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Published: Wednesday, 10/13/2010

Egg farm taking steps to reduce diseases


NORTH MANCHESTER, Ind. - The stuff doesn't even smell that bad.

In Henhouse No. 1 at the Hi-Grade Egg Farm here, droppings from 381,000 chickens are carried off along a zig-zagging system of stacked conveyor belts with powerful fans blowing across them.

The excrement takes three days to travel more than a mile back and forth, and when it is finally deposited on a 20-foot high mountain of manure, it has been thoroughly dried, making it of little interest to the flies and rodents that can spread diseases such as salmonella poisoning.

Standing by the manure pile on a recent afternoon, Robert Krouse, president of Midwest Poultry Services, which owns the Hi-Grade farm, took a deep breath. The droppings, he declared, smelled sweet, like chocolate.

Controlling manure and keeping henhouses clean is essential to combating the toxic strain of salmonella that sickened thousands of people this year and prompted the recall of more than half a billion eggs produced by two companies in Iowa.

The Hi-Grade facility appeared very different from the descriptions released by federal investigators of the Iowa farms that produced the recalled eggs. Those farms, most owned by Austin J. DeCoster, one of the country's largest egg producers, were portrayed as filthy and badly maintained, with manure piles teeming with maggots and overflowing from pits beneath henhouses.

Mr. Krouse's farms were not associated with the recall, and a tour of one in northern Indiana shows that much is being done in the egg industry to fight salmonella.

"We've had to completely change the way we look at things," he said. He is chairman of the United Egg Producers, an industry association. "Thirty years ago, farms had flies and farms had mice, everything was exposed to everything else. They just all happily lived together. You can't work that way anymore."

Today the hens on Mr. Krouse's farms come from hatcheries certified to provide chicks free of salmonella. The young birds are vaccinated to create resistance to the bacteria. And then steps are taken to keep them from being exposed to it, primarily by controlling mice and flies that may carry salmonella or spread it around.

That is where the manure drying comes in, although it has other benefits, such as preventing bad smells that can bother neighbors.

Many of the henhouses were built or refurbished in recent years. Henhouse No. 1 is three years old. On the newer henhouses, the bottom 2 feet of the outer walls are concrete, making it more difficult for mice to get inside.

Gary E. Casper, a farm manager, said the key to controlling flies and rodents in this type of barn was to keep the manure dry.

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