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Five to seven hens share each cage in a conventional barn at Morning Fresh Farms in Platteville. A conveyor belt carries eggs out of the barn and to a nearby production house. (Photo provided by Morning Fresh Farms)

The barns that rise up from the rural Colorado flatlands each hold tens of thousands of chickens, layered in steel cages that stack toward the ceiling. The floor of the cages tilts about 6 degrees, so when a hen lays an egg, it rolls downhill and onto a soft conveyor belt headed out of the barn.

About 5.5 million hens, mainly from four major egg producers in the state and mostly in Weld County, live in this conventional, caged housing. But not for much longer. Colorado egg producers were just handed a deadline by the state legislature to convert all hen housing to cage-free by 2025.  

Egg producers estimate it will cost them about $30 per bird, totaling about $165 million for the industry in Colorado.

“The cost of converting is immense. It’s extraordinary,” said Jerry Wilkins, sales and marketing director at Morning Fresh Farms in Platteville, which estimated it will spend $24 million to put its 800,000 caged hens into cage-free housing. “Each producer is going to take a huge hit to make this conversion.” 

Whether producers can withstand it “depends on what the egg market does over the next few years,” Wilkins said. Wholesale egg prices were an unprecedented $3 per dozen during the pandemic panic-buying spree, and stayed high through the Easter season. Now they’ve evened out at just above $1.

The Colorado legislature didn’t particularly want to pass this egg-producer ultimatum. How it all went down is a political tale whose characters include New York animal welfare advocates, retailers that no longer want to sell eggs from caged hens, and lawmakers who concluded that passing the law was the best way to protect Colorado’s livestock and agriculture industry.

Cage-free housing means hens can walk on the floor, use perches and go into nesting boxes to lay eggs. Each hen is required to have twice as much space as a hen in caged housing. (Photo provided by Morning Fresh Farms)

Capitol debate about egg-laying hens — though brief and overshadowed by the coronavirus-sparked budget crisis and a measure on police violence — included the terms: “mafia-style tactics,” “disgusting” and “strong-armed by special interests.”

That’s because lawmakers were told that if they didn’t pass the law, New York City-based World Animal Protection would move ahead on a ballot measure it wanted to place before voters in November. The measure not only would have required egg producers to transition to cage-free by the end of 2021 — three years sooner — but would have prohibited the sale in Colorado of calves raised in veal crates or pigs kept in cages while pregnant.

With the threat looming over egg producers’ heads, the Humane Society of the United States negotiated a deal.

Egg producers helped write the legislation requiring them to go cage-free by 2025 and World Animal Protection agreed it would yank its ballot measure. The Colorado Egg Producers took no official position on the legislation, and the New York animal welfare group submitted a letter during committee testimony that promised it would back down as soon as Gov. Jared Polis signed the legislation into law.

A bill-signing ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday in Longmont.

“I am distressed that that’s the way we do business in Colorado,” Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Democrat from Fort Collins, said during a House agriculture committee hearing. “I am distressed that it’s just an open quid pro quo. And also I worry about the precedent we’re setting if a special-interest group can come from out of state and say, ‘If you don’t run this legislation, we will.’”

Rep. Richard Holtorf, a rancher and a Republican from Akron, was fuming that outside interests were trying to “strong-arm the way we produce eggs.” He worried the price of eggs — considered a cheap source of protein — will rise.

“How do we prevent this assault on Colorado?” he asked. “They are not friends of agriculture,” Holtorf said of the animal welfare groups. “Let me tell you who they hurt the worst: the poor.  Come down to southeastern Colorado if you want to see poor.”

Even the bill sponsor, Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, made clear it wasn’t his idea, saying he was trying to help come up with a “Colorado solution” to the New York intrusion. He and others predicted the out-of-state group would have no trouble collecting the required signatures — about 124,000 — to get such a measure on the ballot. 

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, speaks at a news conference at the state Capitol on March 5, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

And the ballot measure that would have given egg producers about one year to make a $165 million change likely would have passed, according to polling by the animal rights groups. A 2019 poll of 1,000 Colorado voters commissioned by the Humane Society of the United States found 70% of people are against keeping egg-laying hens in cages. 

“Everyday people, when going out to vote, they will choose to make lives better for animals,” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, headquartered in Maryland. 

California easily passed Proposition 12 in 2018, requiring egg producers to switch to cage-free by the end of 2021. Massachusetts also voted overwhelmingly in favor of doing away with cages for laying hens. Other states — including Oregon, Washington and Michigan — have avoided a vote of the people by passing legislation similar to Colorado’s.

Retailers were already shifting to cage-free

The egg industry was headed toward cage-free anyway. 

Consumers are demanding cage-free eggs, and major retailers — from Kroger, Safeway and Target to McDonald’s and Starbucks — have already vowed to stop selling eggs from caged hens by 2025 at the latest. 

“Times have really changed to get us to this point,” Balk said. 

The Humane Society has been in discussions with Colorado Egg Producers for nearly a year, looking for compromise, Balk said. “We both recognize the future is cage-free. We both recognize it’s going to take a phase-in to get there.” 

The two animal welfare groups view cage-free hen houses as a step up from cages stacked in “layer barns,” but it’s “not utopia for these animals,” Balk said. Cage-free does not mean the hens are walking through a pasture in the sunshine — they are still inside a barn with artificial light and fresh air pumped in. It is perpetually springtime in the barns, with 16 hours of light per day.

Morning Fresh Farms of Platteville estimates it will spend $24 million in the next five years to convert its conventional barns to cage-free housing. The farm produces more than 30 million dozen eggs per year. (Photo provided by Morning Fresh Farms)

But unlike caged birds, cage-free hens can walk on the floor of the barn, use perches and scratches, and go inside nesting boxes to lay eggs. Industry standards typically require 144 square inches of space in a barn per cage-free hen, compared with 67 square inches for a caged hen. 

Caged hens can walk to one end of a cage to drink water off a conveyor trough, and the other to eat chicken feed. 

Both caged and cage-free hens lay about five to six eggs per week, and both are retired from production — typically that means they are sent to a rendering plant for pet food — within about two years. 

A backyard hen, though, can live five to 10 years. 

The two animal welfare groups were hardly “strong-arming” Colorado, Balk said. “Public sentiment is that farm animals should not be kept in cages,” he said. “Even the egg industry is saying, ‘Let’s reflect where the public is at.’”

Ben Williamson, programs director for World Animal Protection, which has 14 offices throughout the world, defended the New York nonprofit’s plan to insert itself in a debate about Colorado agriculture. 

“We speak for animals wherever they suffer, whether in Colorado or Beijing,” he said. “We have no regrets about doing so.” 

The group, which worked with a Mercy for Animals official in Colorado, also had hoped to make change in two other agricultural industries by banning the sale of veal raised in cages and confinement of pregnant hogs in gestation crates. Those elements of the ballot measure were dropped in the compromise. 

Colorado lawmakers in 2008 banned veal and hog producers from keeping their animals in crates so small they could not even turn around, but the sale of meat raised that way in other states is still allowed in Colorado.

That 2008 legislation, too, followed a threat of a ballot measure focused on veal, pregnant hogs and egg-laying hens.

Change was a matter of when, not if

Morning Fresh Farms, established in 1970, has more than one million laying hens and produces more than 30 million dozen eggs each year. The family-owned farm is trying to look at the bright side of the legislation — spending $24 million to put its 800,000 caged birds in cage-free housing will pump money into the local economy through construction costs, as well as create more farm jobs because the cage-free barns require more workers, Wilkins said. 

Morning Fresh keeps six or seven hens per cage in its layered barn, where conveyors carry in water and grains, and carry out manure and eggs — in opposite directions. As soon as they’re laid, the eggs are transported to the production barn, where they are sanitized with ultraviolet light, checked for cracks, graded, placed in cartons and refrigerated for transport to grocery stores and restaurants.

Morning Fresh Farms of Platteville has 15 cage-free barns and more than 30 barns with conventional, or caged, housing for its egg-laying hens. The Weld County farm produces about 30 million dozen eggs per year. (Photo provided by Morning Fresh Farms)

The farm got its first cage-free barn in the early 2000s, back when production costs for cage-free eggs were about 40% higher than in conventional housing. Thanks to advancements in technology and design, it now costs only about 1 or 2 cents more per egg to produce cage-free eggs compared to conventional ones — after the capital outlay of building the new houses. The retail markup is another matter, of course.

The farm produces no free-range eggs, laid by hens living outdoors in a pasture. The reason is mainly safety-related — Colorado is in the migratory path of wild birds who fly south for the winter and north for the summer, Wilkins said. Outdoor hens could catch diseases, including avian influenza, from wild birds, and possibly infect the hens living in barns, he said. 

Cage-free eggs arrived in Colorado in the early 1990s, but were still considered “designer” or “boutique” and available only in specialty grocery stores. “In the last 20 years, really, the cage-free has really taken off,” said Wilkins, who is also vice president of the Colorado Egg Producers. 

Egg producers in Colorado have had an eye on California and other progressive states for years, realizing that Colorado is likely only a few steps behind. They knew after the 2008 ballot measure, and subsequent legislation that banned veal cages and gestation crates, that it was only a matter of time. House Bill 1343 seemed the best way forward, Wilkins said.

“It was not an ‘if’ they were coming back to Colorado. It was more of a ‘when,” Wilkins said. “The challenge with that ballot initiative was that it took any control out of our hands. We needed to be in control of our destiny.”

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...