DENVER – July 2013 – Colorado egg farmers and the Colorado Egg Producers (CEP) Association proudly celebrate the history of eggs this summer by taking a crack at that age-old question – “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”. While the answer is hotly debated, one thing is certain: eggs are a staple of the American diet. According to the American Egg Board, eggs are so popular that they’re used by 94 percent of households in the U.S. The American Egg Board recently found that 82 percent of parents agree that eggs are a more nutritious breakfast than cereal. Weighing in at 75 calories, eggs are a powerhouse of nutrition for their size and caloric content. Each egg has 13 essential nutrients – including the highest quality protein, choline, folate, iron and zinc. But did you know that this classic menu item has a long history with American agriculture?
“The best way to understand where your food comes from is to start from the beginning. As Colorado egg farmers, our goal is to help educate Coloradans about the importance and history of the eggs they eat,” said Jerry Wilkins of the Colorado Egg Producers Association. “We are proud to provide Coloradans with the background and history of egg production courtesy of our friends and partners at the American Egg Board.”
In Colorado, farms range in size from 25,000 to 1 million laying hens. Each of the approximately 4 million laying hens in the Colorado produces between 250 to 300 eggs a year. In total, that is about 1 billion eggs a year, produced right here in the Centennial State.
You may wonder how we got to this point, so let’s start at the beginning. Birds and eggs have a long history that dates back to as early as 3200 B.C. Historians believe that chickens came to the New World with Columbus on his second trip in 1493.
Fast-forward to the 1920s and 30s. During this timeframe, many farmers had hens from which they supplied their own families with eggs and sold the extra at local farmers’ markets. As the egg business became profitable, some farms started building up flocks of as many as 400 hens. The hens roamed around outside and used a coop for roosting. For the hens, living outside presented several problems including:
• “pecking order” issues where bigger, aggressive birds would eat more of the food, leaving less for the other birds; and
Several advancements were made to address these problems including selective breeding, special medicines to prevent parasites, and scientifically controlling the birds diets. Even with these advancements the hens were only laying about 150 eggs a year and had a mortality rate of about 40 percent.
Research on hens that lived indoors showed many benefits. Large, specialized hen houses, while expensive, produced much healthier hens which increased egg productivity and reduced hen mortality to 18 percent a year. However some issues still existed including sanitation, waste control and the pecking order. The eggs produced were usually dirty and exposed to some of the same waste bacteria as the hens.
In the late 1940s, researchers looked into raised wire-floor housing for hens and saw better results. The separated wire housing, now known as the cage system, was quickly adopted by farmers. One of the greatest improvements that came from the hens being raised off the floor was sanitation. Neither the hens nor the eggs came into contact with waste and waste removal was much easier. The “pecking order” issue was minimized because the more timid hens were able to eat and drink as much as they required, just like the more aggressive hens.
“Most importantly, it was discovered that healthy hens lay high-quality eggs, and a lot of them. With the new system, hens each produced about 250 eggs per year and the mortality dropped to 5 percent,” explained Wilkins. “This is a truth that Colorado egg farmers live by today. It is easy for us to answer to the question – which came first, the chicken or the egg? For Colorado egg farmers, the chickens always come first. We care about how all of our chickens are treated. While no system is perfect, we ensure our chickens receive the best care possible within both the cage and cage-free systems. As an association, we were the first state to develop and implement an Animal Care Doctrine. Each of our producers and members has signed this Doctrine and are committed to the best possible care of chickens based on scientific principles and animal husbandry standards.”
A new form of housing that is beginning to gain recognition is the enriched cage or “colony housing” which combines the best attributes found in conventional cages with those from cage-free systems. Popular in Europe, this system allows for effective monitoring of bird health and disease prevention while providing hens’ access to perching, nesting and other behaviors. Although higher in production costs, research is showing the enriched “colony” cage could be considered the new standard for housing egg laying hens in the United States in 20 to 25 years.
Over the years, the industry has improved greatly. Advancements in technology and equipment as well as increased automation allows egg farmers, including those here in Colorado, to provide high-quality eggs at a low cost to consumers while caring for our animals.
CEP is a membership organization representing seven farms throughout Colorado. It is committed to doing what’s right for its community, as illustrated by the regular donation of thousands of eggs to food banks throughout the state. Egg farmers throughout Colorado pride themselves on providing eggs to Coloradans. It is also proud to offer consumers the choice between cage, cage-free eggs, organic, nutrient enhanced, brown and white eggs. For more information about CEP, please visit coloradoeggproducers.com or find us Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.