So which came first? Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. I do, however, know that to get the healthiest eggs you have to start with healthy chickens.
Chickens are naturally foragers. They are non-ruminant animals. This means that while they do forage grasses, their digestive tract—unlike that of a cow or a goat—can’t fully digest cellulose and extract the proper nutrients. As a result, they also eat nuts, seeds, fruits and insects.
When shopping for eggs, it helps to understand a few terms to better understand how the chickens that laid them are being fed. Hormones and antibiotics are very common in most commercial egg production, and commercial egg layers are traditionally raised inside cages, known as battery cages, housed in a large, dark barn. The birds are “de-beaked” to keep them from pecking each other and they are raised in the dark to keep them tranquil. The birds frequently develop immune system issues due to the dark, crowded environment, poor-quality food and poor air quality. Keeping productive laying hens, in that scenario, requires diet supplements.
“Pasture-raised,” on the other hand, has a very specific definition. Pasture-raised chickens live their entire lives outside on grassy pastures. Pasture-raised poultry can be thought of as a grazing technique for chickens. They are often housed in “chicken tractors,” essentially mobile egg-laying pens that allow the farmer to move his chickens to fresh pastures regularly.
Pasture-raised eggs are higher in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to promote heart health, boost immune systems and act as anti-carcinogens. Conversely, chickens confined in cages are usually stressed, and stress inhibits the development of omega-3s.
You are probably wondering why all eggs aren’t pasture-raised. It seems logical—healthier chickens requiring less feed and less medicine. However, pasture-raised chicken eggs are difficult to produce on scale. Large-scale egg-laying operations need to lay thousands of eggs per hour. An average laying hen only lays one egg per day for about six to eight months.
As a result, pasture-raised egg production is almost entirely limited to small-scale family farms, like Jonathan Raber’s farm in Ashland. Jon and his brother raise about 600 laying hens. Even at this scale, it is just one of several activities that the Rabers must do to make their farm financially sustainable. Each chick costs them about $3. Those chicks then eat about a quarter-pound of chicken feed per day. This feed is a mixture of non-GMO organic oats, corn and soybeans grown by Jon Raber. He estimates that these cost him about 20 cents per pound to grow, harvest and mill the feed.
The hens take about five months until they start laying sizable eggs and after all the time, materials and feed, it costs about 14 cents to produce each egg. That comes out to $1.64 per dozen before the cost of the carton (25 cents) and the farmer’s time, materials and facilities.
Next time you go shopping, stop and think which comes first: your health or a couple extra dollars.