Yes some we do, and some we don’t. Our goal is to produce the kind of eggs in the quantity people want to buy: some organic cage-free, some cage-free, some conventional from birds in cages, and some with nutritional enhancements raised in cage-free barns. When we use cages, at a minimum, we follow United Egg Producers (UEP) guidelines to continue our formal animal care certification by them. These evolving guidelines are being continually reviewed by the United Egg Producer’s scientific committee under the leadership of Dr. Patricia Hester of Purdue University.
We think this issue fits into the gray area as noted above: it’s probably not as black or white of an issue as it may seem when one first looks into it. If you would like more information on the issue, we would ask you to read the information below, but if you don’t have time to do that, we would say our position is that we realize we are all different from one another, and will make different choices. It troubles us that this issue could be made by someone without considering a holistic analysis that includes the issues of food safety, cost effectiveness, and animal welfare.
When Grandfather and now great-grandfather Cecil Woodward first began raising chickens in 1905, all of our birds were “cage free” and even “free range.” The birds roamed freely in the barnyard, but so did the hawks, skunks, badgers, foxes, coyotes, dogs, raccoons, mice and rats. (We’ll call these “predators”) The calm, home-on-the range, pristine picture you might imagine was not always the case when one of the aforementioned visitors arrived to claim their prey. Death is seldom a pretty picture.
Grandfather soon found that he could protect the birds better by moving them indoors to barns similar to the one with him in the black and white picture on the home page, or the history page of our web site. Although not eliminated, predator related deaths decreased and more birds survived the cold winters as they could huddle up to keep warm. Refrigeration of eggs was not a common thing at that time; neither was there a good system in the medical community for tracking food-born illnesses, such as salmonella enteritidis. Whether outside in the barnyard, or in these barns, the birds would poop, play in their poop, scratch in their poop, eat their poop and humans would then eat the eggs these birds laid.
The next step was moving the birds into a housing system where their waste (poop) dropped down far away from the birds into the bottom of the barns away from the chickens and away from the eggs. This waste was then removed once or twice a year by using front-end loaders on tractors. This product was highly sought after by farmers wanting a good source of nitrogen for their crops. In addition to food safety improvements, this also allowed greater control over predators entering the barns that would either cause premature death to the birds, or invite food safety related issues. From an economic standpoint, this system significantly reduced costs as none of the eggs had to be hand gathered and were conveyed on belts directly to the machine that washed, graded, and packed the eggs.
Our next move that began in the late 1990’s involved installing conveyors to remove the waste every two to three days, as opposed to once or twice a year. From both an animal welfare and a food safety point of view, this has proven to be very effective. By removing the waste every two to three days, ammonia levels in the barns were dramatically reduced, as were any harborage areas for mice or flies. Offensive odors, rodents and flies were virtually eliminated by this move. Today, most of our eggs are produced either this way, or in a combination as described in the paragraph above.
One point worth mentioning here is what we do with the waste taken out of the barns. In some locations we make very high quality compost out of it by adding water, straw and wood products to it, then mix it on a scheduled basis to prevent over heating and to preserve essential microorganisms and bacteria to become our organic compost. It smells like fresh soil when we’re done, and it does crop, garden and plants of all kinds good. In other areas we use a unique process to pelletize the raw waste. This product does smell, but has a higher nitrogen level and is much easier to apply by the organic crop farmers who use it. Please see the Organic Poultry Compost page of our website for more information.