By KEVIN WALKER
LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State University has opened a new laying hen research facility. Located on Jolly Road in Lansing, at MSU’s Poultry Research and Training Center, the facility will be used to study different kinds of housing systems, said Darrin Karcher, senior poultry extension specialist at MSU.
The different housing systems include conventional, so-called enriched and aviary systems. The research will provide egg producers with information on which systems are the most effective.
“We have birds that will be populating the facility at the end of November,” Karcher said. “It will also give us an opportunity to look at behavior and welfare, as well.”
According to Karcher, 80 percent of the cost of the new facility was paid for by commercial laying hen companies, such as Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac. Companies that contributed are from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Colorado and Washington.
“Michigan’s egg producers are invested in strengthening egg production and distribution, while protecting the welfare of our hens,” said Greg Herbruck, co-owner of Herbruck’s. “This facility will give us access to the best research and information. It’s an opportunity to build partnerships with colleges and universities across the country and conduct research that could change the industry for the better.”
This initiative is a response to animal rights campaigns that have been conducted in a number of states in recent years, including Michigan and Ohio, according to George House, the outgoing executive director of Michigan Allied Poultry Industries (MAPI).
As a result of a threatened ballot measure campaign from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), farmer groups and HSUS agreed on changes to animal care practices that include enriched cage housing for laying hens. Michigan passed legislation in 2009 that will phase out conventional cages over a 10-year period.
House said MAPI was at the forefront in supporting the state measure; he also believes there should be a national animal care standard.
“We as an industry have come to realize that we need to do fact-based research to figure out what is the best egg laying configuration,” he said. “Everything in life has tradeoffs. We need to find out the best tradeoff between what it costs to produce a dozen eggs and what makes for the best care possible for a laying hen.”
Last April, MAPI came out publicly in support of U.S. House Resolution 3798, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments of 2012. H.R. 3798 is a codification of a July 2011 agreement between HSUS and United Egg Producers.
The agreement and subsequent legislation would establish a national standard for laying hen housing. It would end the use of battery cages, for example. But the bill has opponents in the agricultural sector, as well as supporters. So far it has not been included in any version of the proposed farm bill.
Although egg producers in several states are making plans to end battery cage systems, the question of animal care standards is far from settled. Last summer Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) introduced an amendment to the farm bill called the PICA amendment. The Protect Interstate Commerce Act would forbid any state from imposing “onerous” restrictions on the means of production for agricultural goods sold within its own borders but produced in other states.
The legislation takes aim at a measure passed in California that would restrict the import of eggs that do not conform to California standards – in 2008 California voters had passed a HSUS-led measure on livestock welfare that included language outlawing battery cages for laying hens.
If passed, the PICA amendment could undermine HSUS’ statewide efforts to regulate livestock agriculture, according to experts. And, without a national standard, states with more expensive standards of animal care could be at a competitive disadvantage.