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Egg producer battles cage-free hen myths
 

By MEGGIE. I. FOSTER
Assistant Editor

SEYMOUR, Ind. — During a time when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) boasts a $121 million budget to put an end to animal agriculture, poultry producer Anthony Rust, of Rose Acre Farms is doing everything in his power to debunk myths about the industry and the animals he loves.

And the No. 1 concern Rust recently addressed in a Farm World interview was the idea that hens are healthier and happier in a cage-free environment versus cages.

“In the 1960s, we went to cages for the simple reason of a cleaner, better and healthier environment for our birds,” said Rust, who today, manages a family-run operation with 21 million chickens on 15 farms for his family’s egg business that began with only 1,800 birds in 1954.

However, within the last few years, consumers have been pushing for more cage-free and specialty eggs, so Rose Acres willingly responded to the demand, but is now questioning the health of their birds.

“Since we offer both caged eggs and cage-free, we track mortality rates and have overwhelmingly noticed that the mortality rate is double, nearly triple in a floor (cage-free) environment,” he said. “I don’t understand why they (animal activists) want a system that is unhealthy for the birds when they seemingly say that’s what they care so much about.” For instance, in one cage-free barn Rose Acres reported 300 deaths due to smothering and mobbing in one particular situation.

“Naturally, chickens are scared animals, so when something like thunder and lightning frightens them, they panic and pile up in a corner, killing the chickens at the bottom of the pile. This scenario isn’t possible in a caged situation,” he explained, adding that the average mortality rate in cages is about 4 percent versus 10 percent in a floor house at 60 weeks of age.

Stress factors in cage-free
Other causes of stress in a cage-free environment include: predators such as coyotes, hawks and foxes, chickens literally pecking each other to death and increased parasites and mites.
“Hands down cages are so much better for the birds, there are no predators to worry about, all the ingredients are there that make them happy, once they get out of cages, they gets mites, parasites and it’s difficult to survive,” he stressed. One of the leading arguments of animal activist giants HSUS and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is that in a cage-free environment birds can a have a place to perch, the opportunity to dust bathe and can fully extend their wings.

“They (activists) like to hold up a piece of paper and say this is the size of a living space that a chicken lives in during it’s lifetime in a cage, what they don’t understand is that it’s more like 1/3 of a page on the floor (cage-free),” he argued.

Also, Rust pointed out that “birds don’t need a place to perch unless they feel threatened and they don’t need to dust bathe in a cage because there are no mites and parasites to worry of.”
As for fully extending their wings, Rust claims that chickens can do so in a caged environment; however, in a cage-free situation they can pile up and smother.

Rust, who is carrying on the family tradition with members of three generations, has been involved in the poultry industry for his entire life and said, “I just don’t understand why some of these folks think they know what’s best for our birds, when I’ve been doing this my whole life and if there was a system that was better for the birds I’d be using it.

“We believe in free choice, both cage and floor eggs and in the event that something may work better, we’ll do it. But we’re not going to abandon a system that works until something is better for the birds,” he stated simply.

Rust didn’t hesitate to offer an opinion on organic egg production as well. Although, Rose Acres doesn’t offer organic eggs, he made it clear that none of Rose Acre birds are given any antibiotics unless needed (which is rare); they are however, “given probiotics similar to yogurt that places favorable bacteria in their guts,” said Dave Krough, of Dawes Laboratories.

“It’s my belief that organic eggs are an inferior product, because with organic the chickens are fed corn grown without the use of herbicides. Since the corn is stressed it has a higher likelihood of carrying T2 aflatoxin. And if corn is not grown in optimal conditions, the plant gets sick and the diseases spread to the birds that eat that corn,” Rust explained.

He also cited lowered egg counts in an organic system, as well as increased problems when mold forms in the grain and with outside moisture forms mycotoxins in the feed, that ultimately can get into the tissue of the birds and kill them.

“If people in the Humane Society cared about chickens, they should really be demanding that birds be in cages. I mean how can they be for animal welfare when the mortality rate is double/triple in what they’re asking us to do,” he questioned.

After the passing of legislation in California to prohibit the use of cages in poultry production, Rust is stepping up in the battle against animal activists and actively enlists the help of others in the industry.
“For years we didn’t want to talk to the press or allow tours because of biosecurity and we didn’t want to increase chances of disease coming in; now it’s time to stand up for our industry and I’m ready,” he said.

Rust is also concerned about the economic implications of cage-free eggs on the consuming public.

“We’re in an economic crunch right now; people are having a tough time making ends meet, so they can’t afford $2 eggs. If all the crops in the world were organic and all hens were cage-free, people in the world would starve,” he added. “And no one is really winning in this situation, the birds are losing and the customer is losing because they’re asked to pay more for a product they think is superior.” Rust who previously took on an argument with HSUS leader Wayne Pacelle said he wasn’t ready at the time and he didn’t get his points across as effectively as he wanted to.

“I’ve got my facts ready now; I’m ready to take them on.
The activists are getting good at lying and now the chickens are dying,” he said in a cheeky rhyme. In fact, according to Rust, Rose Acre Farms is discussing plans to build its first agritourism site that would allow visitors to view the inside of a layer and see first-hand how chickens are raised and where eggs come from.
“We’re looking at building a viewing room similar to Fair Oaks Dairy where consumers could see a 100,000-bird house.

We don’t want to endanger our livelihood, biosecurity is very important to us. We’ll have to isolate the birds before it can become a tour farm,” he said.

For information about Rose Acres or to contact Rust directly, visit www.roseacre.com

6/10/2009