Truly Marvelous Eggs

In a recent post about eggs, I noted that a researcher from Iowa State University appeared on a History Channel program and declared that there is no nutritional difference between eggs from caged hens and free range hens. I’m not sure what evidence she was basing that conclusion on, or if she’d been comparing “caged” to “cage free” hens which all ate the same commercial layer ration diet, or what; one of the weaknesses of television is it doesn’t allow much depth and nuance. I noted that my gut told me that conclusion couldn’t be correct — and, thankfully, commenter Sara directed me toward the necessary evidence.

This article from Mother Earth News is outstanding. Their nutritional testing concludes that:

Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:

• 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

These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators. We had six eggs from each of the 14 pastured flocks tested by an accredited laboratory in Portland, Ore. The chart at the end of this article shows the average nutrient content of the samples, compared with the official egg nutrient data from the USDA for “conventional” (i.e. from confined hens) eggs.

And later in the article they do address the sorts of misleading statements that the Iowa State University researcher made in the Modern Marvels program. Go read the whole thing.

I should mention that here in Michigan there is very little for our free range hens to forage on in the winter. They do eat our table scraps, but we must supplement their diet with layer ration from the feed store. We hope to remedy this in the future by growing more “winter keeper” feeds such as pumpkins, mangals, and other squashes that can be broken open for our hens when the pasture is gone.

Thanks again to Sara for directing me to this article.

Marvels of Eggs

One of our kids’ favorite television programs is the History Channel’s series, Modern Marvels. We’ve seen nearly every episode, and each one provides a remarkable amount of educational content — while remaining entertaining and engaging.

Last night, a brand new episode aired, and it was about…eggs. As many Modern Marvels do, they began by showing the modern, industrialized production models — basically, taking the viewer through a massive facility in Iowa and explaining the way in which 98% of eggs find their way to market. They then move on to alternative production models, showing the differences between “cage free” and “pastured”; the segment about Eatwell Farm in California, raising hens on pasture is beautiful, and an inspiration for all of us who are trying to keep livestock in a holistic manner (rather than by declaring war on nature). Later in the program, they explore different ways in which eggs are packaged, shipped, and consumed by end users.

They did their best to paint the industrial egg plant in as good a light as possible, but what struck me was the number of times the narrator had to explain that a given practice was “in accord with [SOME OFFICIAL-SOUNDING GROUP OR ORGANIZATION] guidelines.” I think that’s because, really, the concentration camp production model strikes most human beings as an affront to decency and the good stewardship with which animals ought to be treated. And I couldn’t help laughing at the Iowa State University researcher who looked into the camera and solemnly declared that there are no nutritional differences between factory eggs and free range pastured eggs. It may indeed be true when subjected to a scientific analysis, the different kinds of eggs have identical levels of various enzymes and vitamins. But aren’t “health” and “nutrition” about more than that? Does anyone really believe that a hen kept in close confinement with six other hens, allowed roughly 67 square inches of space, who never sees the light of day, and is fed a diet laced with low-level antibiotics to keep her from getting sick…can really produce from her body a fruit that is as healthy as what comes from the body of an active hen who spends her days ranging freely on pasture? (I discussed this issue, including my conversation with a USDA meat inspector who has seen what the hens look like when they’re done laying and heading to the processing plant, some time back here.)

Anyway, I highly recommend watching this episode; chickens are so integral to most small farms, it’s good to get a look at the variety of ways in which eggs are produced and used. Unfortunately, the History Channel isn’t scheduled to run it again any time soon; if I do see it pop up on the schedule, I’ll post an alert on the blog. In the meantime, I understand that Modern Marvels are available for purchase and download through the iTunes store. This is something I have zero experience doing, and can’t even figure out how to post a link to the relevant page over there, but if you’re an iTunes user you may want to give this a try.

Finally, speaking of eggs, look what I found in the barn this morning:

Yes, one goose egg, one duck egg, and one chicken egg (we’ll get many more chicken eggs this evening). This is the first duck egg we’ve gotten in several months, so hopefully our Cayugas are kicking in and getting ready for some serious production. I thought you’d enjoy seeing the difference in size, and what they look like straight from the barn.

Goose Eggs

For those interested in the productivity of geese as egg layers, I have some preliminary numbers. Today we got Egg #12 from our yearling Embden goose; she was hatched last April, and this is her 20th day of laying. Goose eggs are so big, a single one makes a meal for an average person (and when cooking, we treat goose eggs as we would two or three chicken eggs).

We’ve enjoyed goose eggs for many years, but I’ve never before been able to keep track of a single bird’s productivity; in the past, we’ve always had multiple geese laying at the same time in the same area. But as far as we can tell, the yearling Embden is the only one currently laying. We’ll keep you posted on her production, but so far we’ve been very pleased with what we’ve been getting — especially given how bitterly cold it’s been here in Michigan, and the number of days the birds have been totally confined to the barn.

Goose Day

It looks like this, the final day of 2009, might go down as “Goose Day” on our farm.

Earlier this week, we were down to five geese: the two older Toulouse females, and three Embdens from this spring’s hatch. One very nice thing about having different breeds of geese each year is that it’s easy to determine their age; once a goose gets more than about a year old, it isn’t really worth butchering (the meat gets too tough). Anyway, I’d been meaning to butcher those final three Embdens, but Yeoman Farm Baby’s adoption interfered. That proved to be a good thing, as it gave us time to do more thinking about geese and where we want to go with them.

I took a closer look at those three Embdens, and determined we had two males and one female. The female was definitely a keeper. One of those ganders was very large, and clearly exhibited Alpha Goose qualities; the other gander was no larger than the female. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I decided it would make most sense to butcher the Beta gander and feast on it during the Christmas Octave, and to keep Alpha as a breeder.

Although we haven’t had any success with hatching our own goslings in the past, we believe we can help the geese make more effective nests this spring. Back in Illinois, the problem was that after a goose went broody and we gave her a clutch of eggs to sit on, hens would inevitably sneak onto that nest and lay eggs of their own every time the goose got up to take a break. When Lucy Goosie would return to the nest, she’d crush the chicken eggs. This made a nasty, sticky mess and soon the goose eggs were coated with mud and straw. But here in Michigan, our barn is laid out such that we can give a broody goose a nice private area that chickens cannot violate. This spring, we’ll see if we can make that work. Goslings are so expensive (nine bucks each, at last check), there’s certainly no harm in trying. We will still buy some goslings, just to make sure we have goose to feast on next year, but hopefully our breeders will be able to add to that flock.

Anyway, this morning I went out to the barn to take care of the chores…and discovered that our Embden female had just laid her first egg! The shell was tinged with blood, and an examination of her rear end showed that she hadn’t laid it long before. Hopefully we’ll get several dozen eggs from her before she goes broody; I’m going to wait at least a couple more months before we even begin saving eggs for her to sit on. In the meantime, we will enjoy eating those goose eggs; each one is large enough to make its own omelet. (The photo is from last year, when I had a couple of goose eggs and wanted to show their size relative to a chicken egg.) When we have extras, we sell them to a Ukrainian woman who blows them out to use for crafts.

I really can’t say enough good things about geese; most breeds (other than Canadas) lay several dozen huge eggs each winter/spring, will lay for many years, can get to a good eating size on little other than grass, provide many pounds of meat, are extremely cold hardy, and are fierce enough to defend themselves against most predators. If you want to feed them grain, they will eventually reach live weights of 20# or more — but the grass-fed fall size (dressed weight of six to ten pounds) has always been plenty for our family. As long as you have a way to keep them out of the garden, and off the grass you want to let your children play on, I highly recommend them for every farmstead.

Urban Chickens Have Issues

Living in an urban or suburban area, and thinking about raising some stealth chickens? Today’s NYT has a nice rundown of “issues” that others have encountered. And you know what? Many of these “issues” are difficulties you’ll encounter in raising chickens, and other livestock, no matter where your house is located.

An excerpt:

They get diseases with odd names, like pasty butt and the fowl plague. Rats and raccoons appear out of nowhere. Hens suddenly stop laying eggs or never produce them at all. Crowing roosters disturb neighbors.

The problems get worse. Unwanted urban chickens are showing up at local animal shelters. Even in the best of circumstances, chickens die at alarming rates.

“At first I named them but now I’ve stopped because it’s just too hard,” said Sharon Lane, who started with eight chickens in a coop fashioned from plywood and chicken wire in the front yard of her north Berkeley home. She’s down to three.

Ms. Lane, who is close friends with the restaurateur Alice Waters, wanted exceptional eggs, plain and simple. But her little flock has been plagued with mysterious diseases.

She has not taken them to the vet because of the high cost, but she goes to workshops and searches out cures on the Internet. She has even put garlic down their throats in hopes that the antibacterial qualities of the cloves might help.

“I’m discouraged but I’m determined to figure this out,” Ms. Lane said. “I still get more than I give.”

The last line I quoted might be the most important one in the story: Raising chickens, or any other kind of livestock, is often discouraging. But there is a wonderful reward that comes from the very struggle to figure out what the problems are and in trying different solutions. And along the way, you learn that — despite pouring your heart out and doing everything you can imagine doing — animals die. But you keep going. You learn. You do things differently the next time.

And you know what? Whether your next batch of chickens dies or thrives…you get more than you give. Because you’ve learned, and you’ve grown, and no one can take those experiences away from you.

And, yes, you will eventually get some really really good eggs. Just keep at it and never give up.

Another Special Delivery

I spent most of yesterday in Chicago, on a work-related trip. It’s a 3.5 hour drive from here, which is just close enough to avoid an overnight stay.

As my client meeting wasn’t until 11am, I figured I had time to make some farm deliveries to old customers who’d appreciated our eggs. Once the details of the trip were set, I contacted those customers by email and made arrangements to meet.

My first stop was a four-star restaurant in Lincoln Park, where the chef is one of our eggs’ biggest fans. (He’s gone so far as to carry our eggs on a plane to take them places for cooking demonstrations.) He’d have bought 30 dozen if we’d had them, but our flock had only produced a little over half that over the last week. Still, it was wonderful being able to deliver them all to someone who likes them so much. He also took 6 dozen of our largest duck eggs, which I doubt he’s been able to put on the menu for some time.

My next stop was the most important. As mentioned in a post last year, we have a customer who is allergic to chicken eggs — but who can eat duck eggs. As our kids also have severe food allergies, I’m very empathetic to this man and make sure I contact him whenever I’ll be in the area with duck eggs. Our ducks hadn’t been laying since late last summer; needless to say, he was very excited when I emailed him with news of this trip.

As his building is just a few blocks from my client, I ditched the car near the client’s building and then walked to the egg customer’s place. It’s hard to describe how bizarre a feeling it was to be dressed in a jacket and tie, laptop computer slung over my shoulder, walking up and down the busy streets at the heart of Chicago’s Loop, elevated trains roaring overhead…while carrying 4 dozen duck eggs in my hands. Yes, I got some funny looks. But the best look was the expression of joy on my customer’s face, as he met me in the lobby of his building and then told me about what he’d be cooking and eating in the days to come.