January 29, 2018
By Ellie Isbell
While some farm kids grow up and fly the coop, Ralph Bradley’s children and grandchildren flocked back home to honor his legacy at Weiss Lake Egg Co. in Centre.
All three Bradley children, Jeff, Michael and Debbie Lowe, returned to the family egg business, one of five table-egg production facilities in Alabama. Grandchildren Aubie Hale, Audra Bradley, Kendra Lowe, Josh Bryant and JB Bryant also are carrying on their grandfather’s legacy by working in the chicken houses, processing plant or office.
“Our parents thought we would get tired of working in the plant when we were young, go to college and never come back,” said Audra, Jeff’s daughter. “We all went to college and came right back home to work because we love the business.”
Ralph died in 2011, but Debbie said he’d be proud how the business has grown. Today, Weiss Lake Egg produces about 370,000 eggs daily.
“My daddy was one of those people who thought if anything bad happened, you should have fixed it before it went wrong,” said Debbie, whose husband, Ken, also works for the company. “He was kind of hard to work for sometimes because he didn’t like to turn loose of projects, but he taught us well.”
The family Patriarch began his poultry career in broiler production, but transitioned to laying hens after acquiring a local egg packing facility in 1968.
The family has seen many changes in the 49-year history of the company, and Michael Bradley said the greatest of which has been technology.
“The business started out slow. We actually delivered eggs in a pickup truck for a while,” Michael said. “Debbie, Jeff and I picked up eggs by hand and carried them in baskets when we were kids.”
Those days are gone. The industry moved to mechanization in the late ‘60s. Today, the poultry houses and the egg processing facility hum with the buzz of gears and conveyor belts packing up to 200 cases of eggs per hour.
“With the equipment we had 25 years ago, it took 32 people to do the same amount of work that 18 are doing now,” Jeff said.
The plant’s layout also looks different from when Ralph began. New buildings and floor plans increased productivity. Four two-story poultry houses are attached to the processing plant. Conveyor belts bring fresh eggs from the house into the plant, saving time and reducing damage to eggs.
After leaving the houses, eggs travel through machines that clean, inspect, sort and package. Eggs that do not meet the appearance requirements for carton packaging receive a grade B designation and are sold for use in products like mayonnaise.
Although machinery is important, the family says a human touch ensures the best care for the birds.
“A happy hen lays eggs,” said Josh, who works mainly in the poultry houses. “These birds are picky about their conditions, and it’s our job to keep them happy and healthy.”
Birds are housed at an optimum temperature and fed three times a day. Everything is aimed at maximum egg production and the birds’ comfort.
“It takes about three loads of feed to produce a load of eggs,” said JB, who also works in the poultry houses. “These 440,000 birds are eating about 336 tons of feed each week.”
Ralph’s granddaughter, Aubie, is an Auburn University poultry science alumnae and helps manage the plant. She said animal welfare is at the forefront of the poultry operation because the family’s livelihood depends on the hens’ well being.
“Our goal is to produce the safest, healthiest, cleanest eggs possible, and our farm allows us to do that,” she said.
Editor’s Note: Weiss Lake eggs are distributed to stores under several labels through Associated Groceries and Mitchell Grocery.