Clean Living in the Henhouse
By WILLIAM NEUMAN, New York Times
NORTH MANCHESTER, Ind. — The stuff doesn’t even smell that bad.
In Henhouse No. 1 at the Hi-Grade Egg Farm here, the droppings from 381,000 chickens are carried off along a zig-zagging system of stacked conveyor belts with powerful fans blowing across them.
The excrement takes three days to travel more than a mile back and forth, and when it is finally deposited on a gray, 20-foot high mountain of manure, it has been thoroughly dried out, making it of little interest to the flies and rodents that can spread diseases like salmonella poisoning.
Standing by the manure pile on a recent afternoon, Robert L. Krouse, the president of Midwest Poultry Services, the company that owns the Hi-Grade farm, took a deep breath. The droppings, he declared, smelled sweet, like chocolate.
“This is the kind of thing that gets egg farmers excited,” Mr. Krouse said.
Controlling manure and keeping henhouses clean is essential to combating the toxic strain of salmonella that sickened thousands of people this year and prompted the recall of more than half a billion eggs produced by two companies in Iowa.
Chocolaty smells or not, the Hi-Grade facility appeared very different from the descriptions released by federal investigators of the Iowa farms that produced the recalled eggs. Those farms, most of them owned by Austin J. DeCoster, one of the country’s largest egg producers, were portrayed as filthy and badly maintained, with manure piles teeming with maggots and overflowing from pits beneath henhouses.
Those are not the images the egg industry wants consumers to have. Nor are they necessarily representative of most egg farms, federal regulators and industry officials agree.
Mr. Krouse’s farms were not associated with the recall, and a tour of one of them here in northern Indiana shows that much is being done in the egg industry to fight salmonella.
“We’ve had to completely change the way we look at things,” said Mr. Krouse, who is also chairman of the United Egg Producers, an industry association. “Thirty years ago, farms had flies and farms had mice, everything was exposed to everything else. They just all happily lived together. You can’t work that way anymore.”
Today the hens on Mr. Krouse’s farms come from hatcheries certified to provide chicks free of salmonella. The young birds are vaccinated to create resistance to the bacteria. And then steps are taken to keep them from being exposed to it, primarily by controlling mice and flies that may carry salmonella or spread it around.
That is where the manure drying comes in, although it has other benefits, like preventing bad smells that can bother neighbors.
Many of the henhouses have been built or refurbished in recent years. Henhouse No. 1 is three years old. On the newer henhouses, the bottom two feet of the outer walls are concrete, to make it harder for mice to get inside. The buildings are surrounded by a perimeter of stone and gravel, and the grass between buildings is cut short, to eliminate rodent habitats.
The doors seal tightly, like doors in a modern home rather than old-style barn doors. Bait containers and traps are placed along the walls, and the number of trapped mice is tracked closely to spot any increase in activity.
Visitors are made to dress in head-to-toe white coveralls made of a disposable material — evoking images of workers on the sterile floor of a semiconductor factory, only here there are downy feathers in the air and the racket made by hundreds of thousands of birds in cages stacked to the ceiling.
The suits are meant to keep out germs that visitors may track in from off the farm. They may protect against salmonella, but they are mostly aimed at pathogens that can ravage flocks with diseases like avian influenza and could be tracked in from other farms or places like golf courses that are home to wild geese.
The long, gray, tin-sided henhouses, about two football fields long, have no windows. Surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans, they hum softly with the sound of giant fans.
But everything here is not as modern as the manure drying contraption in Henhouse No. 1.
Nearby is a 12-year-old building, Henhouse No. 6.
Here more than 200,000 birds live on the house’s second floor, in cages stacked in an A-frame configuration, with an opening at the center that allows the droppings to fall into a cavernous ground floor space below.
Mr. Krouse said that just a few years ago this design was considered the most advanced, and it is still prevalent throughout the egg industry, including the henhouses at the Iowa farms involved in the recall.
At the farms in Iowa, inspectors found manure piles eight feet deep in some barns, with the manure overflowing and bursting through doors. Escaped chickens were seen loose in the manure and there were flies and maggots, according to the Food and Drug Administration inspection reports.
Once again, the picture was very different here. At the Hi-Grade barn, the manure was only about six inches deep, lying in five mounds, about four feet wide and 600 feet long, on the floor beneath the long arrays of cages. Mr. Krouse said the houses were cleaned out in early August.
Here, there was no suggestion of chocolate smells. The air had an ammonia bite, although it was far from overpowering. And there were flies, though not in large numbers (in part because of plenty of fly traps).
Gary E. Casper, a farm manager, said the key to controlling flies and rodents in this type of barn was to keep the manure dry. Large fans around the room kept the air moving. And he said it was crucial to watch for problems in the system that carries water to the birds in the cages above, and to stop leaks before they can soak the manure piles.
Many egg producers have been working for years to keep salmonella out of their flocks. Midwest Poultry began testing barns for salmonella in the late 1990s and has never found the toxic strain that can infect eggs.
In July, the F.D.A. put in place a set of egg safety rules that all producers must follow, with an emphasis on testing and rodent control. For companies like Midwest, that has meant only minor adjustments. The company, which has a total of six million laying hens in three states, spent about $200,000 upgrading refrigeration equipment to meet stricter rules for cooling eggs to prevent the growth of bacteria.
Mr. Krouse sells eggs to the large supermarket chains Kroger and Wal-Mart, and he says that those stores now scrutinize their farm suppliers much as they would a food manufacturing company.
“They’re looking at us as just another part of their food production system,” he said.