Monday, October 22, 2012

Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other

A little blonde girl walked up to our table at the Market, pointed at the eggs and said to the Boss, “Those are EGGS!”  I could see him melt a little as she looked up with those big blue eyes and said it again. She couldn't have been more than three years old. (…and she was SO cute!)  Something about those eggs fascinated her. When he asked her if she knew where they came from, she thought and then said, “A FARM!”  She wasn't quite sure but with a little prompting from her older brother she said they came from chickens. The Boss applauded her knowledge.  She went skipping off down the sidewalk, following the rest of her family.

Farm fresh eggs have long been a staple of the Market, but lately there have been a LOT of questions, too. However, some of the questions just prove how un-informed…no, mis-informed folks are.  I cannot tell anyone how hens for eggs should be raised, could be raised…nor can I say with certainty that we do it the BEST way.  But, we have been doing this a LONG time and are committed to the health and well-being of our animals as well as producing a delicious product in an efficient and economical manner.

Recently, I read an article about eggs. This article chronicled 9 separate labels that eggs may (or may not) have and their possible definitions. Unfortunately, much of the information used to explain the terms is erroneous.  This is simply one more example the lack of knowledge of agriculture that seems to be compounded daily. There is actually legislation before Congress that will affect the housing of laying hens in commercial operations.  To my mind, that’s more than a little heavy-handed, but I won’t get “all political”.

A lot of folks are concerned about the hens’ living conditions.  This is a laudable concern, but keep in mind these ARE chickens and NOT your children.  Chickens need protection from the elements and predation, and laying hens look for a safe, darkened place in which to lay their eggs.  They need food and water…egg production and consistency benefit from a diet high in protein and some amount of fat.  Green matter adds to the rich color of the yolk and they actually seem to enjoy table scraps. But, neither greens nor scraps are essential to egg production. But, our model offers all these things to the hens on a routine basis.  I take issue with the folks who think that they should have constant access to the outdoors.  This provides far too much opportunity for predation.

hens come and go freely
laying their eggs in the safety of nestboxes
Unless you have begun your day cleaning up decapitated chickens, you cannot truly appreciate the need for providing protection to those creatures in your care.  That is indeed what happened to us once long ago.  We were committed to a truly free-range hen environment.  I went out one morning to feed while the Boss was in town.  There were bunches and bunches of headless chickens (I found the heads elsewhere)…I ended up filling the wheelbarrow with the carnage. If I say this is NOT the way I wish to ever start the day again, it would be an incredible understatement.  We never identified the predator, and that made for more than a few sleepless nights following the attack.  But, since we have been locking the hens in at dark, we have never had a repeat performance.  So, our chickens do NOT spend ALL their time outdoors.

Small chicks cannot be exposed to the elements; they must have warmth and light during their very early days in order to thrive. We provide the chicks with light and feed 24/7 for the first three weeks of their lives here on the hill.

There is a lot of talk about fertile eggs, too.  Many folks feel that this must add to the nutrition.  I do not think there is any basis to this oldwives’ tale. Some cultures consider this a delicacy. Other folks think that the possibility of finding an unhatched chick in their morning meal is more disgusting than mere vocabulary can convey.  Personally, I am with the latter group.

In order for an egg to be fertile, the hen must have had physical contact with a rooster.  Contrary to popular belief, every egg is NOT a chick in the making, nor must you have a rooster in order to get eggs.  Nor is the yolk the part of the egg that becomes the chick! The majority of the yolk is actually what provides the nutrition for the chick as it grows inside the shell. …and for the record…most double yolk eggs will NOT produce twins.

Once she reaches maturity, a hen will produce an egg approximately every 26 hours, with or withOUT a rooster.  In operations where eggs are offered for sale, a rooster is rarely kept.  Roosters are aggressive, both with humans and the hens, and in most cases do nothing productive for the flock.  While there are some who keep a rooster to “protect” the hens from aerial predation (hawks, eagles and perhaps owls) but we have found that doesn't work for us.  So, there is no need to candle our eggs, or worry about “babies” inside when you buy our eggs.

While we have had predation problems with hawks in the past, we have found that if the hens have a place to get out of sight of the hawk/other raptor (under the house or vegetation) it is not an issue.  But, there is nothing that will cause a more visceral reaction of an egg farmer than the sight of a raptor lunching on a hen.  (been there…done that) Any large shadow moving over the ground will cause the hens to squawk and run for cover. Their squawking in turn causes the dogs to bark and most birds don’t stay long.

Our chickens eat NATURAL feed…not organic.  It doesn't seem worth the added expense to us and in the end our customers, to pay so much more for an input that may or may NOT make any difference in the end product.  The feed has NO additives in it, and provides protein at a level required by the hens’ bodies to produce large eggs on a predictable basis. The hens also get all the spent garden plants, weeds and the occasional table scraps and uneaten dog food.  Since they do have access to the outdoors, they scratch and peck and eat whatever creepy crawlies they may fancy.  They have been known to eat their own eggs on occasion. When one is looking for any sort of reliable production rate, hens will never be left to scratch on their own.  High protein feed is essential, and in our case does include soybean meal.

As for claims that eggs are “drug-free”, hormone free, no antibiotics…etc, many of these claims are simply to assure the customer that the eggs they are purchasing are as NATURAL as possible.  The mis-guided notion that all farms pump their animals full of drugs is one that drives conventional farmers to distraction. (and me, too for that matter!) I will note here that we cannot assure you that the feed is GMO-free.  The whole GMO topic will be covered sometime soon…oh, believe me…it will be covered…no doubt about it. We are committed to providing “the girls” with the best we can, and we are satisfied that we are indeed doing that.

Many comments are made at the Market regarding the aesthetic beauty of our eggs.  While we appreciate the compliments, we can take no real credit for it.  Different breeds of chickens lay different color eggs.  Brown, white and green are some of the colors that come to mind.  Brown eggs can range from nearly white to warm beige to a deep russet.  Some have little freckles and occasionally there are anomalies in the shells like creases or bumps.  It is this variation that adds to the visual appeal of farm fresh eggs. Each hen has her signature egg, so to speak. Since we don’t weigh or grade our eggs, there is some level of variance within every carton.

This week, a long-time customer noted, “I GOT A WHITE EGG for the first time EVER! Like, WHAT is going on?”  I laughed and said, “yeah, there’s one hen who lays these weird light eggs…” I think she was a little disappointed with my calm reaction. “Oh, I thought you might have gotten new chickens. Or maybe something weird was going on…” she said. Nope, no new chickens, just the odd and random anomalies make up our natural world. Cool, huh?

High in protein, fairly low in calories, eggs provide some essential nutrition from which most everyone can benefit.  The whole cholesterol thing is constantly up for study, debate and discussion.  My advice is to follow Julia Child’s wisdom: “everything in moderation!”

Eggs…they’re what’s for breakfast…lunch…supper…ANYTIME!

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