Have you had your egg today? The average American consumes 20 dozen eggs a year – that’s 240 eggs in 365 days. This nutrient-dense food provides 13 essential nutrients to the human diet and 438 million dollars to the Arkansas economy.
“There are 3,050 family farms in Arkansas with some type of laying hen,” says Marvin Childers, Poultry Federation president. These family farms have contracts with companies such as Cal-Maine Foods, the largest table-egg distributor in the U.S.
Started by Fred Adams in 1957, Cal-Maine Foods hatches their own chicks, and grades and packages three types of table eggs in Arkansas: conventional white eggs, cage-free eggs and nutritionally enhanced eggs – eggs from chickens that are fed an enhanced diet with foods such as flax. “The demand for specialty eggs, such as nutritionally enhanced, cage-free and organic, has grown dramatically over the last 10 years,” says Alan Andrews, Cal-Maine Foods Marketing Director. The retail demand for specialty eggs is up 14 percent compared to 1.5 percent for conventional white eggs.
Specializing in specialty eggs such as organic, free-range, pasture raised organic, pasture raised non-organic and pasture raised non-GMO eggs is the focus of Arkansas Egg Company, a family-owned, vertically integrated egg company. Arkansas Egg Operations Manager Ashley Swaffar says that while the 450,000 eggs that are produced daily are mostly organic, they also all come from hens that are given one to 108 square feet of grass per bird. “We focus on being a leader in the egg industry with our commitment to the welfare of our hens and to our farmers,” Swaffar says.
Not all eggs are for eating – at least not directly. Keith-Smith Company, the largest independent producer in Arkansas, produces parent-stock for broilers. Keith-Smith purchases the hens and roosters with the genetics for producing the best broilers, chickens raised for meat production, for their customers. “We’re producing around 400,000 dozen eggs a week,” says Jim Smith, owner of Keith-Smith. The eggs are collected daily and cooled down to 65 degrees. Cooling the eggs arrests the incubation period, allowing six days for Keith- Smith to ship eggs to broiler companies around the world.
Smith says there is a lot of strategy involved: “Our customers tell us today how many of a specific type of bird they want to purchase next year,” he says, explaining that the genetic traits for birds that produce good chicken strips are different than the genetics for rotisserie birds.
The genetics for broiler parent-stock come from companies like Cobb-Vantress, a world leader in poultry genetics. Cobb-Vantress selects birds with the best genetics based on 55 traits such as meat yield, feed conversion and health.
Staying ahead of consumer trends is another vital part of the breeding program according to Dr. Mark Cooper, Cobb-Vantress director of genetics. “The U.S. traditionally is a white meat country,” he says, explaining that the majority of consumers worldwide now desire dark meat, which means breeding for a different type of bird. Using technology, Cobb-Vantress evaluates birds on a variety of traits including cardiovascular fitness, meat mass and bone structure.
From geneticists to farmers to truck drivers, the Arkansas poultry industry provides approximately 80,000 jobs according to Childers. It’s the job of the Poultry Federation to monitor and lobby issues that can affect the industry. These issues include allowing feed trucks to add an extra 5,000 pounds of feed per truckload, and passing a bill to lower tax on utility bills for contract growers. “We are constantly looking for ways to promote and protect the egg industry,” Childers says.