first and the equipment installed afterwards, the “wrap-in method” goes the opposite way. The construction begins with the equipment (Photo 1). Once it is completed, it is wrapped in by the side-walls and the roof. This method reduces the construction time considerably.
A barn with 400,000 places can be erected within three to four months. It also permits an earlier population of the houses. The equipment has also static functions which allows lighter walls and so saves costs. After completing the sixth barn, the whole farm will have 2.4 mill. layer places.

Photo 3

An unusual way to raise pullets
The egg farm in Bouse does not need pullet farms because of a new way of raising them. This method was developed by Marcus Rust, president of Rose Acre, in co-operation with FACCO, the Italian equipment company, and the Humane Society of the United States, the leading animal welfare organization in the USA.
The farm has three stories, each story large aviaries with three levels. In compartments which can be closed by wire mesh doors, the one-day old chicks are raised until week 16 (Photo 2). Then the compartments are opened and the pullets can move in the whole aviary (Photo 3). Until day 8, the chicks are kept on chicken paper and fed by hand. Then the paper is removed and the chicks feed and drink from the feed troughs and nipple drinkers. This new way of raising pullets has been very successful according to the farm manager. The pullets have not to be moved from the pullet houses to the layer barns. This reduces the stress and results in a very low mortality rate of only 0.8%.
The produced eggs are transported via conveyor belts directly to the processing building where the eggs are washed, graded and packed (Photo 4).

Photo 4

Further steps
The sixth barn has been completed in late fall of 2017 and then populated. From the adjacent railroad spur, a loop with a diameter of 1 km has been built to the already completed feedmill. The loop makes it possible to unload a whole train with up to 100 cars, each containing about 30 t of corn or soybeans. The silos, which have also been completed at the end of 2017, can store about 6,000 t. After completing the loop and the silos, the feedmill started production and it was then no longer necessary to haul the feed from Buckeye over a distance of 160 km.
A flat lagoon will be built to store the water which is need for cleaning the barns and washing the eggs. Because of the high outside temperatures in summer (over 40°C), high evaporation rates are expected which will make a spreading of the water unnecessary. A lake in a semi-desert could be attractive to wild water fowl. Because of the distance of 160 km between the farm and Lake Havasu, a reservoir, the risk of migrating wild birds entering the premise is, however, low.

Low egg prices do not cover production costs
In July 2017, the production cost for white large eggs ranged between 85 and 90 $-cents. To produce one dozen of eggs, 1.8 kg of feed was needed, resulting in a feed conversion rate of 1.9. Despite the good results, the prices which were received at farm gate did not cover the production costs. Because of the oversupply in the U. S. egg market, about 90% of the eggs had to be sold with a considerable loss in California, and only 10% could be sold as cage-free eggs to a cost-covering price.
The eggs, delivered to California, were marketed under the label “California approved”. This regulation requires that the available space per hen is at least 750 cm2 and that the hens were vaccinated against Salmonella. The available space per hen in the farm is higher with 900 cm2. This makes it possible to market the eggs also in states which in future will request a larger available space than 750 cm2.
Because of the unsatisfactory economic situation, the plan to build another farm of the same size about 10 miles west of the present location was postponed. Construction will not begin before the prices received at farm gate will cover at least the production costs. The farm manager expected that this balance will not be reached before the second quarter of 2018.

What about the future of cage-free production?
The present economic situation on the U.S. egg market is confusing. Despite the statements of more than 200 companies to no longer sell or use eggs produced in conventional cages from 2022 to 2025 on, the produced cage-free eggs obviously surpass demand. The economic losses for the companies which already installed the new housing system are considerable and, with a few exceptions, they have stopped further investments. To make profit again, the number of table egg layers and of egg production have to be reduced. At the moment is seems as if the benchmark of 71% of all layers in cage-free systems in 2025 will not be reached. For this would require the construction of 12 and 15 million cage-free layer places per year.
How many new non-cage layer places will be built over the next years will also depend on the willingness of the consumers to accept the considerably higher egg prices. At the moment, most of the consumers stick to the lower prices for eggs produced in conventional cages. The estimate of the Author is that in 2025 between 45 and 50% of the eggs will produced in cage-free farms.

Additional references
Windhorst, H.-W.: Cage-free heißt das Zauberwort. Ausstieg aus der Käfighaltung in den USA steht bevor. In: Deutsche Geflügelwirtschaft und Schweineproduktion 68 (2016), Nr. 27, S. 3-5.
Windhorst, H.-W.: Ist das Chaos vorprogrammiert? USA: Umstellung der Legehennenhaltung hin zu käfiglosen Alternativen. In: Deutsche Geflügelwirtschaft und Schweineproduktion 69 (2017), Nr. 19, S. 3-5.