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By Staff | May 20, 2011

Dr. Hongwei Shin, director of the Egg Industry Center at ISU, looks up information from a research project conducted in Iowa. Shin plus two others comprise the center's staff.

AMES – Because Iowa is the nation’s leader in egg production and processing, said Dr. Hongwei Xin, it’s only natural that it took the lead in finding funding that will generate research into improving the industry that provides the world with one of nature’s most wholesome foods.

Xin, (pronounced Shin), is director of the Egg Industry Council, based in the animal sciences building at Iowa State University. There’s no lab here. The center, now in its third year, exists in just three offices on the second floor and in the computers of the offices’ occupants.

But despite its modest size and staffing, Xin said, a vital work is being accomplished.

“We cover all aspects of production and processing,” Xin said. “This includes hen housing, animal welfare, environment, economics, egg safety and alternative uses.”

And the research the center finds funding for “is not Iowa-centric,” he added, “it applies to the entire industry.”

an ISU undergrad student tests ammonia levels at an Iowa facility.

The center reaches out to peers nationally and internationally, he said, and they, in turn, reach out to the ISU-based entity.

Xin said the center serves as a clearinghouse for not only funding research projects, but disseminating information throughout the industry, as well.

Being the leader in egg production is a relatively new role for Iowa, not like the more traditional leader role of swine, corn and soybean production, so fundraising is a challenge.

Xin said the center is supporting by the industry groups and agribusinesses. It was created by a $2 million commitment from Iowa Egg Council and Iowa Poultry Association.

The goal is to eventually accrue a $10 million endowment fund as a sustaining source for fully funding research. With the support of its allied industries, that goal is halfway to being met.

This is an inside view of the analyzing equipment which monitors ammonia levels in chicken house manure.

Xin said the center is close to drawing up an industry-wide call for proposals to address industry concerns and then look for the field experts that will help meet those concerns.

The center was heavily involved with disseminating information for the general public during 2010 salmonella egg recall.

Cayla Westergard handles the center’s media relations, issues monthly updates to media on what’s going on within the industry, as well as publishes monthly newsletters to those involved in egg production around the world.

Maro Ibarburu, program manager/ business analyst, providing the industry with statistical data and economical analysis from various projects.

In-house research

“We cover all aspects of production and processing ... hen housing, animal welfare, environment, economics, egg safety and alternative uses.” —Dr. Hongwei Xin Director, Egg Industry Center

The center also conducts its own research, Xin said. As a result of last year’s recall, the center initiated a study focusing on hen housing – caged versus non-caged to see if either system is better for egg safety and quality.

“Some people believed the (salmonella outbreak) was a result of caged housing,” Xin explained. “But research in the U.S. and European Union finds there are more potential problems in cage-free systems.”

These include the possibility of hens swallowing rodent droppings or consuming any chemicals which may be in the soil – pollutants and pathogens that get into the eggs.

In the end, Xin said, studies have determined there is no difference in the quality of eggs in either housing system, when production size and quality of facilities are compared.

“It comes down to housing management,” Xin said, “regardless of the housing system.” This includes facility cleanliness and quality of feed.

The 2010 egg recall came about because of faulty management, he said.

Other in-house projects include

  • Studying the housing environment, especially in controlling ammonia build-up, a gas that negatively affects the birds and their caretakers. This project is looking for ways for controlling ammonia through diet.

Xin said that one successful study indicates that mixing 10 percent distiller’s dried grain with soluables, a byproduct of corn-based ethanol, into chicken feed controls ammonia, with no adverse affects on bird welfare and with no increase to production costs.

  • Alternative types of housing systems, comparing utility costs and other overhead costs. The study will be expanded in cooperation with California producers to see if the findings are replicated in a different environment.
  • Nutrient enhancement by adding vitamin D to feed in order to produce more vitamin D in the egg. Xin said Americans have a calcium deficiency, especially among the elderly.

World food supply

Xin, who grew up on a farm in China, said his childhood experiences gave him “a passion for these animals.” Farm life gave him an appreciation of food sources and the nutrition livestock provides to the world.

“And (world) food supply is a major concern.”

He said as the global population nears 9 billion by 2050, the world’s food suppliers will have to produce more food.

As a result, he said, the current attack on caged systems concerns him.

“A total cage-free system will increase production costs by 43 percent,” he said. “It will mean a 10 percent reduction in consumption by low-income families. They will be hurt more.”

He said that he sees no problem with consumers who want free-range eggs. “We should provide those for them. However, to then tell everyone that this is the only way to produce eggs, that’s wrong.”

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, Ext. 453 or at kersh@farm-news.com.

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