Activists, Politics and Farming…Everyone Loses

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Example of a Furnished Cage

The battle over animal welfare is coming to a head in the US.  California’s Proposition 2 comes into effect in January 2015, which is almost immediately, in terms of the farms affected.  The story is complicated, the issues are multi-layered, and as far as I can tell, NOBODY is going to win.

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A Modern Conventional Cage Barn

Turn the clock back to the halcyon days of 2008.  An animal rights group called the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) champions a ballot initiative in one of the most liberal states in America.  HSUS is an organization that is dedicated to the reduction and elimination of animal use in the world.  They had a budget of $125,763,492 in 2012, but used less than 1% of their funds for shelters.  They claim to want to improve the lives of laying hens and other farmed animals in California….cynics say they are trying to destroy the egg and pork industries.

Proposition 2 stated that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”  It passed with 63% of the vote.  Californians, although reportedly being confused about the implications of the statement, clearly want improved welfare for farmed animals. They also eat almost 9 Billion eggs per year.   After much legal wrangling, it has been decided that furnished cages (cages with a nest box, perches, scratch areas and more space) are an acceptable method of farming hens, as are free-range, free-run and aviaries…..all of which are noticeably more expensive than eggs from hens housed in cages.  Proposition 2 has an implementation date of Jan 1, 2015.

Farmers want to look after animals, produce food and make a living.  Several farmers decided to adopt new technologies and improve the welfare of hens.  Notably JS West Co. has converted several barns to furnished cages at an incredible cost.  They tried to recoup their investment by selling the eggs for a small premium.  Unfortunately, nobody would buy the eggs, and JS West has been forced to sell the eggs as traditional white eggs, at a loss.

Enter the Governator.  Arnold knew that, if the eggs produced in California had to be more expensive, they could not compete with cheaper eggs from Iowa, which has almost 52 million laying hens, well over 90% of which live in cages.  He proposed a law that would require that any egg sold in California would have to be produced by hens held to the new standards required by Prop 2.  Unfortunately, this law seems to be unconstitutional, since agricultural standard in one state cannot be dictated by another state’s rules.  The Governor-General of Missouri is suing California to allow access to California’s egg market, and it looks like he will likely prevail.

So…..where does that leave them?

At the end of the day, rules are rules, and California farmers will have to follow the housing regulations.  California will have to allow free trade of eggs from other states.  The end results will be millions or billions of dollars spent in court (depends who you ask), eggs produced in California will be more expensive to produce, and unless something drastic happens, all but 5-6% of Californians will buy the cheapest eggs in the store.

HSUS will not achieve either of their purported goals….egg consumption will not drop due to higher prices (which is supposed by critics to have been their actual end-game), and the same proportion of California egg consumption will be from caged hens (meaning no improvement of welfare, which is their official goal).

Californians will not get improved animal welfare, since they will continue to buy eggs as they always have….more than 90% of the eggs from hens in cages.

Farmers in California will basically go out of business.  If you are producing a commodity that is purchased on price, and your production costs are higher, you must make less profit.  Eventually, they will go elsewhere.

Hens will not have an improved life.  Actually…just from the fact that they will live in Ohio instead of California, it is arguable that their quality of life will go down……not many people take holidays in Ohio….

This is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and nothing getting accomplished.  Except this is more like an octopus, and all the balls dropped are Faberge eggs worth millions.

Here in Canada, we are trying to use a collaborative process to develop a strategy for welfare improvement through the National Farm Animal Care Council.  We have farmers, vets, industry, welfare scientists, humane societies, retail councils and all other players in  egg supply sitting around the table hammering out a policy.  It is excruciatingly slow, but I think it is going to result in some improvement in welfare in Canadian egg production….rather than just a redistribution of the geography of egg production.

Mike the Chicken Vet

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19 responses to “Activists, Politics and Farming…Everyone Loses

  1. Thanks for your insightful and thoughtful comments about an issue that has a lot of moving parts. I hope that we will figure out a way to work together to improve conditions for hens in the US, as Canadians apparently are doing.

  2. Helen Anne Hudson

    Mike,
    As usual your insight into the industry is right on. If we are to make changes in livestock husbandry systems, all stakeholders must understand the implications.

  3. Good post.

    Sent from my mobile device

  4. I do hope you are able to come up with something more useful and on a National level in Canada. It really is possible!

  5. Hi Mike,
    I like your article, Activists, Politics and farming, and yes I agree with you, were all going to be losers, but I honestly believe the consumer will lose more, with being a egg producer myself I feel we have to switch to different housing systems to satisfy animal welfare groups, in the end it will be the consumer who will have to pay for it. I see a big problem with free range hens running loose, how can we keep deceases out, I feel our consumers will pay a lot more for a product that is worth less, in terms of clean, safe eggs.
    J.R.

    • Thanks for the note J.R.;

      That is why this issue is so complicated…..not only politics, economics and welfare are entangled in the discussion. Food safety, environmental concerns and worker safety are significantly impacted by these decisions too…..and the issues never seem to agree on a course of action. Every decision is a compromise of a dozen criteria…..it will make for lively debate at the policy table.

  6. Interesting. Canada always seems to change through evolution, the states through revolution. I think our way is better. I hope though if we hammer out a better egg production policy that we don’t get slapped through NAFTA for cutting american producers out, just like their interstate rules don’t allow California to dictate to Iowa or Missouri.

  7. Hi Mike,
    I find your posts interesting and thought-provoking, however I have to take very strong exception to your characterization of HSUS. Your statement: “They [HSUS] had a budget of $125,763,492 in 2012, but used less than 1% of their funds for shelters,” while this statement may be true, it is purposely meant to be a persuasive argument that characterizes HSUS as being duplicitous in some way. However, it is not their mission to fund shelters. Their mission is advocacy, education, and investigating animal cruelty. (Note: Some shelters have the name “Humane” or “Humane Society” in their title, but they are not affiliated with HSUS.) Therefore, your statement about their budget would the same thing as someone trying to condemn my local non-profit animal shelter group by stating that we used less than 1% to help homeless children. While this statement is true, it is meaningless since that is not our mission.

    • Thanks for responding Stacey,
      The reason I added the part about the budget was to illustrate the political juggernaut that the HSUS is, and the power the organization has. As for the 1% for shelters, it was to illustrate just what you said, that your organization’s mandate is not animal shelters. Speaking frankly however, HSUS does seem to receive a lot of its donations from people who believe they are supporting their “Humane Society ” (whose names, while unaffiliated, did precede the HSUS by decades). This misconception may be encouraged by the HSUS website, which touts the 3 activities of the HSUS as Animal Protection, Advocacy, and Animal Shelters.
      Regardless of the image of the HSUS, the primary mandate of HSUS seems to be advocacy, and much of that is an animal rights agenda, which is at odds with agriculture. I don’t have a problem with that…..I truly respect anyone who takes action to fix something they perceive as wrong, whether I agree with their stance or not……I just find it disappointing that, in this case at least, all the struggling has accomplished nothing except putting California egg farmers out of business, and shifting the egg farming to other states.

      Mike

  8. Hi, Dr. Mike:
    Another informative, thought-provoking post. Thanks! As a long-time supporter of humane animal farming practices I am discouraged by this news – always seems these issues are a series of “one step forward two steps back”. It is disheartening and frustrating to realize that something as stupid as a badly-written peice of legislation can gum up the progress of humane animal housing regulation that badly but, as a government employee, I don’t know why I’m surprised! Anyway, keep up the great work and thanks again for your postings.

    • Hi Liana;

      It is frustrating when people work towards a goal separately and inadvertently cancel each others efforts. There is not a single group involved who does not want the best care possible for the animals, but they don’t communicate. Everyone has more than one agenda (farmers want better care, but still need to make a living; HSUS wants better care, but also wants to decrease animal use in agriculture; the public wants better care, but not at the expense of safe, plentiful, affordable groceries). When the groups don’t communicate, the secondary pressures can derail the process. Our system here has everyone sitting in the same room, and all the external pressures get brought up (again and again, and again), which slows down the process, but at the end of the day everyone knows what pressures the other groups are under, and compromises are more easily made…..but it is NEVER an easy subject to make progress in.
      Thanks for your comment.

      Mike

  9. Hi Mike,
    Your article was very interesting. I had hoped that during these days where organic and meat that doesn’t have hormones injected in them seems to be the norm in todays young people.
    When I go to Whole Foods and Trader Joes, the place in full of young moms buying the best vegies, eggs, and meat they can.
    The eggs have to be coming from farms that are doing better by their hens, or so I had hoped.
    I myself have my own hens and started keeping them after we had outbreaks of diseases in the chicken industry. They are my pets and are treated VERY well:)
    I also don’t eat veal or for that matter I don’t eat beef after seeing those trucks come and get the cows that are close to me in Carson city, Nv. I hate seeing babies taken from their moms…it breaks my heart. So I do what I can about it and don’t eat them.!
    Anyway, thanks for you article and look forward to more.
    Thanks,
    Ruth Blough

  10. Mike,

    Just wanted to say I’m elated you are back on the blog! Hope you are well and can continue with it. Thanks again! Reece

  11. If you want to purchase eggs and chicken meat from chickens that have a wonderful life, you can’t go to the supermarket. You have to find someone who is raising chickens in a manner that satisfies you. And you need to expect to pay much more, from $6 to $12 for a dozen eggs and from $10 to $20 a pound for chicken.
    I raise chickens but at a density of no more than 50 chickens per acre. The chickens are outdoors from dawn to dusk, foraging across five acres of pasture, brush, and forest. Every day they are walking long distances to find good things to eat. I also supplement their diet with certified organic feed.
    But all of this is very costly. It is no way to put millions and millions of eggs into the supermarkets and box stores. But it does provide an alternative for those who care a great deal how their chickens are raised.
    The quality of the eggs and meat are nothing like what you find in the supermarket. The eggs come in many different colors and shapes. The shells are very hard. The yolks are a brilliant yellow to deep orange and plump. The egg whites beat easily into fluffy merengue.
    The regular egg and chicken meat industry is incapable of producing anything like it, because they are driven by cost and need to produce vast quantities of eggs and chicken. They can’t provide the vast space and exercise chickens need to lay such incredible eggs.
    amanandhishoe.com

    • Thanks for the comment Amanda. This is a very important point that I have tried to make several times: small, niche farms and backyard flocks are a very different thing than flocks that are able to feed the massive numbers of people in our cities. If people can understand that the rules of each system and the pressures on each, they will be a long way towards understanding some of the realities of food production. Thanks for reading.

      Mike

  12. Mike — Love your blog — You are definitely the Chicken Vet of my dreams! I have been scouring your blog for references to daylight and egg laying. We have a 20-month-old Black Australorp hen who developed oviduct prolapse following her first molt. Took her to the vet as we were unable to correct the prolapse following information found in blogs and books. Vet was able to get the prolapse back into the vent and used a purse string suture to hold it in, leaving a large enough opening for Doris to pass droppings. Her instructions were to give Doris feed and water, minimal light to prevent formation of eggs and to put some fake eggs in the nest to encourage her to set rather than lay. That was 1/30/2015. Sutures to be removed 2/6/15. So far Doris has not tried to lay and she is still active. She is in isolation and we are restricting her hours of daylight. My questions are: How much darkness is acceptable for her continued survival? Is the daylight she DOES receive cumulative in terms of formation of eggs and their passage through the oviduct? What would be the minimal acceptable daylight for a hen to receive and still not lay an egg (if we have this happen again)? Why do pullets lay the entire first winter after they begin to lay in fall when the days are short?

    • Hi Leiza;

      Chickens will survive ok in darkness, as long as they can find feed and water. That being said, it is not necessary to restrict her overmuch. The chicken’s brain responds to change in daylength rather than absolute daylength. I know farmers that have success with only increasing the daylength to 12 hours total light during the day….it lets the chickens rest more, and they still lay lots of eggs. I have also seen guys decrease daylength from 16 hours to 15 hours, and put the chickens out of lay. So, you need to maintain a daylength….it will make Doris think it is NOT spring (which is what increasing daylength simulates). As for chickens laying through the first winter, I liken it to college students and drinking……somehow, us more mature people respond much more to negative stimuli than do young ones who are just beginning to hit their stride. Pullets that have just had their hormones “turned on” will push through the decreasing light (much like a 20 yr old ignoring a hangover), while a chicken going into her 2nd winter will go out of lay (like most of us on the Monday after the Superbowl).

      Hope this helps

      Mike

  13. Mike! I just came upon your blog for the first time tonight and loved it, until you mixed up Iowa and Ohio. I guess I’ll forgive you, since you are Canadian, but as a turkey farmer in IOWA, I was a little disappointed.

    But you’re right. No one vacations in Ohio either

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