Ken Anderson: The Good Egg

Man seated next to a taxidermy rooster.

Ken Anderson's 30-year career at NC State has led to changes in flock management that have improved hen health and the quality and safety of eggs.

Ken Anderson is a good egg. And it’s not just us saying so: The NC State University poultry science professor and extension specialist won the “Good Egg” designation from the North Carolina Egg Association in 2017, and in the ensuing years, the accolades have continued to roll in.

The awards confirm the impact he’s had in finding and sharing research-based solutions with egg producers in North Carolina and beyond.

Throughout his 30-year tenure at NC State, Anderson has overseen a layer management research program that’s now larger than any other in the world. Based at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury, the program delivers information that helps growers and others understand how different management strategies, physical environments and strains of chickens interact to influence egg quality.

Donald R. McIntyre (left), 2019-20 president of the Poultry Science Association, presented Anderson with a plaque recognizing Anderson’s selection as an association fellow.

Anderson’s most recent recognition came this year. The Poultry Science Association — an organization of about 1,800 educators, scientists, extension specialists, industry researchers, producers and others — selected him as one of five new fellows. He also won its 2020 Evonik Award for Achievement in Poultry Science.

Last year, Anderson received the Charles Beard Research Excellence Award from the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association. The award recognized his research and extension efforts related to adding heat and carbon dioxide to a process known as ventilation shutdown. Ventilation shutdown-plus is designed to quickly reduce suffering when large populations of chickens and turkeys are depopulated due to a foreign animal disease outbreak.

This process is considered a tremendous improvement over previous methods of controlling highly pathogenic animal diseases. The American Veterinary Medical Association incorporated the process in its manual on depopulation methods, and the process has been used effectively in other states to stop the spread of poultry diseases.

Anderson is also known for his work related to shell-egg processing to improve food safety and for improved methods of inducing simultaneous molting in hens. Molting is the natural process that causes chickens to shed, then regrow, feathers. In commercial U.S. egg production, it was once common for growers to withdraw feed to induce molting as a way to improve egg production and quality.

Anderson’s research led to changes in the practice. He found that growers could achieve the same improvements in egg production and quality by altering, but not stopping, hens’ feed regimens.

The method Anderson recommended also had implications for hen health: It didn’t break down the birds’ muscles or bones, and it reduced the incidence of ovarian tumors. The research led to a decade-long research collaboration with Duke University that shed light on ovarian cancer in both chickens and in humans.

Anderson recently reflected on his award-winning career and the steps he’s taking now that could lead to improved hen health and a bright future for the egg industry.

You grew up on a large layer farm in Illinois. Why did you decide to stay involved in the industry?

Agriculture itself — I didn’t have to discover it. I chose laying hens because I knew them the best. I guess it came from my dad — there was always a feeling that, ‘Oh, you need to give back,’ so this was my way of giving back to a business and a group of people that I enjoy working with. In my job, I’ve met people from all over the world, and it’s given me the opportunity to give back to the best of my ability.

What does the egg industry in North Carolina look like today?

The industry in North Carolina is very diverse. When I came to North Carolina in 1990, there were probably maybe 20 producers. Today, there’s six major ones, but the number of birds in the state has actually grown, so we’re in the top 10 or 12 states in the country as far as egg production.

We have one of the largest organic egg producers on the East Coast here, Braswell Family Farms. They have both organic as well as conventional production. We have Simpson’s Eggs down in Monroe, a fourth-generation poultry farm. And I work with commercial entities, including Rose Acre Farms out of Seymour, Indiana, which has a complex here in North Carolina. Then there’s Dutt & Wagner in the far western tip of North Carolina, in Andrews. They are converting their complex there to be cage-free.

Then there’s Cal-Maine, which has cage-free and free-range operations in North Carolina, and we have the small backyard flocks, which make up a very large group here in North Carolina, as well.

This diversity means there’s always a new problem or new question in my email inbox.

What career accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m probably most proud of the molting programs we developed and the very positive impact they have had on animal well-being. As difficult as the research is or was, I’m also very proud of the work that we did on ventilation shutdown-plus, which gave the egg industry another tool in an emergency situation.

It comes back to my philosophy of needing to give back to the industry. The research isn’t really something that I wanted to do, but it’s something that I felt needed to be done in order to help the egg industry cope with some of the foreign animal disease outbreaks that were occurring at that time.

I really believe if we’d have had the mechanism that we ultimately developed available in 2015, 40 million birds would not have had to have been depopulated. It would have been substantially fewer.

What projects are you working on now that could influence the egg industry’s future?

In 2011, I broached to the industry the need for an aviary research facility at the Piedmont Research Station, because the industry was moving towards cage-free production, and aviaries allow for optimization of vertical space within a building. To that end, we actually developed three endowments:

  • The first endowment is for the Braswell Family Endowed Professorship, which is in the Prestage Department of Poultry Science. We’re hopefully going to be interviewing for that position this fall.
  • The second part of that is an endowment to get a new aviary facility from industry funding. The industry donated and contributed toward this aviary, and we’re actually getting ready to start working on that.
  • Then the third component is an endowment to help operate the North Carolina Layer Management Test.

Between those three things I think we’ll really made an impact on the ability of this department to do research focusing on the egg industry and all the different components of that egg industry from the day-old chick, growing the bird, to the laying stage, through an entire production period and then diseases and then also food safety, egg processing, and how to maintain that to get a safe product into the grocery store.

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