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UK poultry expert: State’s egg production growing due to free-range farming

By Doug Schmitz
Iowa Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky’s egg production is growing ‘pretty quickly,’ with expansion mainly due to free-range farming, according to Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky poultry extension project manager.
“It started with John Brunnquell from Egg Innovations wanting to expand into Kentucky,” she told Farm World. “The company is based in (Port Washington, Wis.), but they have some operations in Indiana.”
She said Egg Innovations began with a farm in Oldham County, Ky., and then started looking for potential contract growers in the state.
“I believe the pullets and feed come from Indiana,” she said. “He had a contract to sell his eggs to a dog food company here in Kentucky. Then Handsome Brook Farms, based out of New York, and Vital Farms, based out of Texas, started contracting farmers for egg production here in the state.
“I believe they are primarily working with the Amish community,” she added. “I know they have made presentations to the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board. I’m not sure if it is for them, or to help the contract farmers get loans to get started.”
John Brunnquell, president and CEO of Egg Innovations, LLC, at the company’s Warsaw, Ind., office, told Farm World, “I cannot speak for other operations; however, we have found the State of Kentucky to be very welcoming to do business with, in a strong farm community. We continue to explore additional expansion in the state.
“We collaborated with the state on low-interest loans for new farmers,” he said. “We also provided a new form of agriculture as an alternative to the tobacco industry.
“Established in 1999, we were the first significant free-range and pasture egg company in Kentucky, and in the nation,” he said. “We service multiple national and regional retailers with our Blue Sky Family Farms and Helpful Hens brands.”
Jacob told WEKU 88.9 that free-range is generally defined as having some access outside, adding that minor growth has been seen in cage-free chicken production.
“Some are switching to cage-free, but only about 35 percent of all the egg production in the United States is actually cage-free for egg production,” she said.
She said there’s still interest in establishing backyard chicken flocks, but noted it’s important to thoroughly research and understand local regulations, which can vary from county to county.
“Many cities and/or HOA (homeowner associations) prohibit the keeping of poultry of any kind,” she told Farm World. “Some have restrictions to no roosters, and they will have to be removed. Some impose fines if you break the rules, while others may just tell you that you have to get rid of them. Better to check before investing.”
She said Avian flu continues to be a threat to the breeding population.
“Any poultry operation is at risk,” she said. “That includes production units as well as breeders. This includes meat chickens, layers, turkeys, game birds (mostly ducks and pheasants).”
When asked how state and county officials, and Kentucky poultry farmers, are combating Avian flu, and what strategies are they using, she said farmers are constantly reminded of the need for strict biosecurity.
“Any contract farmers (chicken meat companies contract with breeders as well as growers) must follow the guidelines of the company they contract with,” she said. “They must report any sick birds immediately. All meat birds have to be tested for avian influenza before they go to the processing facility so that no contaminated birds are traveling the roads.”
She added, “Any positive birds (through testing or because of high mortality resulting in a vet visit) for highly pathogenic avian influenza or any low pathogenic strains of the H5 or H7 type (the two types that can quickly mutate in a flock to highly pathogenic strains) are immediately depopulated. This includes all poultry on the farm. They are compensated by the USDA for any birds they have to kill.”
She said the Kentucky Poultry Federation has a response plan that is put into place, in conjunction with USDA veterinarians, to have the farms quarantined, depopulated, dead birds composted, and the farm cleaned and disinfected.
“The farms then have to pass environmental tests to show they are clean before they can repopulate the farm,” she said.
She said a zone is placed around the infected farm and USDA veterinarians go door to door looking for kept birds of any kind (i.e., backyard flocks and pet birds).
“They are tested to make sure they are highly pathogenic avian influenza-free,” she said. “If any more flocks are found, the quarantine zone will increase, and more flocks tested.
“So, farms in Kentucky have been lucky,” she said. “We have had some neighboring counties affected, but only a few flocks (including one backyard flock) that had been depopulated immediately. No other flocks were detected in the quarantine zones associated with a positive farm.”
Brunnquell said, “State and county officials have done an excellent job in communication of risk factors, awareness of any outbreaks in the state, and have been available on call for any questions we may have.”