From Ancient Times
Since birds and eggs preceded man in the evolutionary chain, they’ve existed longer than historians. East Indian history indicates that wild fowl were domesticated as early as 3200 B.C. Egyptian and Chinese records show that fowl were laying eggs for man in 1400 B.C. Europe has had domesticated hens since 600 B.C. There is some evidence of native fowl in the Americas prior to Columbus’ arrival. However, it is believed that, on his second trip in 1493, Columbus’ ships carried to the New World the first of the chickens, which originated in Asia, related to those now in egg production.
Most people of the world eat the egg of the chicken, Gallus domesticas. Nearly 200 breeds and varieties of chickens have been established worldwide. Most laying hens in the U.S. are Single-Comb White Leghorns.
The Early 1900s
In the 1920s and 1930s, egg farms were still mostly backyard systems. Many farmers had laying hens to supply their own families with eggs and would sell any extra eggs at local farmers’ markets. As selling eggs became profitable, some farms started building up flocks of about 400 hens. The hens roamed around outside with a coop for roosting.
Living outside presented some problems, mainly with weather and predators. Social issues within the flock included the “pecking order” in which bigger and more aggressive birds would eat more of the food, leaving less for the other birds.
Diseases were also a problem, and selective breeding helped to cultivate healthy flocks. For parents of new chicks, hatcheries chose the strongest, healthiest birds with good egg-laying records. These parents passed along favorable genetic factors, such as disease resistance, to their offspring.
Special medicines were developed to help combat parasites, such as leg mites. Scientifically controlling what the birds ate was another major step forward in maintaining healthy hens and ensuring eggs of consistent quality.
While these advances helped, the hens were laying only about 150 eggs a year and had a mortality rate of about 40 percent.
Research on moving hens to indoor living showed many benefits. While they were expensive, specialized large hen houses resulted in much healthier birds. When living indoors, the hens weren’t exposed to predators and the elements, including temperature extremes.
Indoor housing also helped to prevent parasite infestations and reduce the spread of diseases from outside carriers, including rodents and even humans. Instead of the hens eating whatever they found outside, feed could be better controlled indoors, too. Better feeding practices improved both hen health and egg productivity.
These changes reduced hen mortality to 18 percent a year. But some of the same old problems remained, including sanitation, waste control and the pecking order. The eggs were often dirty and exposed to some of the same waste-related bacteria as the hens.
The Mid to Late 1900s
Continuing studies began in the late 1920s. In the late 1940s, some poultry researchers had favorable results with raised wire-floor housing for hens. The separated wire housing came to be called the cage system, and California farmers quickly put the research into practice.
Sanitation greatly improved when hens were raised off the floor. Neither the hens nor the eggs came into contact with waste, and waste removal was much easier. Feeding became more uniform as the more timid hens were able to eat and drink as much as they required, just like the more aggressive hens. This resulted in more uniform egg-nutrient quality and less feed being needed for the flock.
The scientific research on caging proved itself in California. A healthy hen will lay a lot of eggs. With much improved health, California hens each produced about 250 eggs per year and their mortality dropped to 5 percent. Based on these numbers, more and more farms across the country built new facilities with the cage style of housing.
In colder climates, farmers modified the southern structures by enclosing them and adding fans for ventilation. The hens themselves were a great source of heat for the winter. Their combined body heat helped to maintain a comfortable temperature in the houses throughout the winter, and the fans provided the right temperatures in the summer.
The caging system also lent itself to increased automation, which was needed to handle the increased output of eggs from the hens. Conveyor belts were added to the hen house to collect the eggs as soon as they were laid and carry them to the washers.
By the early 1960s, improved technology and the development of sophisticated mechanical equipment were responsible for a shift from small farm flocks to larger commercial operations.
Improving the health of hens through more protective housing and better feeding facilities led to more eggs which led to increased automation to handle the eggs. With increased automation, labor costs were reduced, providing a lower cost to the consumer. In addition to much improved hen health, equal-opportunity feeding also made the nutrient quality of eggs more uniform. Altogether, the changes resulted in a win-win situation for both hens and consumers.
In the major egg producing states, flocks of 100,000 laying hens are not unusual and some flocks number more than 1 million. Each of the roughly 280 million laying birds in the U.S. produces from 250 to 300 eggs a year. In total, the U.S. produces about 75 billion eggs a year, about 10 percent of the world supply.
Each year, about 60 percent of the eggs produced are used by consumers, about 9 percent are used by the foodservice industry and the rest are turned into egg products which are used mostly by foodservice operators to make the meals we eat in restaurants and by food manufacturers to make foods like mayonnaise and cakes mixes.
Using highly sophisticated technology, egg producers have kept prices low. While other food costs have skyrocketed, eggs continue to be one of nature’s best bargains among high-quality protein foods.