Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs

 

Let’s be honest.  You don’t need to follow this blog very long to realize that, on this sixty (plus or minus) animal, 100 acre ranch, the chickens basically rule the roost.

They free-range.

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They steal grain from the llamas and horses. They hijack hay feeders to use as nesting boxes.

Each one has her own little personality and habits.

These chickens spend their days meandering around the pastures.  They dust bathe.  They eat kitchen scraps in addition to their feed and their homemade scratch.  In short, they spend their day  (and their lives) being chickens and doing chickeny things.

I’ve found when most people think of chickens, they think of chickens like mine, scratching and pecking and chickening to their hearts content in green fields and deeply bedded, comfy coops.

But most chickens, whether raised for egg-laying or meat production, will never see a comfy coop or a green field.

The average cost of a dozen eggs at the supermarket is $1.41, so I understand why some people have sticker shock when their local farmers charge between $4 and $6 a dozen.  But, as they say, you get what you pay for.

The reason those store bought eggs are so cheap?  Confinement.  Most egg laying chickens, even today with a grass-roots push towards “cage free” eggs, live their lives in battery cages with almost no space: 67 square inches according to The Humane Society.  (That’s less than the space covered by a piece of letter-sized paper.)  Each cage holds five to ten birds and lends to a high rate of injury for the animals.  They can’t even flap their wings, let alone walk around.  Even “cage free” doesn’t really mean they have adequate space or outdoor access, but we’ll get into labels later.

These hens have short lives and are never allowed to be chickens.  On their hatch day, they are sexed.  The males, an estimated 6 billion of them annually who are useless to the egg industry, are deposed of, usually gassed or put through a grinder (yes, alive).  The females are beaked (meaning part of their beaks are cut or burned off without anesthetic to disallow pecking of other nearby hens or pulling out feathers), a painful procedure that causes great distress.  After being beaked, the hens will spend the rest of their lives struggling to properly eat.   Then, they are confined.  They cannot perch, dust bathe, or exercise.  Ever.  (For comparison, sit down cross-legged; now imagine that you have to stay there, like that, for the rest of your life.)  When they are at the end of their egg laying cycles, they are starved for 7-14 days and go through a forced molt that will cause them to lay again for just a little while longer before they are killed.  (The forced molt is linked to higher instance of salmonella due to the hen’s compromised physical state, so it is in neither the consumers best interest nor the hens’…just the best interest of the company.)

A chicken can naturally live 7-10 years.  Egg industry chickens survive maybe 3 egg laying cycles.

Why am I telling all of you this?  Honestly, it’s because I love animals, including chickens, and, for the most part I know that the people who read this blog love animals too.

Also, I like to eat eggs, and that’s ok.  Consuming eggs is not inherently tied to these immoral practices. There are steps you can take to ensure that your eggs come from happier, healthier hens.

  • Know your egg carton labels.
    • If you must buy grocery store eggs, strive for cartons labeled “Animal Welfare Approved.”  Usually these are organic eggs, and to get the label, the farmers must provide outdoor access (for specific amounts of time and with specific conditions) and enough room to perch, nest, and spread their wings.  Beaking is prohibited, as is forced molting.
    • Other labels related to animal welfare (from best to worst though all of these are better than not) are “pasture raised,” “USDA Organic, “free-range” or “free-roaming,” and “cage free.”
  • Buy Local!!!
    • Your local farmers’ market, farm stand, or chicken-obsessed neighbor are your very best egg sources.  Our pastured hens are happier and healthier.  The eggs are higher quality and so much more fresh! (Did you know that the eggs on the shelf at the grocery are usually a month old before they get to the store?  Gross!!!)  Many farmers’ market farmers bring photos of their hens living conditions and are happy to discuss animal welfare.  Ask and you shall see!  I promise if you make the switch to eggs from small production farms, you won’t regret it.

  eggs

  • Raise your own happy, healthy hens!
    • Don’t get me wrong, chickens are a lot of responsibility and keeping them should be entered into with your eyes wide open, but they are such fun, and it is wonderful to know EXACTLY how the hens who lay your eggs are treated, what they eat, and how they live. If you have questions about what that takes, shoot me an email or follow Almost Farmgirl on Facebook and connect (there’s an easy-peasy link at the bottom of your page).

There are so many happy healthy hens around whose owners would be thrilled to sell you eggs.  Of course, eggs from our hens costs more, because we give our hens the food and space and conditions that allow them to thrive.  Some of us even allow our layers to live into their natural  old age, long past their egg laying usefulness.  (I will gladly pay to feed my chickens into their useless years!)

The lives of most of these animals is short and miserable.  But it doesn’t have to be.  We can do better.  We can be better.  And it can start with you.

Want to learn more?  Check out these resources/references:

And, from the archives:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Farm Fresh or Not: The Chickens Behind the Eggs

  1. I don’t think people really want to know the truth about the food they eat. It is too much responsibility and change once they know the details. 🙂 As for chickens, this year we purchased some chicks to add to our dwindling flock of old gals, but had some bad luck. We lost two right away to a respiratory problem, and a third got crushed in the night by its mates. Then just before moving the youngsters into the “chick” pen next to the big chickens, the runt of the flock went down on us. Fortunately, after a couple of days by herself, she is gaining strength and acting more normal. Hopefully the others won’t pick at her and run her down again. We’ve raised chicks before and never lost a one. Maybe we were just lucky in the past… but anyway, you’re right – raising chicks is a lot of responsibility but it’s also a lot of fun. And the eggs are DEE LISCIOUS!!!

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    1. Unfortunately, loss of chickens is part of the whole deal. I’ve lost chickens to predators and to illness, but they still live a far better life than any commercial hens. Good luck with your little one!

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  2. Again, your and my great minds write alike. I just finished an essay about my family’s first year of chicken “farming” in our in-town neighborhood. We started our flock almost wholly because we could not morally stomach industrial farming’s chicken practices. Thanks for educating!

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