Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Chicken Came First (Eggs Part 2)

Back by popular demand, for all serious insomnia sufferers, the chicken. Don't worry, the egg post will come soon, but first I need to finish talking about how chickens are treated.

Last time I discussed the living arrangements of chickens. But what do they eat? What should they eat?

As far as I can tell, the answer is anything, including dirt, actually. Chickens are omnivores and dirtivores.

First, the pastured view. According to a website devoted to raising chickens traditionally, an ideal diet for a chickens consists of:

  • Grass, up to 30% of calories if given sufficient space
  • Protein - bugs in summer, but need supplements in winter (soybeans, fish - can chickens fish?)
  • Grains - ideally a mixture of fresh grains, not just corn
  • Lots of water
I'm a little confused by this website - it seems to be passionately devoted to chicken feed, but also sells traction pads for getting your car unstuck from mud or snow. Weird. I did look a few other places that seemed to have similar information, but this website is incredibly comprehensive on the topic of natural chicken feed.

Apparently most people also supplement chickens' diet with commercial feed or kitchen scraps, ideally greens, or grain, or just about anything edible from what I can tell, as it is hard for a chicken to get enough calories from foraging, especially during winter.

Can you believe this? Chickens that aren't free range need to be given grit or sand. Since chicken don't have teeth, they need something gritty to grind their food.

According to an article on a website called Mother Earth News (Have I been brainwashed yet?), one study found significant nutritional improvements in the eggs of pastured chickens when compared to USDA nutrient data for commercial eggs:
  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene
I'm starting to see in many places a similar theme regarding omega-3 fatty acids, which is this...

Your body needs a balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (I think). The omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in many areas, including healthy heart and brain function and reduced risk of cancer. Omega-3s come from various sources, fish, nuts, etc, but most abundantly greens, such as grass and algae. Animals, like cattle and fish, that eat grass or algae have a much higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids than do animals fed on grains, which are a source of omega-6 acids only.1

So what about the other point of view? What do chickens in large industrial operations eat? In other words, what exactly is in commercial chicken feed?

The only thing I could find was a few ingredient lists taken from commercial feed on our trusty Traction Pad website. On the websites for these particular feeds, I wasn't able to find ingredient lists. According to Traction Pad:

FeatherCrest Brand contains many of the ingredients already discussed, grains, etc, but it also contains a lot of strange sounding ones. I assume that most of these are vitamin and mineral supplements. One ingredient which is self-explanatory is poultry fat. That seems strange to me - I know chickens are omnivores, but I don't think they are cannibals by nature.

To summarize all of this random information, it seems to me that there is no definitive answer - chickens will eat just about anything. A free-range chicken will ideally get plenty of access to grass and bugs, but will probably not be harmed by some supplemental grain, veggie and meat scraps. It doesn't sound to me as if there is such a thing as 100% grass/bug fed eggs as most chickens need a little more, so I shouldn't be suspicious if I hear that a free-range hen is getting a little corn (as opposed to a free range cow).

Commercial chicken feed seems to be a bit mysterious, but what you can probably assume is that it isn't as diverse as a diet consisting of complex, natural ingredients such as bugs and grass, and therefore is probably not giving a chicken everything it needs to be in top shape, especially omega-3s. Plus, there may be any number of bad things in chicken feed as well, like chicken fat.

After all of this investigation on habitat and diet, do I really know what I want in a chicken?

MWF seeks FR hen, or maybe 2 - likes to roam and peck. Eats bugs and grass, but a little corn is OK too. Must get out and exercise, enjoy the fresh air and blue sky. Must be in a committed relationship to a caring farmer, not interested in living together, just want you for your eggs.

1 http://www.eatwild.com/healthbenefits.htm

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