HISTORY OF COMMERCIAL EGG PRODUCTION
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.
Nearly 200 breeds and varieties of chickens have been established worldwide. Most U.S. laying hens 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.
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 still had a mortality rate of about 40 percent.
Research on moving hens to indoor living showed many benefits. While 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.
Instead of the hens eating whatever they found outside, feed could be better controlled indoors, too.
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.
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 wanted. This resulted in more uniform egg-nutrient quality and less feed being needed for the flock.
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.
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 and lower costs to consumers.
Annually, 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.