Michigan Egg Farmers Concerned over Welfare Bill

MICHIGAN, US - Egg farmers say that the animal welfare bill hit their bottom line.
calendar icon 28 October 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

A controversial farm animal welfare bill signed into law this month by Governor Jennifer Granholm has left some local farmers wondering how they will survive after implementing the law's new requirements, according to The Holland Sentinel.

The law requires that farm animals confined to cages have enough room to turn around and fully extend their limbs.

It bans battery cages for laying chickens and stalls for pregnant pigs, requiring farmers to phase them out in the next 10 years, while crates for veal calves will be banned in three years.

Battery cages have a wire mesh floor, allowing manure to drop through, keeping it out of the animals' living space. They also have sloped floors that roll eggs to the front of the cage.

For Mike Bronkema, an Olive Township farmer who primarily raises chickens and sheep, phasing out his battery cages and crates will put him in a financial bind – even if he has 10 years to do it, he said.

He says it will also mean less attention given to animals who may be sick or hurt.

Statistics from the US Department of Agriculture show that the top three poultry-producing counties in the state are Ottawa, Allegan and Ionia. The top three hog-producing counties are Allegan, Cass and Ottawa.

Representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which pushed for the law, say animal welfare is just as important as cost, however.

The group reports that 280 million laying hens in the United States are confined to the battery cages. They say the cages 'prohibit their natural behaviours', including nesting, dust bathing, perching and foraging.

"People in Michigan want to make sure that animals on our farms are living good lives," said Jennifer Robertson, public relations coordinator for HSUS, headquartered in Bingham Farms.

She pointed out that Michigan could become a leader in animal welfare with its reforms, following behind states like Maine, Colorado and Arizona, which have similar legislation in place. A ballot initiative in California giving laying hens more space was also successful.

Mary Rottschafer, director of Zeeland Township's Critter Barn, leads groups of schoolchildren and adults through two buildings: one that houses egg-laying chickens in a free-range style, where the animals can roam freely, and another where they are placed in battery cages.

The Critter Barn offers tours and education about farm life to 25,000 students each year, according to its web site.

In the free-range building, Ms Rottschafer said, chickens have more mobility, but at a cost: since June, the 45 chickens she once had in the building has been reduced to 41.

Although it is not uncommon to lose a few birds, she told Holland Sentinel that more aggressive chickens eat more of the food, causing others to go malnourished, and some even peck at each other until patches of feathers are gone.

She said: "The cage system we have now was started around the Second World War to deal with some of the problems they were having with the birds trampling each other. Now, all of a sudden, people are calling it factory farming. It's not."

In battery cages, Ms Rottschafer explained, feed moves over a conveyor belt that is more accessible to the chickens – and they are used to being in close proximity with each other. It keeps them from running through their own waste and regulates body and room temperatures better, she said.

"It's no different from having a couple parakeets in a cage," she said although her cages house six birds each.

Mr Bronkema said he fears the day will come when American farms disappear, and meat and eggs have to be shipped into the country from countries with fewer regulations, like Brazil and Mexico.

"If we could afford to do it the old-fashioned way, we would've stuck with it," he said.

Ms Rottschafer agreed. She told Holland Sentinel: "For small farmers, it works, but I just don't think this method can feed the whole population of the United States."

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