Above: More than 1,200 working chickens provide 365 days of turning and cleaning compost for the Vermont Compost Company, located on 5 hilly acres within the city limit of Vermont state capital, Montpelier. The expert composter chickens eat entirely off the composting food residues — no feed is purchased for the birds. They provide an average of 1,000 eggs per month for the local egg shed while merrily clucking and creating compost and top soil.
I first heard of the term “egg shed” while chatting with Karl Hammer, owner of the Vermont Compost Company (VCC). We were standing on a hillside overlooking mountains of compost. These compost piles were made from food residues collected from about 49 institutions including the schools, restaurants, company cafeterias, and any other organization that produced enough food scraps to merit collecting.
Vermont has a zero-waste policy, so instead of calling food leftovers “waste,” they call the biomass “residuals.”
What is unique about the Vermont Compost Company is that they employ about 1,200 free-range chickens to help create their organic compost and potting soils. The chickens turn and aerate the fermenting piles, while keeping the insect and rodent populations down. The chickens glean food scraps off the road and other places to keep the operations tidy. They also grace the piles with their manure and feathers adding valuable nitrogen.
The fermenting compost piles had no smells putrid of garbage — like landfills do. They smelled mostly of dark-chocolate-colored musky humus in the making.
Working Chickens Provide Free Labor
The VCC’s 1,200 chickens work every day — and not even for chicken feed! They get all their food completely off the compost piles. The chickens combined efforts are worth about 4 tons of fuel-free, heavy equipment that work 365 days a year, rain, snow or shine, without any other inputs.Karl was explaining to me that his “clucking composters” would lay, on average, about 1,000 eggs a month (12,000 organic eggs per year). Karl went on to explain that these eggs helped fulfill the Montpelier “egg shed.”
The Vermont Compost Company could not be better located for their urban egg shed. The VCC’s address is 1996 Main Street, in Montpelier, the State capital of Vermont. VCC is on very 5 hills acres within the city limits.
What is an ‘Egg Shed’?
How to define an egg shed? Let’s look at the definition of watershed to give the egg shed concept more shape. A watershed is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as: “The area of land where all of the water that is under it, or drains off of it, goes into the same place.”
Based on the definition of a watershed, an egg shed could be defined as: the eggs produced within a certain distance that go to a specific place. That place could be your kitchen, schools, farmers’ markets, restaurants, etc.The concept of egg sheds becomes real once we can calculate the average number of eggs humans eat within a specific area, and how many hens are needed to produce those eggs.
Let’s refine our definition of eggs shed as; “An egg shed is the number of eggs a person, household, group, or community, consumes that are produced within a specific distance, within a period of time — usually a year.”
Here’s How to Calculate Your Egg Shed
Now that we’ve defined what an egg shed is, we can establish a formula to make it practical. The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association estimates that the average per capita egg consumption in 2012 was 249 eggs per person. For our egg shed formula, let’s round that average up to 250 eggs consumed per person.
The American Egg Board estimates the average commercial laying hen produces about 265 eggs per year. Heritage laying hens lay fewer eggs, from about 200 to 270 eggs depending on the breed. For our egg shed formula, we’ll assume an average hen lays 250 eggs per year. That makes the math super simple. That works out nicely so that one laying hen (in full production) will produce enough eggs for one person each year: One hen for one person in the egg shed.
Now let’s calculate how many eggs an egg shed requires. Let’s use a population of 30,000. How many eggs would a population of 30,000 consume each year? Here is the formula:Egg shed requirement = (population)(250 eggs laid per hen per year) = total number of eggs needed per year.
Just plug in the numbers:
Egg shed = (30,000 population)(each person consuming an average of 250 eggs/year) = 7,500,000 eggs. Yolks! Seven and a half million eggs for 30,000 people! That seems like a lot to produce!
But let’s run the model again with different flock sizes.What if just 10% of the population kept 10 hens in family flocks?
For our population of 30,000, 10% would be 3,000 family flocks.
Egg shed = (3,000 family flocks)(10 hens each flock) (producing 250 eggs/year) = 7,500,000 eggs. Yolks galore! That meets the egg shed!
What if Chickens are Not Legal in Your Community?
Then you could support local farmers.
If 5% of the population — 1,500 poultry producers — kept 200 hens each laying 250 eggs/year = 7,500,000 eggs = the egg shed.If 2% of the population—600 poultry producers — kept 500 hens each laying 250 eggs/year = 7,500,000 eggs = the egg shed.
If 1% of the population — 300 poultry producers — kept 100 hens each laying 250 eggs/year = 7,500,000 eggs = the egg shed.
Of course, in chicken-friendly, local-food-supportive, green, low-carbon-footprint communities, there are backyard flocks and small family farms producing eggs. The takeaway message is that egg shed needs for a family, or a community, are relatively easy to meet. That means a household or a community can somewhat easily be protein self-sufficient. That’s a WOW!
In the next post, we’ll explore our expectations of laying hen production, and how egg production in family flocks compare with factory farm production.
May the flock be with you!
References1. U.S. Poultry and Egg Association data
2. American Egg Board website:
Egg Production and Consumption Industry Fact Sheet
Egg Industry Fact Sheet
The rate of lay per day on May 1, 2012, averaged 73.6 eggs per 100 layers. Extrapolating this out to a year – (73.6 eggs/100 hens)(365 days per year) = 266.45 eggs/hen/year.
Photo copyright © Patricia Foreman 2015
Poultry pioneer Patricia Foreman has kept poultry for about 25 years, employing chickens to build topsoil for a community farm and co-owning and operating a small-scale farm with free-range, organic layers, broilers and turkeys. Her commercial operation experience includes managing breeder flocks, incubating eggs, pasturing poultry, finished processing and direct marketing. Find Patricia online at www.ChickensAndYOU.com and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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