Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Good Egg

Everything old is new again.  Apparently, chickens are the latest and greatest thing .  Seems like everywhere you turn, people are getting chickens.  City folk, country folk, it doesn't matter.  Chickens are hot!

Which makes one wonder, why DOES everyone want chickens?  I can't answer for everyone, but I'm guessing for many folks (like myself), it's a bit of a political statement, declaring our frustration and disgust with the way industrial agriculture treats animals (and people).  In a world where things seem to be spinning wildly out of control, it's comforting to know that you can control one aspect of your food, even if it's just a few eggs a week.  Or maybe it's because we're confused and frustrated by all the choices (or lack of choices) when it come to buying eggs. Whatever the reason, folks are flocking to chickens (pun intended).

Delicious pastured eggs

We got our first batch of chickens last spring and have been getting a steady supply of eggs for about a  year.  This sounds silly, but I am still excited and amazed every time I walk to the coop and find eggs.  Whenever I know we'll be having a family with small children visiting, I like to leave the eggs in the coop and let the kids "find" the eggs.  It delights me to see their eyes grow wide with wonder.  "Can I hold one?",  they all ask.  I always let them (and have lost many an egg as a result, but it's worth it!), delighted to watch their little faces light up with joy.

Our very first egg, courtesy of our beloved Cheryl.  My friend Lindsey just happened to be visiting that morning and was able to take this photo!

When people come to visit us on the farm, we field lots of questions about chickens and egg laying. People feel dumb asking the questions, but really how WOULD you know this stuff, unless you had chickens of your own?   While I'm no expert and have much to learn, I can answer some of the questions, such as:
I see that your chickens are roaming around the yard.  Aren't you worried that they will run away?  No, chickens rarely wander more than about 300 yards away from their home (coop).  Each night, they will come back to the coop to roost and sleep, so even if they roam far and wide during the day, you can rest assured that they will come home.  Chickens will "put themselves to bed" at dusk, so all we have to do is shut door to the coop each night to keep our predators.  In the morning, we release them. 

How often do they lay eggs?  Most chickens, at their peak, will lay about 5-6 eggs a week.  It takes about 25-26 hours for a new egg to form, so each day she will lay the egg later and later.  Chickens rarely lay after 3pm, so she may skip a day to get back on track.  As chickens age, they lay eggs more infrequently.  They can continue to lay for 5-6 years (and can live for over 10 years!), but most people sell them or butcher them after 2-3 years, once the hen is costing more to feed than she is worth.  Older laying hens are said to be delicious to eat - they are generally cooked slowly and the meat used as stew or soup meat, not as a roasting chicken (meat chickens are usually butchered when they are only a few months old).
Why do they lay eggs almost every day?  Chickens are related to the turkey, prairie hen, grouse, partridge, pheasant, guinea hen, etc.  Like these birds, they used to only lay eggs around breeding season.  After they were domesticated, selective breeding altered a hormone receptor and the chicken no longer laid eggs according to a day length pattern.  Now they lay year round (mostly - they usually slow down or stop laying in the winter, since there is not much daylight, but you can keep them laying regularly by installing a light bulb with a timer in the coop so they get enough light). 
Do you have to have a rooster to get eggs?  Nope!  This is the question I am most often asked.  I like to point out that a female mammal ovulates regularly as well, whether or not she has a mate.   There really is no reason to keep a rooster, unless you would like to try raising your own chicks at home.  Most people avoid roosters because they are loud and can be aggressive (our own rooster was turned into soup after he attacked my 3 year old daughter).  It is a myth that roosters only crow in the morning.  They crow ALL. DAY. LONG. And sometimes at 3am.  Seriously.  
Where do the eggs come from - do they just pop out of their butt, or what?   Well, not exactly.  True, chickens do not have a separate urethra and rectum like mammals do.  Most birds have something called a cloaca,  or as I call it, the multitasking hole.  Birds don't pee and poop separately - everything is combined and expelled from the cloaca.  The cloaca is also used to breeding purposes.  However, the egg does not come directly from the cloaca (so no, egg doesn't come out her poop hole).  Her oviduct and vagina run parallel to the intestines/cloaca.  When she pushes to lay the egg, her vagina actually pushes out of the cloaca (prolapses), effectively sealing off the cloaca, so the egg never comes into contact with the poop.  Too much detail?  Sorry.  But inquiring minds want to know! 
Do you have to keep eggs in the fridge?  No.  When the egg is pushed through the vagina, it is coated with something called bloom, which protects the porous shell from bacteria.  I have actually witnessed my hens laying and the egg comes out wet, covered with the bloom and dries in almost 15 seconds.  It is important to keep this protective layer on the egg.  If an egg happens to get dirty and I have to wash it (spot clean with a wet rag), I make sure to refrigerate that egg, since it no longer is protected from bacteria. However, if the eggs are clean, it is perfectly fine to store the eggs at room temperature for about a week.  I rarely put mine in the fridge, but seeing as how we Americans are overly concerned with food safety (at least in my opinion),  I usually refrigerate the eggs that we sell.  If you buy eggs from the supermarket, they are most certainly washed. 
How long do eggs last?  A loooooong time.  We store our eggs on the counter and write the date on each egg, so we know how old they are.  They never sit around for more than a few days.  If you refrigerate the eggs, they can last for weeks.  In fact, most of the eggs you buy at the grocery store are at least a week old, sometimes 2 weeks old.  One way to test an egg for freshness is to fill a bowl with water and gently drop the egg into the water.  A new egg will sink.  Old eggs float because the membrane is starting to separate from the shell and it creates an air pocket (hence the floating egg).  If you are making hard boiled eggs, older eggs are preferred because the membrane separating from the shell makes the eggs easier to peel.

Is there really a difference between industrial eggs vs. pastured eggs (as in, is it really worth paying more)?  Yes, there is a difference.  Chickens in industrial settings are raised in huge barns and generally confined to a small wire cage almost their entire lives (which does not allow them to scratch or peck, the two main things God designed then to do).  These birds never see the light of day until they are packed in crates to be shipped to the slaughter house.  The living conditions for these creatures are dismal at best.  They are fed a "balanced" feed ration, which consists of mostly GMO corn, GMO soy and a mysterious protein source (I've been told the protein comes the remains of dead baby chickens and chicken feathers - who knows exactly what it is... feed companies don't have to disclose all their ingredients).

In contrast, pastured (sometimes also called "free range") hens live outdoors on the grass (this is important - some "farm fresh eggs" come from chickens that live outdoors, but are confined to a small patch of dirt or concrete... in my mind, this is not much different from industrial eggs, unless the chickens are also offered grass clippings, kitchen scraps, etc in addition to their ration.). Most pastured chickens also receive a ration of food each day, but they are allowed to roam around and eat grass, weeds, seeds, bugs and worms (chickens are omnivores, not herbivores).   Eggs from pastured chickens look different - their yolks are bright yellowish-orange, instead of the pale yellow yolk of industrial eggs.   Our scrambled eggs are often orange, not yellow!  Pastured eggs are much more flavorful (you might not be able to go back to supermarket eggs once you taste pastured eggs), the yolks are firmer (they stand up like ping pong balls in the frying pan) and tests have shown that pastured eggs contain a significantly  higher vitamin content and increased Omega-3 fatty acids, as do all pastured foods (beef, pork, chicken, eggs, etc).  

Is is worth paying more for these eggs?  You'll have to decide for yourself.  My opinion is, yes, they are worth the extra money - pastured eggs are better for chickens and humans alike.  Admittedly, pastured eggs are harder to find... you usually can't find them in a supermarket.  Try health food stores, specialty stores, farm markets, food co-ops, Craigslist... or drive around in the country and look for signs in front of farms.  Ask around - you never know who might have eggs for sale.  Or get your own chickens :)

I'm confused about all the labels I see on eggs at the grocery store - Omega-3 Enriched, Cage Free,  Vegetarian Fed, Organic, Etc.  What do these labels really mean and are those eggs worth the extra money?  Ah yes... it's enough to make your head spin, isn't it?  Ok, here is the lowdown on the labels.

Omega-3 EnrichedThese chickens are fed a GMO ration that has extra Omega- 3 fatty acids.  This label has nothing to do with treatment of the chickens.  They are probably still confined in those wire cages.

Cage Free:  Chickens are allowed to roam freely in barn.  They do not have access to outdoors.  They are fed a GMO ration.

Vegetarian Fed:  Hens are fed a GMO ration that does not include any animal proteins (no animal fats, dead baby chickens, feathers, etc.)  While this sounds nice, remember that chickens are are omnivores (meat and plant eating), so restricting them to a vegetarian diet may not be best for them.  These are most likely caged chickens. 

Free RangeThis one is tricky... farmers are allowed to label their eggs as "free range" if they offer access to the outdoors, even if they only keep the door open for a hour a day.  Often, the access door is a tiny opening into a small dirt run, that will provide no nourishment to the chickens.  With thousands of chickens roaming in the barn, it's unlikely that many (if any) chickens actually venture into the run.  These chickens are also fed a GMO ration.  The only way to know the truth about "free range" eggs is to call the supplier or ask to visit the farm (and they probably won't let you visit because of health and sanitation reasons).  Be aware, "Free Range" does not always mean "Pastured".

OrganicThis simply means the hens are fed an organic, non-GMO ration.  It does not indicate that they are cage-free or free range. 

Are any of these options worth the extra money?   To be honest, I think many of these labels are misleading (notice how many of them have pleasant sounding names like "green meadows" or have pastoral photos of chickens on pature on the label - lies, lies, lies) and not worth the extra cash.  However,  some are a step up from conventional industrial eggs. If you are trying to avoid GMOs, then Organic is the way to go.  If you are concerned about the treatment of the hens, then Cage Free or Free Range would probably be your best choice.  Of course, the ideal choice that benefits the hens and humans the most would be Pastured Organic, but those eggs are rarely sold in a supermarket.  There are very few, if any, large scale egg operations that offer Pastured Organic eggs.  They usually only come from small, local farms (like us!), so you need to do your homework to seek out a source for these eggs.  What it comes down to is, as with all your food, you simply cannot trust food corperations - they have a whole bag of tricks to mislead and decieve you.  You HAVE to do your own research. 
 Currently, we have 18 laying hens that are pastured and supplemented with Organic feed. Our 8 ladies from last year are almost 18 months old and will soon be entering into a molt, which means they will shed their old feathers and grow new ones. I suspect some have already entered into this phase, as their egg production has taken a nose dive recently. Growing new feathers is hard work, so the hens put their energy into feathers instead of eggs. Thankfully, our new batch of 10 hens we raised this spring are starting to lay, so we'll still have eggs for breakfast. Chickens start to lay when they are about 5-6 months old. 
Sometimes we get some "double-yolked" eggs.  You can usually tell which ones they are because they are freakishly big!  These are the equivalent to having twins.  I have yet to see a "triple yolker"...


"One of these things is not like the other..."
I'm often asked if all the chickens have names and if I can tell them apart.  Yes and no...  Some of the ladies have very distinctive personalities and I care deeply for them, while others are just nameless creatures roaming around. A few of them have names, such as Crooked Beak, Flopsy, Gladys, Ethel, Lucille, Phylis and Cheryl.  Cheryl is our favorite chicken.  She is outgoing, friendly and constantly amuses us.  Silly Cheryl has been known to sit in our laps, hop in visitor's cars, ride on the lawn mower with me and I even found her chillin' in my kitchen a few times (not sure how she managed to get inside). She is the one who will come running and allow small children to pet her.  I will be sad to see her go.  The farmer in me says she needs to be butchered next year, but she has almost been elevated to "pet status" and I could be easily convinced to let her live out her life as a pet chicken, instead of a laying hen.  We'll see...

Cheryl, our ISA Brown.  Isn't she beautiful?!?

 And..... now you know everything you wanted to know about chickens, but were too embarrassed to ask! Any more questions???

P.S. I just had to add this last photo. My friend Lindsey took this photo a few weeks ago of my son with our chicken Phylis. So precious!

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