Backyard Benefits: Happy eggs

Side-by-side comparison: backyard egg from our rescued, rehabilitated chickens (left), and high-quality, $4/dozen, cage-free egg at right.
Two summers ago I adopted Henrietta, a laying hen with a bum leg. A friend across town had two dozen birds, and Henrietta's leg injury put her way down in her flock's pecking order. Her feathers were mostly gone, the roosters were taking advantage of her, and she was having a hard time getting to her food. If I didn't take her in, my friend told me, Henrietta would be soup by nightfall. So I, along with the other people at Better Farm, adopted the bird. She lived several days in a cat carrier inside the house while we constructed a makeshift coop, bonding with the people and dogs of the house and beginning the long process of growing back her feathers and stamina.

So began the illustrious history of Better Farm's backyard birds.

Henrietta laid beautiful, pale turquoise eggs every day, then every other day, then sporadically, as she eased into adult life. Without any roosters around, those eggs went unfertilized and found themselves served up as breakfast to the Better Farm crew that took such good care of Henrietta. Interns in 2011 worried Henrietta was lonely; so in came Sissy and Scarlet to keep company. More eggs ensued. The following year saw a bunch more birds: three more Ameraucanas (Bernadette, Delores, and Destiny's Child), nine bard rocks (Kiwi, Big Mama, Scooter, and six others we're still trying to tell apart), and 19 spent hens from a local egg factory (all called Rapunzel).

I've participated in the egg debate ever since becoming vegan 11 years ago; a full decade after I opted for an octo-lavo, vegetarian diet. My reasons for going all the way had to do with no longer being able to separate dairy and eggs from the meat industry (pregnant, milk-producing cows produce calves, some of which will end up as veal; and "spent hens" are turned from egg-layers in horrifically cramped conditions to dog food or Campbell's soup).

As a vegan, I'm hard-pressed to take issue with the egg production at Better Farm. It seems more a passive demonstration of healthy, happy hens—many of which were rescued from undesirable conditions. We give the birds plenty of space to run, lots of delicious food to eat, fresh bedding and cozy housing, and more TLC than probably any birds you're likely to meet.

So, what about those eggs? If you're into eating them, no egg compares to the free-range, backyard variety. From appearance to health benefits, not enough can be said for raising your own backyard birds, and keeping the ladies good and happy so they provide you with top-quality eggs.

The following information was originally posted by Yahoo contributor Lara Jackson:

The Numbers First
Backyard eggs have approximately 25 percent more vitamin E, 75 percent more beta carotene, and as much as 20 times the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids as do factory farmed eggs. Perhaps best of all for those who avoid eating eggs due to worries about cholesterol, backyard eggs contain only about half as much cholesterol as factory-farmed eggs.

Hens treated well produce healthier eggs. Simple as that!

Factory Farmed Eggs
The vast majority of grocery store eggs are produced by factory farmed hens. Standard procedure is to keep five to ten hens in battery cages approximately eighteen by twenty inches. (Chickens have a wingspan of about thirty inches, by the way.) These cages are kept by the hundreds in large buildings, where dust, debris and enormous piles of feces build up quickly. Some farms clean these buildings as infrequently as once per year or less. If you've ever been in or anywhere near one of these farms, you probably know the smell does not increase the appetite, for eggs or anything else.

Considering the conditions under which factory farmed hens are kept, it should be no surprise that dangerous bacteria such as E. Coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter are found in many of the hens themselves, as well as in a significant percentage of the eggs that reach supermarket shelves.
Factory farmed hens are fed a diet which is healthy neither for them nor the eggs they produce. The entirety of their diet from hatch to death consists of processed chicken feed, based on grains (mostly corn and soy) and protein sources (meat, bone and fish meal). This feed itself is dismally low in certain vitamins and Omega-3's, and high in cholesterol. It's only logical that the eggs produced by hens fed such a diet are similarly unhealthy.

The Natural Chicken
I'll be the first to admit chickens are not Einsteins among animals, but given free range (so to speak) to express themselves, they are complex, social beings with individual personalities. They're aware of themselves and their place in the "pecking order" of the flock, form friendships (often based on whom they grew up with), and have a vocabulary of sounds with distinct meanings. (See this article from Time.)

Given access to it, chickens eat large amounts of green vegetation (high in beta carotene and Omega-3's and low in cholesterol) in addition to grains and insects. With a little room to move around and a bit of choice in what they eat, chickens are happier and healthier. The eggs they produce reflect this.

See (and Taste) the Difference
Statistics are one thing, but seeing is believing. Crack open a store bought egg -- it should be easy, the shells are thin. The yolks are pale yellow and break easily, and the whites are watery and tinted. You may not know it if supermarket eggs are all you ever eat, but this isn't the way eggs are supposed to be.

Now crack open an egg from a hen allowed room to move around and access to vegetation. The shells are thicker, the whites are firmer and whiter, but the big difference is usually seen in the yolk -- larger, much firmer and bright orange in color. (That color is the beta carotene, by the way.)
The taste is different, too. Backyard eggs have stronger flavor, and if you ask me they lack a certain aftertaste that supermarket eggs always seem to have. But if you've been raised on supermarket eggs, backyard eggs may take a little getting used to.

Finding Backyard Eggs
Assuming you can't have hens in your own backyard (they're easy to keep and 2-4 hens will provide plenty of eggs for the average family), finding them can be tricky.
- In rural areas, look for signs advertising eggs; those with backyard chickens often sell their excess eggs this way.
- Local farmer's markets may have a few sellers with eggs from their birds.
- Search and for listings of local, naturally raised foods.
The cost of a dozen backyard eggs varies a great deal from seller to seller, but if you buy directly from the farmer, the cost is usually not much more than that for a dozen supermarket eggs.

More Information on the Web
The Chicken and Egg Page from Mother Earth News
at Wikipedia
About Chickens
from the HSUS
Egg ratings for organic factories from Cornucopia
Related Books
Living with Chickens by Jay Rossier
Planet Chicken
by Hattie Ellis

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.