If you’ve been following us for a while, you’re aware that one of our first enterprises on our farm is pastured poultry, specifically laying hens. Several years back, we had a notion to get some chickens and were inspired by the many backyard coops that we saw on Raleigh’s Henside the Beltline Tour d’Coop. Using that inspiration, last year we built our own coop, raised eight chicks in a makeshift brooder in our guest room (not recommended!), and ended up with six hens in our urban backyard (two of the chickens ended up being roosters, who are not allowed in the Raleigh city limits). It was a wonderfully educational and entertaining experience that I would recommend to anyone. It was a logical step to expand our chicken enterprise as we moved to the country and started our farm. In this post, we hope to lay out the foundation for why we believe pasture-raised poultry is the healthier, more responsible, more fulfilling, and certainly the more delicious path in raising chickens for eggs or for meat.
The first issue that we’ll address is nutrition and taste. When thinking only about the eggs available in grocery stores from concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), it’s easy to conclude that an egg is an egg is an egg. However, evidence from sources ranging from in-depth nutritional analyses to your very own taste buds show that when comparing eggs from confinement operation to eggs from pasture-based systems, the eggs from pastured hens have clear advantages. The simplest and most obvious advantage is evident the second you crack open an egg from a pasture-raised hen. The yolks are darker and the whites are stiffer. Cook it up and the flavor is a full and rich, unlike the bland and watery tendencies of the grocery store alternatives. Beyond the visual and taste evidence, there is pretty clear science to back this up. Studies from Mother Earth News and Penn State University support that eggs from pastured hens contain more vitamin A, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids and less cholesterol and saturated fat. Still not convinced? Come on over for breakfast sometime and we’ll cook up some sunny-side-ups or some eggs benedict and we’re pretty sure you’ll leave convinced that nothing will beat an egg from a happy, pasture-raised LIG hen.
As with all of the food we raise, there are issues beyond flavor and nutrition that drive our decisions on how to grow our plants and raise our animals. We strongly believe that the modern industrialized food system, for all of its amazing production and efficiency, completely ignores the moral and ethical care of the animals that are raised for our consumption. Understand that we enjoy meat. In fact, we have 20 chickens and an entire pig in our freezer at this very moment. However, we believe that intertwined with the privilege of enjoying meat and animal products is the great responsibility of compassionate care for the animals. Pets and livestock animals are sentient beings that we have domesticated over time for our pleasure and benefit. As a general rule, if we choose to take another creature under our care, we also choose to be responsible for it’s well-being. By extension, if we choose to consume an animal, we bear some responsibility in how that animal is raised. Unfortunately, without digging for hidden camera videos online, it is difficult to know exactly how livestock animals are raised anymore. Besides being highly productive and efficient, the modern food system is designed to be anything but transparent. While the packaging of our food still boasts bucolic scenes of pastures and fences and barns and contented animals, almost none of our food comes from that setting anymore. Any of the products that you may buy in a grocery store that come from pigs or chickens come from pigs or chickens that are packed onto the slat or wire floors of confinement houses and only see a barnyard through the ventilation holes of the mega-capacity trailers that they’re loaded onto to take to the slaughterhouse.
We can observe an animal’s well-being and contentment through their natural behaviors. From their first days of life, it’s rather easy to observe what chickens like to do. They love to scratch in the dirt for seeds, bugs, or other goodness. They love to take dust baths, both to cool off in hot weather and to ward off skin and feather pests and parasites. They love to forage for food, munching on grass and clover and excitedly chasing bugs across their pen. Though I’m not sure I’d argue that they are the smartest animals out there, they are curious and engaging. Below is a video of our chickens exhibiting many of these behaviors and just, well, being chickens:
Alternately, consider a hen’s plight in a confinement egg production facility. Can they scratch? No. Dust bathe? No. Forage? No. Be curious? No. In fact, their lack of things to curiously investigate often leads hens to peck at each other, often to the point of serious injury or death. How does the industry deals with that? De-beaking. De-beaking is just about what it sounds like…take a hot iron and cut off the chicken’s beak. They are allotted a space about the size of a piece of notebook paper and crammed into cages with multiple other hens. There is a waterer, a trough for food, and a trough for eggs, and that is all that the hens know for their entire lifetimes. The tight confinement of these settings of increases unsanitary conditions and promotes injuries that are left untended. The following video is about 9-miutes long, but it provides a very good overview of the conditions that surround the eggs available to us in the grocery store:
One additional thing to note…some eggs in grocery stores maybe labeled as “cage free” or “free range,” but it is important to know how those terms are defined by the industry. The USDA defines “free range” as being allowed access to the outside, which can mean big cage-free confinement houses with little doors that lead to bare dirt or concrete pads. As you can see in the video of our chickens, there is a bit of a difference between their system and ours, which is why we use the term “pasture-raised” in describing our hens.
Ultimately, you as the consumer have the choice. While our modern food system is very large and seemingly unavoidable, you truly can vote with your pocketbook on issues like this by purchasing LIG (or any other small, sustainable farmer’s) eggs instead of the eggs at the grocery store. Are they more expensive? Yes, they likely are. However, consider the unseen costs that come with the confinement system that we looked at above. Furthermore, as a food, it is clear that pasture-raised eggs are the better-tasting and more nutritious choice. Additionally, you are more than welcome to come out and visit our happy, healthy, pastured hens anytime you wish and see for youself where your eggs come from.
We encourage you to comment to this post or send us an email with your thoughts on the matter. Thanks for reading and for supporting LIG!