The next food I've decided to try to convert to eating "real" is the egg. Because I don't eat a lot of meat, I do eat a lot of eggs, and I love them. In this, the first of a series on finding and eating completely natural eggs, I'm attempting to discover how to grow an egg the way nature intended, or more specifically, what does a chicken eat and how should it live? So in order to find out how to eat a good egg, you have to start with the chicken.
The first question I wanted to answer is how a chicken would ideally live. I started by reviewing a number of sites from small farmers and owners of backyard flocks. From this I gathered that healthy, productive hens need:
- Shelter - According to one small farmer in Vermont, a small flock needs 4 square feet of shelter per bird.
- Heat - if the coop isn't heated during the winter. Contrary to my horrific images of crowded cages, the chickens actually do need to be crowded into a small enough space in winter to keep warm. This farmer said that a minimum of 10 seemed to work well for them.
- Roosters - "If you don't have a rooster, the hens will lay eggs, but one hen will stop laying and starting acting like one." What do the big producers do with that hen??
- Outdoor space, and a lot of it. Hens will quickly turn even a large yard to dirt. Their natural diet includes a large quantity of fresh grass, so they need to be able to roam freely in order to graze the amount they need.
The space issue sounds like it would make raising hens in large numbers difficult. So, what's the alternative?
One alternative is what I'll call PC hens (politically correct hens!). They make us all feel good because we pay a few bucks more, they have nice, humane sounding phrases and pictures of happy chickens on top (can chickens smile?), and you buy them at Whole Foods or similar patchouli smelling natural food grocers.
There are two commonly used terms for eggs laid by PC hens: free-range or free-roaming and cage-free. I don't know if there are any universal standards, but I found some interesting information from an organization called Humane Farm Animal Care that certifies producers as humane in their treatment of animals. They set standards for what can be called cage free and what can be called free roaming. Cage free live in a barn, whereas free roaming are in a barn with strictly specified, easy access to the outdoors. They do not certify caged hen producers.
You can browse their exact specifications for humane treatment (surprisingly interesting reading), which includes things like:
- They allow minimal beak trimming, but not de-beaking, in order to avoid "heavy feather pecking and cannibalism among laying hen flocks, which can occur in flocks of any size and any production system." It is more common in cage-free systems with large flocks. I wonder if this is the social structure that roosters help provide. I didn't read anything about pecking or cannibalism on any of the small farm sites.
- "All hens must have sufficient freedom of movement to be able, without difficulty, to stand normally, turn around, and stretch their wings; they must also have an environment that supports natural behaviors such as dustbathing. All birds must have sufficient space (including perches) to be able to perch or sit quietly without repeated disturbance."
Ok, so caging chickens is obviously incredibly cruel. Is it?
I found some interesting information from a producer called Sauder Eggs, which is a member of a group called the United Egg Producers. In this paper, the United Egg Producers Scientific Advisory Committee does a comparison of caged versus cage-free systems. The main benefits of cages seem to be
- Protection from predators
- Reduces pecking and cannibalism
- Easier monitoring for health
- Protects them from weather extremes
- Increases efficiency and production
Here is an interesting video from Sauder Eggs showing their production. I wouldn't say the hens look miserable, at least they weren't moaning and crying. How do you tell?
So, what to conclude from this investigation...
I guess my opinion is that hens don't want to be in cages. I don't know if it is a miserable existence for them, but I have to assume it isn't a joyous one, and if I'm eating the fruit of their loins, I'd like them to have a little joy in life, to experience fresh air, blue sky and other things that make life worthwhile.
It does sound like raising hens "real" is not easy on a large scale (rotating them through different pastures so that they have a constant source of fresh grass or giving them a ton of land). For me to have real eggs, I will have to go out of my way to seek them from a small producer because I don't think it is possible to raise truly free range hens on a large scale, although it's nice to know that there are some large producers out there that are adhering to a humane standard (more on one of these producers later in this series).
So that gives me an understanding of my options for choosing eggs by hen lifestyle. What about their diet? Stay tuned for part II! (OK, I said this entry would cover both habitat and diet, but I have to get to work tomorrow!)