We started off the new year with lots and lots of rain – so much rain that we had standing water all over our yard. Luckily the temperature was pretty mild, so the chickens free ranged in the rain without a care in the world. One morning when we woke up, we noticed a bunch of weird little white things in the grass. Turns out, the weird little white things were actually white grubs which, if you are unfamiliar, are really disgusting-looking beetle larvae that spend most of their time burrowed into the ground. I guess we got so much rain that their grub homes got flooded and they retreated to the surface where they were met with more water and an untimely death. Sad for the grubs, but the best day ever for our free ranging chickens. It took the chickens all of a few minutes to find the motherlode of white grubs, and it took even less time for the chickens to devour said grubs. And I would be lying to you if I said we didn’t have the best time watching the chickens during their grub feast.
On our farm, our goal is to allow our chickens to free range as much as possible. However, with the vast array of predators that we have around here – foxes, bears, bobcats, coyotes, raccoons – we must do so strategically. We used to let our chickens out of the coop all day every day, but we noticed that fewer and fewer chickens would return to roost each night. Predators are smart. If they notice that there is easy prey in a certain area every day, they will return to eat the prey every day. So we do something that we like to call inconsistent free ranging – meaning that we let our chickens out at different times and for different intervals of time each day. Most weekends when we are out in the yard making noise all day, the chickens are let out in the early morning and free range all day. On days where we are away at work all day, the chickens are let out for a few hours in the afternoon until it gets dark. On days in between, they are let out mid-afternoon. This practice allows for enough inconsistency that the predators can’t learn exactly when the prey will be available, and we have found that our predator loss has drastically decreased.
On another note, we are happy to report that as of this week, the chickens have stopped their egg strike and we have been collecting one egg each day. Who would have thought that with 33 laying hens we would be celebrating collecting one single measly egg a day? Small victories, I suppose. Most of the eggs we’ve collected have been dark brown with uneven pigments likely from our marans hens who are trying to figure out what shade of brown eggs they want to lay this year. With such a drop in egg production, we’ve had to (gasp) buy eggs while we support all 36 of our own feathery freeloaders. Luckily, we live only a few miles down the road from a small family farm that raises chickens on pasture, so although we are purchasing eggs from someone else, we don’t have to sacrifice on the nutritional quality of the eggs that we are eating. We are also able to support a farm that is in line with our own animal welfare views.
There are a variety of benefits of allowing chickens to free range or be pasture raised. At the top of the list is quality of life and animal welfare. Additional benefits include saving money on chicken feed, controlling the weight of the chickens (yes, chickens can become obese with lack of activity!), natural pest control, and an increased nutrient density of the eggs produced. This may surprise you, but chickens are not vegetarians! While foraging, they eat a variety of things such as seeds, insects, worms, grass, small frogs, and even small mice. Eggs from hens who forage outside have been shown to contain three to six times more vitamin D, contain up to one third less cholesterol, contain less saturated fat, and contain higher levels of vitamin B12, folate, vitamin A, omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin E. With all of that being said, we thought we would do a quick crash course of what certain labels found on egg cartons at the grocery store actually mean. Read on for more details.
Decoding Egg Labels:
Conventional Eggs – your usual “normal” eggs – the cheapest eggs at the grocery store. Believe it or not, the majority of eggs consumed in the United States are from caged hens. These hens are raised in small cages that don’t allow them to move, stand, stretch their wings, or partake in any normal chicken behavior. These hens never see the light of day and will consume a corn or soy diet. Food may be withheld to force the hens into a molt and subsequently make them produce even more until they are killed at around 18 months of age. Many caged egg cartons will contain misleading labels such as “farm fresh”, “all natural”, or “vegetarian fed” – all of these labels sound appealing but have nothing to do with how the hens are raised. After all, every egg is technically from a farm and can be deemed “farm fresh”.
Cage Free Eggs – cage free eggs are a step up in animal welfare versus caged eggs, but the term cage free is very loose. These hens are not raised in a cage (which is a good thing), but they are only given about one square foot of space each. Cage free hens are typically raised in an overcrowded chicken house without access to the outdoors and often devoid of light and fresh air. These hens consume a corn or soy diet.
Free Range Eggs – a further step up in animal welfare. Factory free range hens are supposed to have the option of going outside for at least some portion of the day. Their outside area is commonly a concrete slab with unfavorable conditions, and there are no regulations for how large the outside area is and for how long the hens can be outside. The outside space also is not required to have any living vegetation. Factory free range hens certainly have more space to roam than cage free hens, but this is often only two square feet per bird. The majority of factory free range hens may not actually see the light of day and will still eat a corn or soy diet. Although the term free range is also pretty loose, these hens aren’t kept in cages and theoretically have some kind of access to the outdoors.
Pasture Raised Eggs – the best type of egg to buy in terms of animal welfare. Pasture raised eggs are true free ranged eggs from hens raised in grassy pastures. Hens are each given an average of 108 square feet and are allowed to roam free on open pasture eating insects and plants (their natural food). Although there is no governing body for pasture raised hens, it is generally understood that pasture raised eggs come from chickens that spend a significant amount of their time foraging in the grass and dirt. These hens tend to be let out into the pasture in the morning and are called back in before nightfall. Pasture raised hens will also be supplemented with free choice commercial chicken food. Eggs produced by pastured raised hens are nutritionally superior and are usually found at farmers markets, small farms, or natural food stores.
Now onto some of the key marketing terms found on egg cartons:
Antibiotic Free – Eggs from chickens that have not been given antibiotics. It is legal to give chickens antibiotics in the United States, so this is important to pay attention to.
No Hormones Added – meaningless. It is illegal to give hormones to chickens in the United States, so all chicken eggs in the US are hormone free.
Farm Raised, Farm Fresh, All Natural – meaningless. All are phrases that are pleasing to read, but they mean nothing when it comes to how the hen was raised, the conditions it was subjected to, and what it was fed
Vegetarian Fed – The vegetarian label indicates that the feed given to the hens does not contain any animal byproducts. Chickens are not vegetarians. The majority of factory farm hens are fed an unnatural all-vegetarian diet versus an omnivorous natural diet.
Organic – held to the USDA standards for organic eggs: hormone free, antibiotic free, and fed with organic food. Hens have access to the outdoors (free range) but may never actually go outside.
Brown Eggs – the color of an egg depends solely on the breed of the chicken laying the egg. Brown eggs are not healthier than their white or colorful counterparts and the hens are not raised any differently. There is no flavor or nutritional difference. This is a common misconception.
This concludes our crash course on deciphering egg carton labels.
Unfortunately, marketing plays a huge role in everything that we purchase, and eggs are no exception. We hope that this helps you make a more informed decision on what kinds of eggs you want to buy from both a nutritional standpoint and an animal welfare standpoint. Finally, this goes without saying, but there is no substitute for knowing where your food comes from. If you have access to a small farm or farmers market, we encourage you to get to know your local farmers and support them by purchasing their eggs. New Year, new eggs!
Oh, and one more thing: we ordered our chicks this week! More to come about that in the future. Happy new year, everyone!