The heyday of the high-rise or deep-pit layer house in the U.S. is over. Manure belt systems that remove the layers' droppings from the house, rather than storing them in the pit under the cages, makes controlling flies, rodents and ammonia in the house much easier to do. Controlling flies and rodents are critical aspects of any egg farm’s Salmonella enteritidis control. Because of better air quality, conditions in manure belt houses tend to be better for the birds and workers.

Egg producers with aging high-rise deep-pit layer houses have three options for remodeling their houses, according to Tom Lohr, director of poultry sales, Henning Construction, and Al Koch, CEO, Henning Construction. They told the audience at the Egg Industry Center’s Issues Forum in Indianapolis that a high-rise house can be converted to a manure belt house with either high-density A-frame cages, enriched/enrichable cages, or cage-free with aviary systems.

Moving out of “conventional” cages

The industry has shown no interest in remodeling with high-density A-frame cages, according to Lohr. “I haven’t had any interest or questions about this in probably the last three years in the U.S.,” he said. The enriched/enrichable cage option is the most popular, Lohr reported. But, he said, “Cage-free is gaining a whole lot of momentum fast. We are getting a lot of inquiries about cage-free.”

When considering a remodel, Lohr said it is important to consider the height, width and length of your existing building. He said, “The typical high-rise building has 7-foot-high sidewalls downstairs and 10-foot upstairs.” The key is to make efficient use of the three-dimensional space that you have available.

In essence, Lohr said that in a building remodel, you remove all the cage equipment as well as the floor joists, beams and support posts that hold the cages up above the pit. He cautioned that all of those beams, joists and posts not only held up the cages, but they also stiffen the building structure as well and, as they are removed, a substitute system for keeping the sidewalls of the building from collapsing from wind shear must be installed. Also, as part of the remodel, the building’s electrical and ventilation systems and the insulation will usually need to be replaced and upgraded. Finally, the cage or aviary systems will be installed.

Evaluating your building

Lohr said you need to have an engineering plan for the structure of the building once the existing cages and the supports for them have been removed. You need to look in the walls for hidden problems with insulation, structural components and wiring. In most renovations, he said the interior wall covering or “skin” of the building must be removed for inspection purposes and eventually to facilitate replacement of damage caused by rodents, insects, and, in the case of settling insulation, gravity. The concrete wall in what was the manure storage area will now have to be insulated like the rest of the house because birds will now be housed in this part of the building. The concrete floor’s condition also needs to be evaluated. Years of driving skid loaders on the floor to remove the litter can cause damage and the floor needs to be strong enough to support the new housing systems.

After you get all of your cost estimates together, Lohr said you have to see if the dimensions of the interior space of the building after renovation will be able to accommodate a sufficient amount of hens to make the renovation economical. He said there is a lot to consider, and that some high-rise buildings are “worn out” even if they don’t look like it on the surface.

Conversion cost

Lohr provided some cost estimates for converting a 50-by-500-foot high-rise house with an 18-foot sidewall. These estimates include the costs of demolition, equipment, electrical, ventilation and the addition of external manure storage. If the building height allows for the installation of six tiers of enriched/enrichable cages, then the building can house 200,000 hens at 67 square inches per bird and 120,000 hens at 116 square inches per bird. At 67 square inches per bird, he estimated the cost at $15.77 per hen plus or minus $2, and the cost estimate at 116 square inches per hen was $23.34 plus or minus $3.

Tear down and build new?

Because of the size or condition of an old high-rise house, it sometimes doesn’t make sense to renovate it. But can you get a building permit to put up a new house? Lohr said, “It is more difficult in today’s world to gain a permit and it takes more time to gain approval.” Your timeline and difficulty of getting a permit to build a new house may make renovation the best solution, but new construction can be done, at times, for not much more that the cost of renovation of an old building. One reason for the comparable cost of new construction is that the new house can be designed around the housing system, allowing for the best possible use of the internal space. This can mean more birds per cubic foot of building space in new construction than what you could fit in an existing building.

New layer houses are being built quite differently than high-rise houses were. Koch said modern layer houses are engineered steel buildings, not like the high-rise houses that had a wood skeleton sitting on top of a poured concrete wall. He said a large layer house now can have as much steel in it as a five-story office building.

Koch said the new buildings are getting so heavy that you have to consider compaction of the soil where the building will sit. He said that you may need to remove existing soil and bring in compactable soil.  

“These buildings represent a 180 degree paradigm change for the industry,” he said.