Tim Hearden/Capital Press
SACRAMENTO — Minimum cage sizes under Proposition 2 have led to fewer hens laying fewer eggs in California, according to industry representatives.
Poultry farmers in the Golden State produced 311 million eggs in April, down 9 million from March and a decrease of 78 million in April 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported.
The production decline comes as an average of 13.2 million egg-layers were on hand in California in April, compared to nearly 16.8 million in the same month last year, according to the USDA’s Pacific Region Poultry Report. The state had 17.6 million egg-laying chickens in 2013, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported.
Rather than spending millions of dollars to build new facilities, many farmers are raising fewer birds in their existing structures to comply with the minimum cage requirements under Proposition 2, which voters passed in 2008.
“Less hens, more space,” said Debbie Murdock, executive director of the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association.
The drop in production is a key factor as prices in the Golden State have soared well above $3 per carton for larger eggs, although prices have stabilized and even dropped slightly last week, according to the USDA’s shell egg market report. The benchmark price for small eggs was $2.63 as of June 12.
Prices for shell eggs have risen nationwide because of the deadly outbreak of avian influenza in the U.S., which has shuttered farms in 15 states and led to blanket bans on American poultry products in China and South Korea.
The estimated price for a dozen large Grade A eggs rose to $1.66 nationally in June, a 30-cent increase, according to a USDA supply and demand forecast. The agency predicts nationwide average prices may get as high as $1.87 per dozen by the fourth quarter.
In California, the drought is also taking a toll on everyone — from commercial producers to youngsters bringing chickens to local fairs. Michael Willis, a 4-H member from Happy Valley, Calif., said his family has already faced fines for using too much water.
“It’s been really difficult,” Willis said while showing his poultry project at the Shasta District Fair in Anderson, Calif. “When you fill up their water and run the hose, you have to wait until the water gets cold.”
But farmers mostly blame the drop in production on the requirement that each egg-laying hen have 116 square inches in a cage to spread its wings. The Humane Society of the United States-sponsored initiative banned so-called battery cages as well as veal crates and gestation crates for pigs.
All shell eggs sold in the state must meet the standard set by Proposition 2, regardless of where they were produced. HSUS argues the law sparked a national movement to improve conditions for laying hens, noting that other states including Oregon and Washington are phasing out smaller cages and food service companies such as Burger King and Starbucks are going cage-free in their supply chains.
As it is now, however, birds “are disappearing in California and becoming present in the Midwest,” Randy Pesciotta of the New Jersey-based commodity reporting service Umer Barry has said. Murdock said she’s unaware of farmers moving their entire operations elsewhere.
“We are a voluntary association, (so) I can’t speak for everyone,” she said in an email. “Within my membership, no one has left the state; however, hen numbers are down because they are complying with Prop. 2.”