The three-foot elevation of the cages allows the chicken manure to accumulate in conic piles and dry underneath the cages.
There are a few ways to spot Hilliker's Egg Ranch on El Nopal Road in Lakeside near Santee. One is to look for one of several chicken signs — the animated white chicken will be extending his right wing toward the ranch. Another is to spot the five-by-five roadside sign that reads, "WARNING, notice to all surrounding properties, you WILL be affected by flies, odors, dust, noise, and other irritants, inconveniences, and disturbances from this existing egg ranch. This is an existing agricultural operation with the right to expand."
Harold Hilliker: "We've got 25,000 chickens on the ranch. They're strictly for laying eggs."
You can't use your nose to find the ranch because the sharp ammonia odor you may associate with chicken farms is absent. Harold Hilliker, second-generation owner of Hilliker's Egg Ranch, explains why. "It's called the coning and drying method. The manure piles up and it cones. The more surface area it has, the faster it dries."
"People say, 'Your chickens aren't healthy, you keep them in pens.' But when they're in the cages, I can give them a balanced diet."
The drier the manure, the less odor it emits. Twice-yearly removal also helps. "We take out fertilizer in October and May. A lot of it goes down to Imperial Valley, and I have some local people who use it for their gardens. It's excellent fertilizer, very high in nitrogen. And in October, I will spread about three acres [by the road] with the fertilizer because we farm those acres. There will be a little odor...but we spread it and then we'll disc it in and turn it over so we don't have that problem."
Removal of the chicken manure and keeping it as dry as possible also cuts down on another agricultural byproduct, flies, "because flies breed where there is moisture," Hilliker explains. "So we use the coning and drying method, and we manage the fertilizer. How do we do that? Just by working at it. If you see a wet spot, you've got to go get the wet spot out and get it dry. So it's a continual management process."
The year-old Pinery Grove housing development lies immediately to the east of Hilliker's Egg Ranch, which has been there since Hilliker's father opened it in 1942. An eight-foot wooden fence separates the farm from $275,000 homes. Mario Busalacchi has owned one of the tan stucco houses for a year. "When we first moved in," he says, "we had a fly problem. It was almost enough to make you want to move. You'd have company coming over, and flies would be sticking to the walls and ceiling and hovering all around. A lot of the neighbors were complaining."
Busalacchi says the fly problem was solved when a homeowner contacted Hilliker and came to an agreement. "He was in contact with [Hilliker] about everybody complaining about the flies," Busalacchi recalls. "He typed up a letter and walked it to all the neighbors and said, 'Don't call the county; he's going to try to control the flies more.' Now, we get a few here, but last year this porch area would have been covered with flies. It's not bad anymore. Once in a while, you get a smell, but not usually. We leave our windows open all day because the breeze comes from that direction, and it's not bad at all."
A block east, Bert Lemons has lived in his new house since March. "Once in a while," he says, "we get some flies in here, and once in a great while we have some smell. But it hasn't been a great problem for me. I usually don't smell anything."
Lemons says he would never consider complaining to the county about the egg ranch. "I wouldn't want to cause [Hilliker] any grief," he says. "After all, he was here first."
Complaints or no complaints, Hilliker points out that the State of California and the County of San Diego both have "right to farm" ordinances under which he is "grandfathered in." A man of medium build, Hilliker displays the vitality of a man used to physical work. Trim and tan, at 59 he looks about 42. That's partly due to the Wally Cleaver flat-top haircut he wears. He speaks with a fast-paced style, though he quickly tires of talking about flies and odors. He'd much rather talk about chickens and eggs. "We've got 25,000 chickens on the ranch," he says. "They're strictly for laying eggs."
Hilliker also keeps some cattle and a few sheep, pigs, and geese. A couple of emus roam the field between the road and the chicken houses, attracting passersby. Spot the ostrich-like bird as you whiz by on El Nopal, and you're likely to spot the chicken sign advertising ranch-fresh eggs. "We do a lot of tours for schoolkids," says Hilliker, a member of the Lakeside school board, "and the kids love the emus. We try to have different animals for them to see when they get here because they want to see 'a farm.' "
A couple of roosters strut around the farm, but they're not used for breeding. "They're for aesthetics," Hilliker says. "Our eggs aren't fertilized. We buy day-old chicks from a huge hatchery up in central California, and we raise them from a day old to egg layers."
The breeds of hen Hilliker buys, white leghorn and brown leghorn, are not the same breed of chicken you buy to fry. "They're bred specifically for laying," he explains. "There's a lot of genetics behind it. I always compare chickens to horses. Racehorses are bred for speed or endurance. A big draft horse is bred for muscle, to pull. It's the same with chickens, believe it or not. A meat bird is a big fat bird like that draft horse. These ones here are bred to lay eggs. An egg hen only weighs three and a half to four pounds. All she does is lay eggs. She's thin and trim, like a racehorse."
Hilliker quickly adds, "Don't misunderstand me, these are healthy birds. They're just smaller."
When the day-old chicks — sometimes 1000, sometimes 2000 of them — arrive by 18-wheeler from the hatchery, they're put in the brooder house, which has heating elements built into the concrete floor. They stay there until they are nine weeks old, when they are moved into the "grow house," Hilliker says. "We also call it our teenager house because they mature physically and sexually in the grow house."
At five and a half months, the hens are moved from the grow house into one of the other four wooden-walled, metal-roofed, 40-by-100-foot chicken houses. There they live in long rows of elevated wire cages, three to a cage. The three-foot elevation of the cages allows the chicken manure to accumulate in conic piles and dry underneath the cages. The bottom of the cages are slanted so that, when an eggs is laid, it rolls into a trough at the front of the cage, where it will be picked up during the 10:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, or 2:30 p.m. collection. "Then we put them on a machine," Hilliker explains, "and they'll go through, and they're cleaned and weighed and candled — that's where they go over a light, and you look inside of them to see if they're okay, make sure they're not cracked or anything. It's part of the processing."
Mounted to the ceilings, fluorescent light bulbs illuminate the chicken houses. "The reason we use lights is because light has an effect on the pituitary gland. In the springtime, the days get longer and everything grows and blooms. Mother Nature, as the days get longer, knows there is going to be feed for all of these animals, so that's when the animals become sexually mature and start having babies. In the wintertime, they do the reverse. There's less feed, and everything slows down. It's the same with these chickens, except these are bred to lay eggs. So they need to have that light. So in the wintertime, when the days are shorter, we run the lights more. We keep them on 14 hours a day of light, because that's what they're bred to do. So in the morning, depending on what time of year it is, you add or subtract light to keep it at 14 hours a day. But in the wintertime, sometimes they're getting up at 2:30 in the morning. You'd be surprised; those lights come on and they wake right up. If you were hung over, you wouldn't be able to walk into the chicken house, it's so loud."
"People say," he continues, " 'Your chickens aren't healthy, you keep them in pens.' But when they're in the cages, I can give them a balanced diet. The better job I do for them in that regard, the better job they do for me. Before they will produce for me, I've got to maintain their bodies. We in agriculture get accused of doing mean things to animals. But everything that the animals give us — whether it's milk, eggs, or meat — is a result of how well we cared for them. As far as animal husbandry and being kind to animals, we're going above and beyond all the people who have a few chickens running around their backyard."
Hilliker's eggs have the distinction of being vegetarian because his hens are not fed any meat products. "They eat a vegetarian diet, which is basically grains, soybeans, vitamins, minerals, calcium, corn, milo. Those are some of the ingredients that get ground into a mash. It's all nutritionally balanced. Each commodity has a protein value. And let's say you have to have the food be 21 percent protein; you could use all corn but corn's too expensive. So you mix it all together. It's called 'least cost formulation,' but it's still the best you can get for your dollar."
Hilliker belongs to the Vitagold feed co-op — "In fact, I'm the treasurer" -- in Escondido, which buys the feed off the commodities markets in Los Angeles and Chicago. "I call up there," he explains, "and say, 'I want 24 tons of 41 percent.' They put that information into the computer, push a button, and all the feed will come down into a big hopper, which mixes it up, grinds it up, and it's sent to us in a big semi."
The cost of feed changes constantly, but Hilliker says he spends an average of $3000 on the 22 to 24 tons of feed he uses per week. His other costs include buying chicks — "They're usually 50 to 75 cents each, depending on the market," says Hilliker's son, Frank — maintenance, utilities, and paying one employee other than his two grown children. Offsetting costs are the sale of the older hens. "They start laying at five and a half months," Hilliker explains. "They lay approximately two years, and then they're hauled away to Los Angeles for Campbell's soup."
Hilliker says both the fertilizer and old-hen sales are break-even propositions at best. Selling eggs, around 20,000 per day, is where the money is made on the ranch. He retails eggs right on the ranch and, every day, truckloads of eggs roll from the ranch to Hilliker's wholesale customers; stores and restaurants "from Ocotillo to the Mexican border to Oceanside," Hilliker says. "You can find them at Henry's in El Cajon. You can find them at Denny's down by the airport. You can find them at 101 Diner in Encinitas, you can find them at a lot of the Henry's, you can find them in a lot of the Albertsons."
Hilliker's son, Frank, sets the wholesale prices weekly by watching the commodities market. The price is generally between "90 cents and 40 cents a dozen," Hilliker says.
Asked how much, if any, profit the operation generates, Hilliker answers, "I get asked that all the time. We make a living. You're not going to get rich doing this, but you'll make a living."
A six-digit kind of living?
"No," the egg rancher answers. "We make a living, and I will never say anything more or less."