Building near Sioux Center being built

Three, four-story cage-free laying facilities are being built west of Sioux Center by Center Fresh. They will accommodate 1.5 million birds. Construction is slated for completion in 2022.

Hen House High-Rises

November 2, 2021 | Joseph Hopper

The chicken coop has changed. Today’s cage-free egg laying farms not only look different from the outside but on the inside, too. Some egg farmers playfully call them “chicken condos.”

“These are not your mom and dad’s chicken barns,” says Dr. Craig Rowles, director of cage-free operations for Center Fresh’s parent company Versova.

Center Fresh is constructing its newest cage-free facility west of Sioux Center. It represents not only a demand for cage-free eggs but also a boost for Iowa soybean farmers.

Changing consumer preferences and new regulations have contributed to the demand for cage-free products, according to Rowles. At the same time, the animal agriculture industry is adapting to approaches of how best to raise livestock and poultry. At Versova, cage-free demand first began to escalate around 2014.

At the Center Fresh site west of Sioux Center, the investment is being made where the company began — at the family farm, which was first established in the 1970s.

Three, four-story housing systems are being built to meet the natural needs of its future feathered tenants. Interior lighting will simulate sunrise and sunset. The birds descend to the lower levels during the daytime hours, where they walk around, eat and drink. The modern facility allows operators to simulate dusk by dimming the lights in a certain sequence, thus enabling the chickens to determine where they’ll spend the night inside the barn. During the nighttime hours, the upper levels on the floors accommodate the birds’ instinct to climb upward as it gets dark.

“The nest boxes are in shady and quiet areas, so they’re drawn to that location,” Rowles says.

The floor’s design allows the eggs to roll onto a conveyor belt, where each egg begins its journey to the plant.

Besides new cage-free housing, the complex includes a breaking facility, supplying liquid egg products to the commercial food industry. “You wouldn’t see eggs from this farm in a store,” Rowles says. “You’re going to see them in cake mixes, hotels, restaurants, hospitals or commercial food establishments.”

A diet of soy

The amenities at the Sioux Center location will include a protein-rich diet courtesy of Iowa’s soybean farmers. The average chicken will consume about 18 pounds of soybean meal per year.

We look at our corn and soybean meal producers as being important suppliers for what we’re trying to accomplish, which is bringing added value to the product they’re trying to produce,” Rowles says.

The appetite of the 50 million chickens residing in Iowa amounts to 450,000 tons of soybean meal, or about 300,000 acres of soybeans production annually.

“The poultry market consumes approximately 50% of all domestically consumed U.S. soybean meal,” says Grant Kimberley, Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) senior director of market development.

ISA District 1 Director Brent Swart, who farms in Clay County, says the construction of facilities like the one in Sioux Center is important. As farmers work to maximize soybean production, Swart says they rely on increased demand for soybeans.

“Any time we can have more demand for soybeans, it’s a big deal for Iowa’s soybean farmers,” Swart says.

Doing the right thing

The facility’s first flock of birds will arrive in spring 2022. More than two dozen jobs are being created at the new facility. In the past decade, Versova’s cage-free production has grown by more than 6 million hens. With the company’s cage-free expansion underway at Center Fresh in Sioux Center and Hawkeye Pride in Corwith, continued growth is expected.

“The egg industry is evolving,” says JT Dean, president of Versova. “We are being deliberate in our plans to ensure we can meet the current and future needs of our customers. The future of egg production depends on having the infrastructure and capacity at the ready as states and customers transition to cage-free egg supplies to meet legislative or market deadlines.”

“I’m proud we are doing it in a way that meets our customers’ expectations and can do it in scale and way that I have every confidence in that we’re doing it the right way, day in and day out,” Rowles says. “I couldn’t be more proud of what we’re doing. These are generational investments we’re making for the future.”