Buying eggs has become complicated. It’s no longer just a matter of choosing between white and brown, large and extra large or even organic and conventional. Now there are “omega-3,” “vitamin-enriched” and “cage-free.” The prices on these “designer eggs,” to use the industry term, can top $4 a dozen. And then there’s “free-range” and “certified humane,” labels that imply the producers treat their hens better than others do.
It’s true that some eggs are healthier, tastier and more environmentally friendly than others, but despite all the label claims, it’s often difficult to know exactly what you’re getting with supermarket eggs. Many of those claims are unregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), leaving it up to the consumer to discover their meaning (see How to Decode Egg Cartons). What’s a shopper to do? One strategy is to learn about the different companies (how big are they? where are they based? who are the stockholders?) to help you decide which you prefer to support. Another is to find a local source for fresh eggs, or even to get a few chickens of your own and declare your independence from the supermarket egg case.
In rural areas, suburbs and even cities nationwide, more and more people are discovering that keeping a few hens takes no more effort than keeping a dog, and that they can have eggs as good as or better than the priciest eggs in the grocery store — and have fun doing it.
Raising Urban Birds
Mad City Chickens is a case in point. In April 2002, Alicia Rheal and Bryan Whiting had been keeping half a dozen hens in a small coop behind their house in Madison, Wis., for almost a year. One day, an animal control worker showed up.
“Apparently, someone was concerned we were going to eat them,” Rheal says. The animal control worker admitted he wasn’t sure of the city’s rules on chickens and referred them to a zoning officer. The zoning officer said that while city ordinances permitted any number of chickens to be kept inside a house, outdoor poultry were prohibited. “He was really nice about it, though,” Rheal says. “He suggested we try to get that changed.”
So the Rheals gave away their flock and decided to see what they could do. They got in touch with a city council member and began talking to neighbors. They wrote an article for the local newspaper, asking for support. Before long they had uncovered a thriving “urban chicken underground,” dozens of people across the city who were quietly keeping chickens and who were only too happy to come out of their shells.
“There was one fellow three blocks away who’d had chickens for 20 years,” Rheal says. “We ended up meeting all these terrific people.”
In the spring of 2004, Madison changed its poultry ordinance. Today, Mad City Chickens hosts an annual summer Coop Tour and a fall “Pro-Poultry People Potluck,” each attracting up to 80 people. Rheal and others offer a two-hour City Chickens 101 class to teach would-be poultry owners the basics of coop design and other requirements. A buzzing online discussion group helps members organize group purchases of chicks and share ideas, such as how to keep waterers from freezing in the winter.
Madison is not the only U.S. city witnessing a chicken revival. The organic gardeners’ group Seattle Tilth has been organizing chicken classes and coop workshops for almost 20 years; similar movements are underway in Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. As egg prices rise in tandem with concerns about food quality and safety, “pro-poultry people” from San Francisco to Brooklyn are reclaiming their right to raise small flocks within city limits.
It’s not just an urban movement, either. The Mad City group gets questions from all over the country, Rheal says. More and more citizens are rediscovering what their grandparents knew: Backyard flocks provide flavorful, nutritious eggs and a host of other benefits, from companionship to manure for the compost pile.
Better Flavor and Nutrition
Anyone who’s eaten eggs from hens with access to fresh green pasture knows how different they are from typical supermarket eggs. What you notice first is the color of the yolks: a deep, bright orange-yellow instead of a wan pastel shade. If you take the time to crack a few sample eggs into individual white bowls and compare them side by side, you’ll notice other differences: in pastured eggs, the yolks stand up firm and round and the whites tend to stay intact when you crack them; in conventional eggs, the yolks are often flat, the whites loose and watery.
Those differences of color and texture signal flavor, nutrition and performance benefits. Most people say pastured eggs taste like eggs — meaty and protein-dense, ready to complement other foods such as cheese, herbs and vegetables. In an omelet or frittata, their richly colored yolks also make them look as good as they taste.
Expert bakers swear by pastured eggs’ greater ability to do what eggs are meant to do in recipes, too. Virginia grass farmer Joel Salatin says the pastry chefs he sells to “are our most loyal fans. When they make cakes, they say our eggs will give them 30 percent more lift.” The chefs also report that pastries made from Salatin’s Polyface Farm eggs stay fresh longer.
Common sense will tell you that pastured eggs are healthier than eggs raised in large-scale commercial houses; chickens on a more nutritious diet just produce more nutritious eggs. Scientific evidence is accumulating to back up that theory.
In 1999, Pennsylvania pastured poultry producer Barb Gorski used a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to have meat and eggs from her own birds and those of two other farmers tested for a range of nutritional factors. The pastured eggs were found to contain 10 percent less fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 40 percent more vitamin A and four times as much omega-3 fatty acids compared to the standard values reported by the USDA for commercial eggs. (Numerous studies suggest that diets high in omega-3s can help protect against heart disease, mitigate the effects of Type II diabetes and otherwise benefit the human body’s immune responses.) The pastured chicken meat (with skin on) contained 21 percent less fat, 30 percent less saturated fat and 50 percent more vitamin A than the USDA standard.
Pennsylvania State University associate professor Heather Karsten, who has been investigating the relationship between livestock diets and food quality for several years, did a study in 2002 comparing two groups of Hy-Line variety brown egg hens, all sisters, with one group kept in standard industry conditions (crowded indoor cages) and the other group kept on mixed grass and legume pasture. Eggs from the two groups showed similar levels of total fat and cholesterol, but the pastured eggs had nearly three times more omega-3 fats than the caged eggs. The pastured eggs also averaged 62 percent higher in vitamin A and 220 percent higher in vitamin E.
In 2005, MOTHER EARTH NEWS found similar results after testing eggs from four pastured flocks (all heritage breeds) in Kansas. The pastured eggs had roughly half the cholesterol, almost twice as much vitamin E, two to six times more beta carotene and four times as much omega-3 compared to the standard USDA data. Pastured eggs also typically contain higher levels of carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin, thought to be important to eye health.
This year, MOTHER EARTH NEWS plans to test eggs from several pastured poultry farms around the country. If you keep chickens at home, you’re invited to participate, too. To learn how you can test your eggs’ nutrition and add to a growing body of evidence that pastured hens produce higher quality eggs, visit our Egg page later this spring.
The irony of this type of research is that as soon as a beneficial, naturally occurring factor is discovered, industry researchers look for a way to mimic that factor within commercial systems. Omega-3 concentrations are higher in pasture-raised eggs because of the grasses and forbs, grubs and other insects the hens are eating. But they can be increased in confined birds’ eggs by adding expensive flax seed and fish oil to their diets. Some commercial producers even add marigold petals to layers’ rations to brighten yolk color.
Whether those substitutions are as healthful as the real thing is open to discussion. “That’s the tragedy really,” says grass-fed expert Jo Robinson, who created the Web site www.eatwild.com to help people understand the benefits of pasture-raised livestock products. “Now you have to be a biochemist to know what’s good for you. It didn’t used to be that way.”
Understanding at least one healthful quality of pasture-raised eggs doesn’t require a degree in biochemistry, Robinson points out: A classic study published in Poultry Science in 1966 found that the color of egg yolks is a perfectly reliable index of carotenoid levels. The more beneficial carotenoids the eggs contain, the darker orange their yolks will be.
Forget Your Own Food Chain
If you decide to keep chickens, protection from predators should be your No. 1 objective when you choose a coop. Culprits include dogs, raccoons, skunks, weasels, hawks and foxes. Hens will naturally go inside the coop to roost at sundown, but then you need to close the door and secure it to foil the clever paws of raccoons. Coops should also have at least one nest box for every four to five hens and about 10 inches of roosting space per bird.
The fundamental dilemma of coops is reconciling the conflicting needs of protection for the birds with fresh daily grazing. Some people let their birds range free during the day, but chickens can decimate young seedlings in the garden and will scratch up dirt in your flower beds to give themselves dust baths, a useful behavior that prevents mites and other parasites. Hawks, dogs or other daytime predators may also be a problem. A lightweight, portable coop with an attached run is one solution.
Another strategy is to build a larger, stationary coop and then use temporary pens to allow the birds to graze (or not graze) in different areas. In Minneapolis, Peat Willcütt banded together with a group of neighbors to build a community coop for a multi-owner flock of chickens, ducks and geese. An advantage of this arrangement is that it fosters shared work and fellowship, Willcütt says. “Different people will let the birds out early, others will check on water and food during the day, and someone else will close the coop at dusk.”
How To (And How Many)
In addition to the coop, your birds should have access to clean water at all times and about a quarter-pound of feed per bird per day — usually a mix of ground corn, sorghum and other grains. Before you get chickens , and especially if you live within municipal boundaries, find out what the local rules are. Usually this involves contacting the zoning department. Many cities limit the number of birds based on lot size, prohibit the keeping of roosters (because of the noise), or require chicken keepers to buy a permit. Madison sets a maximum of four hens per household and requires coops to be at least 25 feet from neighbors’ houses. In Minneapolis, permits cost $10, an annual coop inspection may be done and owners are asked to get the consent of 80 percent of all neighbors residing within 100 feet. Seattle allows three chickens on a standard city lot and one additional chicken per 1,000 square feet of property.
Your final decision is what breed to keep. Commercial producers usually favor hybrid varieties — which can lay up to 300 eggs per year — but for backyard chicken keepers the less prolific, more distinctive heritage breeds hold a lot of appeal. “Usually the heritage breeds work out better,” says Christine Heinrichs, publicity director of the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities. Heritage breeds tend to be more robust; many are also more active, making them better foragers than the hybrids bred for high production in confined conditions.
For help deciding which breeds to keep, consult Mother’s Chicken and Egg Page, which features a number of articles from our Archive about chicken breeds, or the list of chicken resources on the Web maintained by John Henderson at Ithaca College. Other helpful organizations include the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities.
Some advocates say heirloom breeds lay longer — up to five years or more — although the truth may be that backyard producers are just more tolerant of older hens, who gradually lay fewer eggs (commercial layers are typically kept for two years at most). Egg quality, as opposed to quantity, depends more on husbandry than breed. “What they’re eating is the key factor,” Heinrichs says. For the healthiest eggs, give your birds maximum access to fresh grazing. As Salatin puts it, “The most important thing is to keep moving the pen around your yard. You don’t want to see any dirt in their run. If you see dirt, you’re not moving them enough.”
Filling feeders at midday, rather than in the morning, also encourages birds to do more foraging. Chickens love insects and will happily lower your garden’s populations of grasshoppers, slugs and cabbage worms if allowed to browse among the broccoli. They generally won’t bother established crops in the garden, although they may help themselves to a low-hanging tomato or two. If you can’t move your birds around or let them out, do everything you can to provide them with green stuff where they are. Confined birds will avidly eat lawn clippings, weeds from the garden and vegetable waste from the kitchen.
With all these benefits, will a backyard flock pay for itself? Well, maybe. Carol Bracewell, another Madison chicken keeper, offers this assessment of her two-hen system: “A bag of organic feed costs $20 and lasts nine to 10 weeks. If we get 105 eggs in 70 days (1.5 eggs a day), that’s 19 cents each, or $2.28 per dozen. Organic eggs are more than that at the store, so if we don’t count the cost of building the coop (from scrap) and putting up fences, then we probably come out ahead.” And if you can find organic feed at a lower price, the cost analysis will be even better. Mother’s editors get their organic feed directly from a local farmer for about half what Bracewell pays.
But Bracewell admits that her primary motivation for keeping chickens is not economic. In fact, she has a whole flock of additional reasons. She likes animals, but is allergic to cats and dogs. She enjoys observing the birds’ behaviors and interactions. Above all, as a city dweller living on “a tiny lot,” she yearned “to be more connected” with farming and food production. She and her partner, Larry, have even discussed whether they should “recycle” their hens via the soup pot when they come to the end of their useful laying lives. They have grown attached to their birds, but they think eating them is a matter of principle, a way of respectfully acknowledging the chickens’ role in the cycles of life and death.
While that sentiment may be anathema to some poultry lovers, it suggests the kinds of far-reaching questions — practical, philosophical, political — that keeping even just a couple of chickens can raise. For many people, those questions are more rewarding than the ones prompted by pondering endless egg options at the supermarket.
What About Avian Flu?
While avian flu is certainly cause for concern, we’re convinced backyard coops are part of the solution, not part of the problem. According to Michael Greger, M.D. and author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, “Never once that we know of has a highly pathogenic flu virus ever arisen in flocks kept humanely outdoors. The emergence and spread of the bird flu virus is facilitated by the overcrowding, filth, stress-impaired immunity, and lack of adequate ventilation and sunlight inherent in intensive confinement systems.” Check out Dr. Greger’s outstanding new book and sign up for bird flu updates at birdflubook.com.
Laura Sayre writes about sustainable agriculture from Bucks County, Pa. Her all-time favorite backyard chicken was Gertrude, a small, smart, fast and blue-legged Golden-Penciled Hamburg.