First there was grass, then came the chicken and the egg. After that it gets really confusing, and I sympathize with anybody standing at the cooler door at their grocery store or local food co-op trying to sort it all out. Pastured eggs sound like a great thing, but they can be expensive – due to current grain prices and our small scale we break even at $3 dozen here at Linden Farm, so it makes sense that farms need to charge $4-6/dozen to make a living raising pastured hens. (Many farms sell them for less, and even at cost as a sideline item, but many times it’s not a sustainable price.) So, the question of the day is, when you’re standing there at the cooler, are pastured eggs worth their premium price?
Here’s our two cents – Ideally hens are pasture-raised both for their health and happiness, and for the nutrients that get passed from the fresh forage and soils directly to the eggs and then to us. Imagine laying an egg as big as your head almost every day and the amount of energy that would take – I don’t believe you could get that energy from eating fast food and sitting inside all day.
Our 25 hens (and their two handsome roosters) are obviously happiest when they can run around outside, chase grasshoppers and scratch in the dirt. They particularly like unearthing bugs under mulch in our gardens, and can cause quite a bit of damage in an unsupervised hour, so out of necessity they are fenced. In the winter they have a cozy coop with a very large run and as long as it’s not too snowy (which it wasn’t this winter) they spend the whole day outside. Even last year when we had record snowfalls I would pack down a trail with snowshoes and spread a bit of hay on the ground and the hens would run outside. They are healthier outside and their eggs are healthier too. It’s obvious when the legumes such as clover and alfalfa start to sprout in the spring because the egg yolks turn bright orange from the beta carotene. We have high calcium soils as well, so the hens’ access to the soil increases the strength of the egg shells.
Last year we decided to get serious about multi-species rotational grazing, especially since our new Texel-Dorset sheep are more prone to parasites than the Targhee were. We had rotated the broiler chickens on pasture before but not the laying hens, so we needed to build a mobile coop for them. Thus the Eggmobile was built. We started with an old axle with flat tires and built it on top of that from scrap lumber and materials we had on the farm. Everybody chipped in, including the girls and several weekends later the hens took their maiden voyage inside the Eggmobile out onto the pasture.
We use 4′ high electrified netting from Premiere ( whom we also purchase sheep supplies from) and rotate them behind the sheep. The netting keeps them in and the foxes out. The sheep move forward up the pasture a thin slice every 3-4 days and the hens follow. We would love to have one more animal, either a horse or beef critter in front of the sheep to maximize the grazing efficiency. The chickens come along and scratch up the manure, peck at the tiny bugs, and spread the manure around, which helps speed up the recovery of the pasture. It also keeps them busy and out of trouble. Our only problem so far has been hawks, which last summer swooped down and picked up a hen or two, but then dropped them, and the rest of the hens ran for cover under the Eggmobile or the nearby hedgerow.
So, what’s all the fuss about, why go through all the trouble, and why should we care? It’s about health, sustainability, and carrying capacity. (I’m on a roll now.) If you’re going to do something, do it right. “But pastured eggs are so expensive” you say, “not everyone can afford gourmet farm food”. Well, cost is all about choices and demand – we can choose to budget our dollars differently and we can demand changes in the current food system to make pasture-raised foods more available. Or you could argue that “there isn’t enough space to pasture all our meat and dairy animals, and it takes too much time/labor to rotate them – factory farming is just more efficient and necessary to feed the population”. I believe this argument has been debunked by David Pimentel, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who has conducted studies about carrying capacity and sustainable agriculture.
Consider this – if there are 1.7 farmable acres per capita in the U.S. (and it only takes 1.2 acres to meet the nutritional needs of an adult using our USDA dietary guidelines), what agricultural practices would you use if those acres were under your control? Would you put your animals on fresh grass or confine them to a building? Because ultimately those 1.7 acres are yours to control – you make decisions with your dollars every day. Sure, rotating the hens is more work than leaving them in the coop, but you only get out of something what you put into it, and the benefits of the multi-species grazing system are compound. Nested systems are more efficient, and the sheep, chickens, and humans are all healthier for the effort. As oil becomes more scarce and costly, the price per pound of grain increases and many farmers are starting to grow their own grain and put animals on pasture to reduce costs. “Farm to Plate, A 10-Year Strategic Plan for Vermont’s Food System” was published by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and endorsed by the VT Dept. of Agriculture in July 2011. The report states that “Vermont’s small livestock farms cannot compete on price with the large grain-fed “factory farm” operations in the Midwest and California, but they are ideally suited for raising grass-fed livestock” and “demand for Vermont grown meat typically outstrips production.”
If you don’t have a homestead yourself and want to promote the greenest use of your fantasy 1.7 acres then you can either buy pastured eggs from a local farmer or you can try raising a few of your own hens in a mini mobile coop like the one we built for the Eco-Backyard display at the 2011 VT Flower Show. If we all started to think about those 1.7 acres as our own, and felt responsible for what happened on them then we would start to realize why we need to pay the true cost of good food.
- Lexicon of Sustainability: Cage free vs. pasture raised (grist.org)
- Latest members of the farm (littlebitesoflife.wordpress.com)
- Pasture-Raised vs. Industrial Organic: An Egg-cellent Stakeholder Engagement Lesson (triplepundit.com)