Inside the chicken farm

There are about 279,000 birds in this facility at Rose Acres Farms in Stuart, Iowa.(Photo by Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media)

Reporting for a recent story on an Iowa bill that bans photos of farm animals, I had the chance to visit a large egg farm housing about a million chickens.  In fact, it was this very egg farm where a Humane Society activist got a job and filmed secret video.

The support and opposition for the Iowa bill is pretty clear-cut — it pits the large livestock industry against activists.  But looming behind the often-fierce debate are many bigger questions about our agricultural industry:  Do Americans know how their food is being produced?  What should our standards for humane treatment of animals be? Should farms be given special privacy protections that other industries don’t have?

And, of course, the obvious elephant in the debate is that both sides of the fight simply disagree on how food should be made. 

But back to the chickens. 

Rose Acre Farms let me visit one of its farms in Stuart, Iowa.  The directions farm manager Andrew Kaldenberg gave me were straightforward, but it turns out I didn't need them.  The six farmhouses are visible from the highway:  long, windowless beige buildings about the length of a football field, whose sides are punctuated only by giant industrial fans. 

"We're here to feed the world. And we're trying to do it cheap as possible, so we can make food affordable," said Kaldenberg. 

Some big livestock farms keep their operations closed to the public, and that's a big reason activists are fighting to maintain the right to get hired (legally) and take undercover video.  For example, the Iowa Pork Producers are in full support of the Iowa bill, but when I asked to interview a producer to get his/her perspective, they said they couldn't find me anyone.

But Kaldenberg said Rose Acres has nothing to hide, and he gladly showed me around the barns.

Harvest reporter Kathleen Masterson suits up in a hair net, booties and white biosuit before entering the Rose Acres facility.

First things first. To protect the chickens, I had to put on a hair net, booties and a bio-suit, a white crinkly onesie reminiscent of the crime-fighting outfit from Ghostbusters.  Big farms take biosecurity issues really seriously.  They should, of course, because not only is food safety vital, but if a disease gets introduced into their facility, with thousands of birds living in such close quarters it could wipe out the flock in no time.  That's a huge financial investment down the drain.

Kaldenberg took me into a pit house, which means the manure is stored in a giant "basement" directly below the cages for a year.  When he opened the door, the first thing that struck me was the loud humming of the ventilation fans, the gentle squawking of thousands of birds — and the smell.  It was strong, but not as overpowering as I'd expected. 

It’s dusty and dimly lit, and there are about 279,000 birds in this henhouse, which is 100 by 590 feet, by my calculations longer than a football field.  There are rows and rows of cages stacked five tiers high — each with nine birds in a cage a little more than 4 feet square. It's cramped quarters for sure, though the birds seem clean and alert.  The bottoms of the cages are mesh, so the manure drops through and onto a board below.  Periodically scrapers move across the board, pushing the manure so it falls to the basement floor below.

Most everything is automated.  When a chicken lays an egg it drops out of the cage onto a soft, roller-type instrument that places it into a plastic conveyor belt with egg slots, which ultimately carries it all the way to the packing plant (next door) where a computer uses light and sound waves to inspect the egg.  Eggs with cracks are shuffled off to a separate machine and will ultimately get broken to be sold as non-shell eggs.  The rest are weighed and graded and mechanically put into cartons.  The facility packages about 100,000 eggs an hour.

Employees do walk the rows in the chicken houses, Kaldenberg said. And I saw several people check on the egg conveyor belt from time to time, and the cartons are boxed by humans, but much of the operation is run by computers and machines.  From his office, Kaldenberg can see the temperature of the henhouses and how much grain is left in their giant food bin, which is attached to the outside of the barn like a cylindrical leech. 

Rose Acre Farms eggs are sold under multiple brand names, and though they're mostly sold in the U.S., the company has clients in China and other parts of Asia.

Kaldenberg said Rose Acre does have some cage-free farms, but not in Iowa. 

"The eggs that we produce have the same nutrition value as what you'd find in a cage-free- or free roaming," Kaldenberg said.  "We have customers that want (cage-free), so we give 'em what they want. They also pay for that price, because it costs more to do. But not everybody can afford, and that's where the freedom of choice on how you can buy your food comes into play.  Some don't want to be told you can eat this or this. That’s our freedom, that's our choice, that's our right."