Established in 1934 in Clackamas County, Willamette Egg Farms is now one of Oregon’s largest egg producers and a leader in animal welfare education and research. Willamette Egg Farms has always dedicated itself to providing consumers with a quality product at an affordable price, but changes in consumer preferences have meant changes in egg production and, along with it, changes in the way farmers work. Today, Willamette Egg Farms dedicates time, energy, and space to not only producing quality eggs, but to understanding consumer needs and wants in a way that benefits all egg producers.
When Willamette Egg Farmsstarted raising chickens for egg production—beginning with nearly 400 hens—owner Tom Dybvad decided to sell his product throughout the Portland-Metro area. Eggs from these 400 hens and neighboring farms were transported twice a week via a 1931 Model A Ford to the Portland-metro area where they were sold to hospitals, hotels, and grocery stores. “We began delivering eggs to Portland early on,” says Greg Satrum, Vice-President of Willamette Egg Farms“We have delivered eggs to The Benson Hotel in downtown Portland since the 1930s.” This long-standing dedication to providing local product is just one reasonWillamette Egg Farms has been able to withstand competition from bigger, out-of-state egg producers.
That dedication translates to all of their consumers, which is another reason Willamette Egg Farms has remained so strong. “We have always tried to give the consumer what they want,” says Satrum. In the early 1950s, egg producers began using caged houses for their hens. When caged houses entered into the scene and replaced the traditional free range environment, farmers quickly noticed a positive change in the health of the birds and the amount of eggs they produced. Satrum explains, “Back then, animal welfare simply meant low mortality and high production, so cages were a tremendous improvement for hen welfare. The evolving definitions of animal welfare and consumer preferences are something we will always have to adapt to.” Cage-free egg production mostly dropped off the radar from the 1950s to the mid-1990s.
Much of the discussion surrounding animal welfare today has to do with the ability of the hens to partake in “natural behaviors.” Some natural behaviors for hens include perching, nesting, scratching, and dust bathing. The debate about animal welfare really heated up in the late 1990s when the European Union decided to ban conventional cages altogether. This ban is scheduled to be enforced in 2012, leaving egg producers in Europe just two more years to completely change farming practices. So far a nation-wide ban in conventional cages has not been proposed in the United States, but some states are beginning to pass measures which could make current hen housing systems illegal.
When consumers go to the store, they are inundated with choices—from cage-free to free range to hormone free, these terms can become confusing. Breaking down these terms and mapping out all of the different ways laying hens can be kept can also be overwhelming—both for consumers as well as egg producers.
The use of hormones and antibiotics is often a concern among consumers. “Hormones are not used and antibiotic use is rare on modern egg farms,” says Satrum. “When the birds are clean and healthy, there is just no need to use antibiotics. Growth hormones have never been used in egg producing hens as far as I know.” There are a number of misperceptions and myths surrounding modern farming and egg production.
The different ways in which hens are kept goes beyond just caged and cage-free, as consumers are well aware. Other forms of housing include “aviary systems,” “enriched colony systems,” and “free range.” Egg producers are working together to test out the different ways farmers can raise hens and, with the help of scientific researchers, are trying to figure out which systems are best for both hens and farmers.
One big issue farmers face when trying to raise hens in large groups such as in cage-free and free range environments is the establishment of pecking orders. When hens are placed in small groups, it is easier for them to establish their pecking order and understand their role. When the group becomes too large, it is often hard to establish concrete roles among the birds which can lead to an increase in aggression. One way in which egg farmers are trying to curb the aggression found among hens is to study genetics and breeding. “The study of genetics has led to better behaved hens,” says Satrum. “When the hens are better behaved, they can more easily be placed in larger groups.”
The term free range has been used heavily among consumers and producers, but this term can be confusing and misleading. Free range hens can be defined as such as long as they have some access to areas outside of the hen house at some point in the day. Large groups of hens that live completely outside beyond any form of protection are prone to predatory animals and diseases. There are other issues surrounding free range hens such as the collection and removal of waste and water quality. There are actually very few commercial free range hens due to the inability to properly control and maintain the health of both the birds and the surrounding environment.
One of the newer systems that is currently being tested is called the enriched colony system. This system is technically a caged system but the pens are much larger than conventional cages, measuring 4 ft. by 12 ft. There are rails that can be used for perching, a mat for the birds to scratch on, and private nesting areas. The enriched colony system is designed to give birds the opportunity to behave naturally while allowing farmers the opportunity to keep their birds protected from natural predators and diseases.
Willamette Egg Farms is dedicated to providing consumers the product they desire, and because of this the farm uses different housing systems for their hens. “Right now is a very experimental time in the egg industry,” says Satrum. With around 30 lay houses containing a little more than 2 million chickens, Willamette Egg Farms produces around 1.5 million eggs every day. That amount could almost feed the greater Portland-metro area.
“Ninety-seven percent of consumers still purchase eggs from conventionally caged hens,” says Satrum. Caged hens at Willamette Egg Farms are meticulously cared for. All hens are lifted up and away from any waste product, houses are amply ventilated so the air quality remains clean and clear, and all birds are given free access to food and water every day. But Willamette Egg Farms employs other housing systems as well, including aviary cage-free and floor cage-free. The farm is currently converting three cage-free houses to organic egg production. “Every system has positives and negatives,” says Satrum. “We are trying to find the one with the most positives and the least negatives.”
Willamette Egg Farms still provides Oregonians with fresh eggs and egg products, but the company has expanded to supply areas outside of the state as well. Eggs are being exported toWashington, northern California, parts of Nevada, Hawaii, and other states—as well as internationally to areas such as Guam.
Since 1934, Willamette Egg Farms has been dedicated to providing consumers with a quality product. Today they stand by that mission. “Being a farmer is what I want to do,” says Satrum. By merging production and research, Willamette Egg Farms is at the forefront of modern farming, making sure farming remains viable for years to come.