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December 18, 2008 - 2:02pm

No confinement law passes for California farms: Area farmers need to be "vigilant"

posted by Philip Anselmo in batavia, genesee county, farms, agriculture.

Last month, voters in California passed a referendum that would effectively ban the use of sow stalls and hen cages on all farms in the state. Not long after the success of the measure in that state, its supporters were already vowing to roll it out nationwide.

From the Rural Blog:

The passing of Proposition 2 in California, which creates new livestock-welfare guidelines, has farmers in other states worried that their states will soon be targeted for similar measures. Livestock industry groups nationwide contributed millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to defeat the measure, which bans the use of sow stalls and hen cages now in general use.

Opponents say the measure appeals to voters' sympathy, but doesn't reflect the realities of farm life. Exprts say "confining pregnant sows in stalls prevents fighting, ensures the hogs get adequate feed and saves labor," writes Philip Brasher for the Des Moines Register. "Similarly, caging hens is said to protect birds from each other while also protecting eggs from contamination." Also, caging results in higher egg production, because fewer eggs are broken, resulting in lower prices.

We talked with some local folks in the ag industry to get their take on the measure. Dale Stein is a dairy farmer from Le Roy and former president of the Genesee County Farm Bureau. Farmers in California may have until 2015 to adapt to the requirements, he said, but they will have a hard time keeping costs down without being allowed to cage their egg-laying hens.

"How can you do it and make a living at it," he said. "You need to turn a profit. If people want quality at a low price, you have to do it with volume... in order to keep the price cheap for the consumer."

That spells doom for the California chicken farms.

"From my understanding, most of the chicken business in California will be out of business in the end," he added. "The swine industry may be able to adapt, but chickens won't be raised in California on any scale. All their eggs and poultry products will be imported from other states and countries."

Stein was not overly worried about any effect on the dairy industry, there or elsewhere, and he doesn't believe that prices and supply in New York will be thrown out of whack because of what's going on in California. He is more concerned with the repercussions of the approval.

"Our whole concern on the referendum in California is that it was step one, and that's what the animal rights groups have said," he said. "This is the first step. The other concern is that sound science does not win out in a debate like this."

We also spoke with Mitch Head, a spokesman for United Egg Producers, a national farmers cooperative. United fielded the call on behalf of Krehr's Farm Fresh Eggs, which is based out of Clarence. Krehr's is one of the largest egg producers in the state.

Head is not too worried about the referendum gaining ground here in New York.

"First of all, New York does not have the initiative process that California has," he said. "Plus, you've got six years before it even takes effect in California. Regulations need to be written before we even know what will be implemented in California. Both proponents and opponents couldn't even agree on what it would require producers to do. Some believe it means it would ban cages. Some also believe it bans cage free and only allows free range. No one knows. It will take years to work out. In the meantime, no other state will move forward to adopt it until that gets worked out."

For now, that's about as far as the conversation will go for New Yorkers. Nevertheless, this is something farmers especially need to be thinking about.

"It's certainly something agriculture should be aware of," said Head. "The Humane Society has been successfully adopting state legislation dealing with pigs and veal calves, and now egg-laying hens. They're flexing their political muscle. Agriculture needs to be vigilant on these issues, to make sure that modern science-based ag systems like cages for egg-laying hens continue to be a viable option for producing healthy and safe food for Americans."

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