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Kerry Mergen, a contract egg farmer near Albany, Minn., got word on a Wednesday the chickens in his barn would be euthanized. A crew showed up the next morning and started gassing the birds with carbon dioxide.

The sudden drop in demand for food at restaurants, school cafeterias and caterers shut down by the pandemic has ripped through farming. Milk has been dumped, eggs smashed and ripe lettuce plowed under.

Now, farms are killing animals sooner than planned.

Mergen said he initially couldn't believe it when a field manager from Daybreak Foods, the Lake Mills, Wis.-based firm that owned and paid to feed the flock of 61,000 birds, said they might be killed early. His contract called for the flock to produce eggs until fall.

"I was wrong and the company decided to do it anyway," Mergen said.

A primary destination for eggs from the flock — a Cargill Inc. fluid egg plant in Big Lake, Minn. — temporarily shut down last week and laid off 300 employees there. The company cited declining demand for the decision to idle the facility, which handles 800 million eggs a year and sends containers of fluid egg to food-service companies across North America.

"It is important to note that food-service orders have not stopped, but with the decline in food-service orders, Cargill and its egg suppliers are working diligently to rebalance supply to match these consumer and customer shifts," Cargill said in a statement.

Demand for eggs in grocery stores is high and the price of a dozen eggs has risen. But much of the egg-production system is built to provide fluid eggs to food service companies and changing farms to provide eggs for retail is neither simple nor quick.

Mergen said his was one of five egg farms where chickens were euthanized in Minnesota in recent weeks, and that the other four were larger than his farm.

That figure couldn't be independently confirmed, and an official at the Minnesota Board of Animal Health said livestock producers do not have to report euthanizing large numbers of animals.

The practice is not uncommon, particularly with hens whose egg-laying productivity is up after about two years. But the decision to cull animals while they are still productive is rare.

"It's a very challenging time. It's very stressful on farmers," said Kevin Stiles of the Chicken & Egg Association of Minnesota.

On April 9 at 6:30 a.m., Mergen said, a crew of about 15 workers showed up with carbon dioxide to euthanize the chickens and semitrailers to haul away the carcasses.

"They come in with carts, put them all in carts, wheel them up to the end, put a hose in that cart and gas them, then dump them over the edge into a conveyor and convey them up into semis and the semis haul them out," Mergen said. "I was in there for quite a while and the longer I was there the more disgusted and disappointed I was knowing that I'm not going to see anything put back in my checkbook again, so after a while I just simply left."

By nightfall the chickens were gone, taken to a rendering plant to be turned into dog food, and so was the Mergens' income from a business they've been running for 22 years.

The Mergens made 15.5 cents per dozen eggs and produced 4,500 dozen eggs a day. Mergen said he doesn't qualify for unemployment insurance, and is on a waiting list for federal aid.

Barb Mergen, Kerry's wife who works in food service in St. Cloud, said the deaths of the chickens isn't what bothers her.

"Don't sugarcoat it. It is what it is," she said. "It's painless for the birds. I don't have a thing against that, but it's just that someone can come in so quickly and when they euthanized the birds, that was our paycheck euthanized."

Kerry Mergen, who also grows corn and soybeans, just turned 64. The couple could start an egg business that sells to grocery stores, but they don't have the equipment to grade eggs for the retail market and there are other financial obstacles to building their own flock and feeding it.

"You can't run that barn half-empty," Barb said. "It has to be completely full, and that's quite a large loan. To get someone to back that, we're just not big enough. I wouldn't want to take on that risk at this time."

The swiftness of the decision to wipe out the flock is still shocking to the Mergens nearly two weeks later. A representative of Daybreak didn't return a call for comment.

"They didn't confide in us, they didn't ask us, they didn't care about what effect this would have on us," Barb said. "Our contract says at least a seven-day written notice. That's not much, but it's more than this. We just feel like we're a nobody at the end."

Staff writer Evan Ramstad contributed to this story.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz