Cage-free egg farm takes wing on 175-acre site
Konos, distributor of Vande Bunte Eggs, plans on 400,000 birds in Allegan.
A new law took effect in California on New Year’s Day that may have ruffled the management feathers at egg farms across the country — but not at the third-largest egg producer in Michigan.
California is a major market for eggs produced across the nation, and its new landmark animal-welfare law will effectively abolish close confinement of farm animals in cramped cages, pushing egg prices to record levels as farms scramble to invest in new facilities to meet the law, according to a Dec. 30 report in the Seattle Times.
“California is leading the charge and we, in Michigan, are supporting them,” states the Vande Bunte Eggs website (vandebunteeggs.com).
Vande Bunte Eggs, under its corporate name Konos Inc., is hoping to break ground in early 2015 on a new “cage-free” egg farm off M-89 in the northwest corner of Otsego Township in Allegan County.
Tim Vande Bunte, president of the family business now based in Martin, said the new Otsego Township facility on 175 acres will probably begin with 400,000 laying hens and represent a total investment of close to $15 million.
With a 400,000 bird capacity, it will be considered a very large cage-free egg farm, according to Vande Bunte. It will also be a certified-organic egg producer.
The business already has 2 million chickens at its Martin egg production facility and, according to Vande Bunte, it is the third-largest egg producer in Michigan, after Herbruck Poultry Ranch in Ionia County and Sunrise Acres in Hudsonville.
Tim’s father, Howard Vande Bunte, began his egg farm near Hudsonville in 1948. Konos Inc., an egg distributor, merged with Vande Bunte in 1987, and all the operations have been located in Martin since then. Today, Konos employs 83.
“Consumers are asking for cage-free systems now,” said Vande Bunte. “People think cage-free is better.”
Vande Bunte Eggs is certified by United Egg Producers, “which means we care about the welfare of our hens and follow responsible production methods,” according to its website.
The company experimented with about 2,000 birds in a cage-free facility about 15 years ago, but Vande Bunte said back then they “just didn’t have the market” for cage-free eggs to justify a major expansion into it.
“The market has grown so much larger now — it’s wide open. Especially with California,” he said.
The new standards give egg-laying hens room to stand up, sit down, turn around, spread their wings and exhibit natural behaviors, according to the Vande Bunte website. The California law requires 116 square inches per bird.
“Our cage-free systems will be 144 square inches,” said Vande Bunte. The birds will be able to move freely about on the floor and can get up on perches and into small open enclosures to lay their eggs.
Vande Bunte already uses colony-enriched cages for its birds, which give the birds more room than the old battery-cage systems.
According to egginnovations.com, the European Union banned battery cages there in 1999, requiring egg producers to move to colony-enriched cages, which give the birds more room and offer perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas.
Most Vande Bunte Eggs are sold under private labels, including the Golden Hen brand in Aldi stores. However, Sav-A-Lot food stores sell the Vande Bunte Eggs brand.
“We ship to Chicago and Detroit,” said Vande Bunte, as well as to stores on the east and west coasts, Mexico and Canada. “Even, on occasion, to Hong Kong,” he added.
Right now the egg business is good, said Vande Bunte.
“Consumers are eating more eggs, in general,” he said, mainly because high prices of beef, pork and turkey have positioned eggs as a protein alternative. Plus, he added, eggs are relatively low in fat compared to meat, with one and a half grams of saturated fat per large egg.
Vande Bunte said when he was in college more than 30 years ago, there were about 5,000 egg producers in the United States.
“Now there are maybe a hundred in the country, and they control about 95 percent of the production,” he said, noting there has been a lot of consolidation in the industry.