BY essentially every key metric, the sustainability of egg production has improved dramatically over the past 50 years, according to a landmark study released Oct. 30 by the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University.
Researchers conducted a life-cycle analysis of U.S. egg production from 1960 to 2010 and found that while farmers are producing far more eggs today, the industry as a whole has significantly decreased its environmental footprint.
Owing to a wide range of factors, including the reduction of natural resource use, improved hen feed, better disease control and advancements in hen housing systems, environmental efficiencies observed in 2010 are in stark contrast to the same measurements from 50 years prior.
The researchers found some key differences in today's egg industry compared to 1960.
Specifically, the comparison found that:
* The egg production process releases significantly less polluting emissions, including 71% lower greenhouse gas emissions.
* Hens now use 32% less water per dozen eggs produced.
* Today's hens use a little more than half the amount of feed to produce a dozen eggs and use 26% less daily feed.
* At the same time, today's hens produce 27% more eggs per day and are living longer, with a 57% lower mortality rate and 70% lower mortality for young hens.
"The U.S. egg industry has evolved remarkably over the past five decades by incorporating new technologies to protect natural resources," said lead researcher Hongwei Xin, an agricultural and biosystems engineering and animal science professor at Iowa State University as well as director of the Egg Industry Center. "Egg farmers have improved their production practices, allowing them to provide an affordable source of high-quality protein while using fewer resources and producing less waste."
The study found that feed efficiency plays a key role in reducing the egg industry's environmental impact. Due to advancements in nutrition and bird breeding, young hens now require 48% less feed during the rearing period than they did in 1960, and laying hens exhibit 42% better feed conversion.
Also, young hens now weigh 30% less, and laying hens require a little more than half of the amount of feed to produce a dozen eggs.
If the industry was still operating on the 1960 feed efficiency baseline, then it would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans to produce the 2010 egg supply.
The study was funded by the American Egg Board, U.S. Poultry & Egg Assn., United Egg Association Allied and Egg Industry Center. To obtain data for 2010, researchers conducted anonymous surveys of egg farmers and collected data on 57.1 million young hens and 92.5 million laying hens.
With a growing U.S. and global population and egg demand on the rise, the industry noted that egg farmers play an important role in providing an abundant and affordable source of high-quality protein.
"The U.S. population has increased by 72% over the past 50 years, but efficiencies in egg production have enabled us to meet the demands of the growing population with just 18% more hens while also leaving a smaller environmental footprint," said Bob Krouse, an egg farmer for Midwest Poultry Services in Indiana. "Egg farmers are now in a position to help fulfill the growing need for an affordable and nutritious source of protein in an environmentally responsible manner."
According to the "Environmental Footprint Study" conducted by the Egg Industry Center, advancements in hen housing — such as improved building ventilation, temperature control, better lighting and a more secure housing environment — played a critical role in improving the industry's environmental impact.
These techniques, among other modern production practices and technologies, have been widely adopted by egg farmers across the country, leading to healthier hens with a lower mortality rate and increased egg production.
At the same time, the industry continues to study the issue of which housing system will best serve the industry in the future. The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply recently released a preliminary analysis of Flock One research results for worker health and safety, food safety and egg quality (Feedstuffs, Oct. 7).
The coalition is studying two flocks in three housing systems at the same location: a conventional cage, cage-free aviary and enriched colony house system. The research will assess five areas of sustainability: animal health and well-being, environment, food affordability, food safety and worker health and safety.
"Completing the analysis of data from the first of two flocks and the addition of preliminary findings in these areas is a significant milestone in understanding the impacts and trade-offs associated with each system," said Janice Swanson, professor of animal welfare at Michigan State University and co-director of the coalition's research project. "What we observe here and in future data will greatly increase the knowledge about sustainable egg production available to egg producers and those responsible for making purchasing decisions."
While egg production was relatively similar across all three systems, when mortality is considered, production was lowest in the aviary system. Because of the higher mortality rate, the fewer remaining birds cannot produce as many eggs as in the other systems.
The cost per dozen eggs was also highest in the aviary system, as were operating costs. Feed and operating costs were similar in the conventional and enriched housing systems. Capital costs were much higher for both aviary and enriched systems because of the cost to build the barns.