By Matt Reese
Impeccable environmental stewardship, unparalleled animal welfare and unrivaled food safety are necessities in today’s egg production. They are all interconnected and successful egg producers know that no corners can be cut.
“The chicken does a wonderful job of producing eggs, but if we try to cut corners to save a buck we can ruin that egg,” said Gary Stoller, with Stoller Farms, this year’s environmental steward award recipient. “I have been in this business long enough to see where we came from, and our practices were far inferior back then. Today our food is safer, our birds are healthier and I don’t think there is a food system in the world that is safer than what we have for our eggs in this country today.”
Stoller’s grandfather had nine boys and raised numerous types of livestock to keep them busy on their Paulding County farm. He built one of the largest chicken houses of the era, 25feet wide by 160 feet long, in the early 1920s. Stoller’s father was put in charge of the laying hens in the facility when he was 15. When he got married, Stoller’s father moved to Van Wert County and started a hatchery for raising laying hens and selling them to other laying operations. Then Stoller started working with his father in 1956, continuing the hatchery business and adding an egg production business in Van Wert County. By 1990, the genetics industry in the hatchery business had consolidated to the degree that the Stollers either had to get much bigger or get out of the business. That is when they focused entirely on egg production.
“We built our first commercial high rise egg production facility in the mid-1980s and we found out that the potential for income was higher with the eggs, though it is very cyclical,” Stoller said. “At the time we had one building for layers and a half dozen contract growers. We made a conscious decision that if we wanted to grow, we would favor company owned facilities.”
From there, Stoller Farms added a new egg production facility in 1991, two more buildings in 1994 and a fourth building in 2004, on two different farms. Two farms means twice as many neighbors to work with, but Stoller Farms goes out of the way to be a good neighbor.
“We know our neighbors on a personal basis and we know that controlling flies is very important,” he said. “We spent a lot of money and time managing flies and manure. The birds drop manure that is 85% moisture and we dry that down to 15% moisture.”
Fans and enzyme additives are used to dry the manure that accumulates in cones beneath the birds. The management is the most intense at the bottom of the pile, just after the barns have been cleaned.
“It takes a couple of months of intense management with fly sprays inside and out and with the fans, but once the base is established it starts composting and it is a lot easier to control the flies,” Stoller said.
In traditional systems, the manure pile would build up for 22 months or so before cleaning, but standards have changed.
“The egg industry found that we could better control salmonella if we are taking the manure out more often. So, we have since moved to taking the manure out once a year and we now have to deal with wetter manure more often,” Stoller said. “We have to rely on more insecticides as a result.”
The composted, dry manure is sold to brokers who apply it to area farmland.
“In the last five years or so, farmers have come to realize that this manure belongs on their ground. They need the organic matter, and with the cost of commercial fertilizer this is a real value,” Stoller said. “Just 15 years ago we were begging farmers to take our manure and now they are buying it from us.”
The dry manure is also easier to handle and low odor, which makes it better for application in the fields. There is no wastewater discharge from the production areas to avoid the possibility of contaminating any of the outdoor surroundings.
The Stollers illustrate the three-pronged commitment to animal welfare, environmental stewardship and food safety that is a requirement of any viable agricultural operation and a necessity for a well-fed society.
“If we are going to produce enough meat, milk and eggs, we have to use modern confinement and agricultural technology. If we don’t, we will get our food from Mexico, or China or South America that may have no standards at all,” Stoller said. “We can’t supply the American need for animal products without modern confinement agriculture in this country.”