An estimated 50,000 hens were left without feed at a Carpenter Road egg farm over about two weeks, officials said Wednesday.
About a third of the hens died of starvation, and the rest are being euthanized because of their poor condition, said Annette Patton, executive director of the Stanislaus Animal Services Agency.
The hens were found on property rented to A&L Poultry, she said. Company owner Andy Keung Cheung declined to comment when reached by phone.
The investigation could result in an animal neglect charge, Patton said.
"We're estimating approximately two weeks that the animals had not been fed," she said.
Her staff responded Tuesday after receiving a complaint about the business, which is about a half-mile south of Fulkerth Road, west of Turlock.
The hens starved apparently because of the high cost of feed, said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. The Modesto-based group usually deals only with meat birds, but has helped with the response at the egg farm.
"We don't encourage people to go into business when they can't raise the animals in a humane way," Mattos said.
Prices have risen sharply for corn, the main part of the diets for laying hens and poultry raised for meat, and an important feed for dairy cattle.
About a dozen responders wore protective suits, boots and masks as they removed dead hens from one of the two long barns at the site Wednesday afternoon.
They planned to put the surviving birds to death once the carcasses were removed. Mattos said this likely will be done with carbon dioxide, a standard industry practice.
As of Wednesday, officials had not said where the carcasses would be taken. Dead hens and other farm animals usually go to rendering plants, where they are made into ingredients for various products. They also can be buried in landfills during emergencies, such as the extreme heat wave of 2006, which killed more than 3,000 dairy animals in the county.
The egg farm response includes the animal agency, the county public works and agriculture departments, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and industry people.
Initial testing indicates that the hens were not diseased, said Randy Anderson, a veterinarian in the Modesto area for the state agency.
"We took half a dozen birds to our diagnostic lab, and they found nothing," he said.
The egg and poultry industries have strict protocols for preventing avian influenza and other diseases. This includes protective gear for employees and no access by the general public.
The hens at A&L are a small part of the egg industry in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Stanislaus County alone produced about 32 million eggs in 2010, according to the agricultural commissioner's office.
No information was available about where A&L was selling its eggs.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.
A look at video from the scene Wednesday.