CANBY — A red glow from LED lighting bathes Greg Satrum and his father, Gordon, as they slowly lead the way through a sea of chickens. The hens, offshoots of the classic Rhode Island Reds, warily cluck and part; some instinctively hop to the safety of perch pipes that run the length of their new $1 million henhouse. They settle quickly enough, however, and soon approach to inspect visitors and make exploratory pecks at rings, pens and notepads.
The chickens’ new home is state-of-the-art, one of two new henhouses built to increase cage-free egg production at Willamette Egg Farms.
The construction represents a significant pivot for Oregon’s largest egg producer, and is a response to rising consumer demand as well as legislative changes on the horizon.
Most of Willamette Egg Farms’ production will still come from hens in conventional — and controversial — cages. But the 40,000 hens roaming each of the new houses, one in full operation and the other nearly so, will have three levels of perches, nesting boxes in which to lay eggs and ground space to move around. Hens cannot go outside — but they can hop down onto dirt floors to socialize, flap their wings and scratch the dirt.
The red spectrum produced by energy-efficient LED lighting calms the hens, and the system is programmed to simulate a gradual daybreak and sunset. Feed and water are dispensed automatically, and conveyor belts remove 95 percent of the manure. The nesting boxes have gently sloped floors, allowing eggs to roll out the rear for collection.
The company, established in 1934 and still family owned, produces about 1 million eggs a day in Oregon and another 600,000 daily at a site in Moses Lake, Wash. With the new houses, the company’s cage-free production will amount to about 8 percent of its total. It will increase that percentage as its old buildings are phased out and replaced by more cage-free facilities over time.
Nationally, cage-free production was 5.7 percent of the total as of March 2012, according to the American Egg Board.
“I have to expect it will continue to grow," said Greg Satrum, who is co-owner with his father and the third generation to run the company.
Sharon Harmon, executive director of the Oregon Humane Society, said the Satrums are at the leading edge of an industry that recognizes that the public largely opposes tight confinement of farm animals.
But it is egg producers who have to bear the cost of change, and it can’t be accomplished overnight, she said.
“We want better care for hens now, but that’s an incredibly expensive infrastructure to change over," Harmon said. “Credit is due Willamette Eggs for standing up and saying the winds of change are coming."
Satrum describes the new system in measured tones. Given the average life of hen houses and equipment, it is a 40-year investment, he said. Whether it’s “better," he said, depends on your values.
Hens raised cage-free are eating the same food as those in conventional cages and produce the same quality egg. Cage systems are more cost-efficient, curb hen-to-hen aggression and result in fewer bird injuries because they can’t jump or fly around, he said.
“But then you look at cage-free, and there’s more freedom to perform natural behaviors," Satrum said. “They have private nesting areas, the ability to perch and to scratch around on the floor.
“What we’ve seen is sort of a shift in the whole idea of what humane means," he said. “For years it was all about being healthy, clean and efficient. Now there seems to be more interest in natural behavior."
Action by some of the nation’s largest supermarket and fast-food chains are helping drive the industry shift.
Aramark, a national food services company that supplies institutions ranging from prisons to schools, has announced it would use nothing but cage-free eggs by the end of 2014.
Safeway, with more than 1,600 stores nationwide, set a goal in 2010 of increasing cage-free egg sales to 12 percent of its total in two years. The company easily surpassed it, with cage-free sales reaching 15 percent in 2012.
Satrum believes many consumers will continue to buy eggs based on price, and conventional cage eggs cost less to produce. But a significant percentage of consumers is keenly interested in locally- and humanely-produced food.
“It wasn’t just a fad that came and went," he said. “They’re interested in the story behind the food."