Raising chickens isn't as simple as it used to be

To tell you the truth, the Welpline 947 chicken bears a striking resemblance to 937A. The 947 is better, of course: 0.01 pounds lighter, lays heavier eggs (on the order of a demigram) with slightly better shell quality. Such changes are enough to get Bill Carey, geneticist for the Breeder-Hatchery Division of Welp Inc., excited.

Like the rest of agriculture, the egg industry has changed a lot since the Welp pedigree breeding program began in 1929.

``Then everybody raised chickens. Everybody,'' says sales manager Richard Shoenhair. Now, commercial egg production is the preserve of a few large operations, known as ``egg cities,'' which coax production out of 1 million or more hens. Welp, by contrast, is one of the few breeder-hatcheries left that serves the small, diversified farmer, who typically sells a few eggs to friends and neighbors.

The technology that has changed egg and other agricultural industries has come under fire from several directions.

The University of California, for example, is involved in two landmark suits involving agricultural research. The first charges that it was illegal for a publicly supported university to develop a mechanical tomato-harvester that benefited private interests. The second suit has held up the field test of a microbe genetically altered to help prevent frost damage to crops.

Animal agriculture is coming under attack from a few animal-rights activists. Robert Brown, president of Food Animal Concerns Trust, has begun to promote the sale of nest eggs in Chicago as an alternative to what he sees as the cruel caging of hens. These activists also raise concerns about the widespread use of medication in livestock.

Other groups and a number of farmers worry that farm production could become monopolized by a few huge corporations. So far, this has not happened, says Luther Tweeten, agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, even in the highly integrated broiler industry.

``Our industry, I think, is a good example of what has not happened,'' says George Watts, president of the National Broiler Council. ``It's as competitive or more competitive than it ever was.'' -- 30 --{et

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