LANSING, Mich. (MIRS News) – The deadline for Michigan egg producers to switch to cage-free production is fast approaching, with producers required to make the switch by the end of 2024, and the struggle for producers now is to keep up with expanding demand under a cage-free system.

Herb Herbruck of Herbruck Farms, the largest egg producer in the state, testified about his family business before the House Agriculture Committee. He said that in order to keep up with production commitments and convert to cage-free, producers must expand the number of hens.

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Herbruck said that in a perfect world every bird would lay one egg per day, though in reality, the number of eggs laid fluctuates based on the age of the hen and their living conditions.

With cage free, he said the goal is to get production up to the same point as they’ve seen with caged hens. Right now, production is lower.

Cage-free hens require more feed to produce eggs because they’re more active, he said, and they require more space. Both require more money.

According to numbers updated in December 2022 by the USDA’s livestock and poultry program, the number of hens necessary to keep up with consumption in 2023 is 83.9 million, a number that lines up with 2023 expansion plans. In 2023, the goal is to expand to 94.9 million hens.

By 2024, however, the number of hens necessary jumps up to 134.7 million, while 2024 expansion plans account for the same 94.9 million hens. In 2025, the number necessary is 213.6 million, while expansion plans only account for 97.9 million, and in 2026 the number jumps up to 232.9 million hens.

“We’re going to fall short of making those commitments,” Herbruck said, but he added that Michigan’s egg producers have a plan and are ready for Michigan’s rulemaking change.

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At Herbruck Farms, he said the conversion process to cage-free facilities started in 2005, and all their operations out-of-state are already cage-free. In Michigan, he said only 8% of facilities have yet to be updated.

A patchwork of other states across the U.S. are in the process of enacting cage-free laws, he said, while Michigan is on a pretty straightforward path that was laid out in former Sen. Kevin DALEY’s SB 174.

The bill caused debate over the compliance date, which was originally 2020, then pushed back to December 2025 before the Humane Society of the United States negotiated for the end of 2024, which was agreed would give the industry time to make the necessary changes.

Michigan is currently 7th in nationwide egg production, Herbruck said.

His company houses approximately 10 million chickens, along with a little over 1,000 employees, and their daily production averages around 9 million eggs daily.

In addition to remaining in compliance, Herbruck said another challenge for egg producers was the widespread outbreak of avian influenza in 2022, which took out about 44 million egg layers in the United States.

He called it a “long-duration event” that raised prices and took out approximately 15% of the total U.S. flock.

Luckily, no egg layers in Michigan were hit by the disease, he said, but prices nationwide skyrocketed to almost $5 for a dozen eggs.

With prices now stabilizing, Herbruck said that going forward, the best way to battle disease is biosecurity, or “keeping the outside out, keeping the inside in and keeping any disease away from our birds.”

But he added that vaccines are another tool producers believe could be helpful, something he said there’s a lot of talk about within the industry today.

The USDA is researching avian vaccines, Herbruck said, and following their approval process, states will be allowed to choose whether or not to use avian vaccines.

He said there are expected international trade issues if vaccines are implemented, but “seeing the number of birds that have died from this disease. I think everybody is in favor of vaccinating those birds to protect them.”