By late morning, the day's work was done for most of the 150,000 or so residents of a henhouse south of Livingston.
The eggs laid by the hens passed by their small cages on conveyor belts, bound for the packing plant next door. The birds rested, six to a cage, sometimes bumping each other when they moved about.
To most people in the egg industry, this is a picture of contentment. They say these cages -- roughly 2 feet long by a foot tall -- keep the hens comfortable and productive.
"Yes, they are content," said Jill Benson, vice president of J.S. West & Cos. of Modesto, which owns these hens. "You can hear them clucking and singing."
To critics of the industry, it's more like a cry for help. They are behind a Nov. 4 ballot measure that would outlaw the cages in California as of 2015.
"It's simply inhumane and cruel to confine an animal in a way that doesn't allow it to turn around and extend its limbs for a lifetime," said Michelle Setaro of Modesto, who collected about 1,400 signatures for the initiative drive.
The measure, Proposition 2, would ban cages that do not allow hens to "turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs."
Proponents say alternative housing could be built at reasonable cost to producers and consumers. Industry people say that is not practical and they would lose their sales to out-of-state producers that still could use small cages.
The Northern San Joaquin Valley accounted for nearly 60 percent of California's egg production last year. About 95 percent of the statewide total was produced using small cages.
The industry provides about 3,500 jobs and $650 million in annual economic output in the state, including the ripple effect in other sectors, according to a study commissioned by egg producers.
How to do right by a hen
The arguments go beyond money, to a basic question where science and morality intertwine: Just what does a laying hen need?
The Humane Society of the United States, one of the main sponsors of the measure, says hens in their proper element are social animals with complex behavior: They build nests with twigs and leaves. They poke the ground with their beaks and claws in search of food. They bathe by rolling in dust. They flap their wings and preen.
"(The measure) just says that as a basic proposition, animals built to move should be allowed to move," said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive officer of the Humane Society. "They should be allowed to turn around and engage in basic behaviors, which are now frustrated in these intensive confinement systems."
Until about the middle of the 20th century, most eggs were produced on small farms where the hens could frolic outdoors.
Today, most are kept inside large buildings designed to protect them from avian influenza and other diseases that could be carried by wild fowl. This also allows a constant temperature and efficient feeding, egg collection and manure disposal.
Inside the operation
The J.S. West operation near Livingston is one of three the company owns in Stanislaus and Merced counties. They house about 1.6 million hens in all, laying about 1.2 million eggs a day.
With the ballot measure looming, the company is giving the media a rare chance to see what goes on inside the henhouses. Benson led a tour for a Modesto Bee reporter and photographer, everyone clad in disposable coveralls, boots and caps to avoid tracking in germs.
The hen cages were stacked four high in rows about 500 feet long. The light was dim, the scent of manure not overpowering.
The cages were dense with female chickens. Industry guidelines allow as little as 67 square inches of floor space per hen -- less than a sheet of letter paper, the Humane Society often points out.
But Benson, part of the fourth generation of family ownership at J.S. West, said the small cages do allow hens to be hens.
"Birds of a feather flock together," she said. "They like small spaces. They like to be together."
Benson said a population of six per cage is just right for establishing the pecking order that also is important to their existence.
She said these cages allow hens to stand up, flap their wings and turn around -- but not in a way that meets the fine print in Proposition 2. The measure says the birds must be able to move "without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg-laying hens."
A typical hen has a 28-inch wingspan, said Nancy Reimers, a Gustine veterinarian opposed to the measure, at a forum last month. That means 5 square feet of cage floor space would be needed per bird to comply with the new rules, more than 10 times the current standard, she said.
Converting all of California's small cages would raise egg production costs by 76 percent, to 76 cents from 43 cents per dozen, according to the industry study. Land and buildings account for most of the increase. Feed and labor would rise, too, because of reduced efficiency, and more eggs would be broken.
The costs would be passed along to consumers, who likely would choose cheaper eggs from caged hens outside the state, the measure's critics say.
Backers say the cage conversion would add only 12 cents to the cost of producing a dozen eggs. They say the new enclosures would not have to be at least 5 square feet, as Reimers claimed, but simply large enough to allow some of the hens to move freely at any one time.
There already is a market for cage-free eggs, produced in barns where the hens have plenty of room. They can be expensive -- $4.39 a dozen at Save Mart last week, compared with $2.79 for conventional -- and industry people say they are not an option for the vast majority of consumers.
A 'modest adaptation'
The measure's backers say cage-free eggs would drop in price if the volume greatly increased. They say California could boost its place in the national industry by touting its commitment to hen freedom.
"I just don't think that our farmers are so inept that they can't make this modest adaptation by 2015," said Setaro, the campaign volunteer, who works for the Stanislaus County Library.
Industry people say the small cages keep hens from injuring each other and spreading disease. They say human health benefits as well because the eggs are less likely to come in contact with manure, which can harbor salmonella and other pathogens.
"It scares me if (the measure) passes because of the potential risk to the consumer, and of course my own self-interest of potentially losing my job," said John Bedell, egg production manager for J.S. West.
Backers of the measure counter that the tight confines increase the risk of injury and disease. They say the industry sells cage-free eggs with little harm to human health. They note that most chickens raised for meat in California are kept in large barns where they can move about.
Last month's forum on Proposition 2 took place in a church hall in downtown Modesto. The two sides cited economic and scientific studies, but they also touched on the spiritual.
"From a religious and moral perspective, the current system of factory farming perpetuates cruelty and causes animals to suffer," said the Rev. Michael Bruner, a religion professor at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and consultant to the Humane Society.
Industry people say their care for hens is in keeping with their duty to be stewards of creation. They also say critics err by attributing human emotions, such as happiness, to animals, when what they really need is simple comfort.
"This is an emotional issue," said Bedell, the J.S. West manager, "and it's hard to stress the importance of science when someone's emotions are involved."