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Dr. Dave Wright tells 2016 Minnesota State Fair visitors about clean cages the modern poultry industry provides for chickens. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota State Fair showcases larger hen houses

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn.—Chickens in cages draw reactions.

Kent Campos and Abby Gross looked at a new Minnesota State Fair display called the Hen House and drew different conclusions.

"It looks like there are a lot of them in there," Campos said. "They are kind of climbing over each other."

Asked if it bothered him, he responded: "A little bit I guess. I would prefer they are not like that."

On the other hand, the caged birds did not bother Gross.

"I personally don't care," she said. "I think that in order to maintain a human health I think it is a necessity and sometimes animal welfare may need to be sacrificed in order to maintain human population."

The two Minneapolis residents illustrated differing views on the subject, which has been controversial across the country.

Minnesota chicken producers are using the booth, new in 2016, to show Minnesotans the direction their industry is going, although differences between the old and the new types of chicken housing were lost on many visitors like Campos and Gross

At one end of what looks like a long cage are a couple of small cages, typical of the cramped quarters that are losing popularity. The rest is a bigger area designed to represent newer types of hen homes that provide more room.

The Hen House is in a corner of the fair's most popular free attraction, the Miracle of Birth Center, where animals of all types give birth throughout the fair.

Hens get in the spirit and lay eggs throughout the fair as visitors ask questions.

"Have you seen any bird flu?" is a common question, according to President Scott Waldner of the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota and a Land O Lake poultry expert.

The answer to that is, "no," for this year, so far at least, after millions of chickens and turkeys died in an epidemic last year.

Questions like that are typical wherever poultry is around the fair, but questions about cages are more common in the Hen House.

Dr. Dave Wright, a Buffalo, Minn., veterinarian and co-founder of the Miracle of Birth Center, said the chicken exhibit was added to show how modern hens live. The new roomier way is "very common" around the state, Waldner said.

"The birds are cleaner," Wright said. "The eggs are cleaner."

"They are not stressed at all," Waldner added.

In small cages that often were used, hens may have had space the size of a piece of copy paper. And they might not have had space to stretch their wings.

In the newer environment, however, they can move around in more space. Manure drops below the cages, so chickens should not get it on themselves, and eggs slowly slide to the side where a farmer can pick them up.

The fair set-up includes dividers that allow hens to go behind them to privately lay eggs (although unknown to them, they are on a television set above their heads).

Minnesota farmers raise more than 10 million chickens annually to lay eggs and 55 million for meat.

Ironically, as poultry producers give chickens more space, Wright said, they actually lay more eggs in the smaller cages. That is because, he said, with fewer hens it is easier for them to know where they stand in the pecking order, which reduces stress.

In a larger environment, but still confined, Wright added, there are more hens in their society and more stress over who is top bird.

Eggs from chickens allowed to range free outside, the veterinarian said, may be in demand but the hens' lives are not as good as those living in modern enclosures. They face animal predators, disease and filth outside that are not present in buildings.

Many animal rights advocates like allowing chicks to roam free outside, but call the larger new chicken facilities an improvement over what is called a "battery cage."

At the fair, no one strongly objected to either the small cages or the larger quarters known as a "cage-free" environment while a Forum News Service reporter was there.

"I think they look happy and they have everything," Jamie Wood of Hastings said.

"I think they are OK," added her companion, Mark Zeien, also of Hastings.

Even Campos, who had some questions about the hens' living situation, said it was not too bad. "I will still eat KFC and buy eggs."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.