Over the next few months at Patch, we'll explore a variety of chicken raising topics. We're not chicken professionals. In fact, we're raising hens for the first time in Oak Park. We'll post why we decided to raise chickens, the costs (and payback!), building a coop, the rise of the fake egg, urban chicken trends and other eggciting topics.
Part I: A primer.
Before Higgs Boson particles, the chicken was used as the key to unlocking the mysteries of life. Of course, we're talking about one of the oldest questions on Earth: "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" This causality dilemma has been debated for centuries between scholars and philosophers. In 2010, scientists in the UK were thrilled to conclude, through evolution, that it was the chicken that came before the egg. This sounds exciting until learning that their research paper was titled "Structural Control of Crystal Nuclei by an Eggshell Protein" instead of "Hey Aristotle and Plato, You Were Both Wrong On The Whole Chicken and Egg Thing!".
A more contemporary evolution is occurring related to chicken egg production. People demand cheap eggs ergo we will create cheap eggs. However, a lot of large scale egg producers cut corners in the production process, sacrificing animal safety and well-being (and egg quality) in exchange for higher yield using minimally expensive resources.
And here is where the urban chicken comes into play. Whether you own land or have access to it, raising chickens in an urban environment may prove to be easier than answering a more modern question: "How and where are your eggs produced?". Since eggs are an essential staple in our household, raising our own chickens has proven to be rewarding and educational.
Until a few years ago, my family thought that eggs were a commodity, simply indistinguishable in terms of quality between the various brands and types. We believed eggs simply came from the grocery store (just like canned beets!). We believed that scrambled eggs were supposed to look pale yellow when cooked. And that the cage-free label on an egg carton meant chickens were like the human actors in allergy medicine TV commercials, serenely roaming free in slow motion in an open flower meadow. The scrambled eggs were still pale yellow...but at least the chickens were happy.
As it turns out, the definition of cage-free is...well, there is no definite definition. The same goes with many of the marketing terms we see on egg cartons these days. One would simply assume that cage-free means being free of a cage. However, instead of a few birds in a small cage (so small they can often not stand up and their beaks get cut off to prevent fighting since the conditions are so stressful), cage-free can simply mean doing away with the cages for what amounts to one incredibly large, just as packed, cage in the form of a warehouse.
Ok, so cage-free is a bit misleading, but then there is free-range. Free-range is better, right? Everyone wants to be free. What's more American than freedom? Free-range livestock can enjoy a bit of freedom in this regard, where cows and pigs can roam freely in designated pastureland. However, this is different for free-range poultry. What often occurs is that the large warehouse poultry farmers (where most grocery store eggs come from) will add a small outdoor pen that the chickens in theory could go check out when they desire. However, the logistics are often not achievable for sun craving hens. Imagine a warehouse filled with over 5,000 chickens, packed together with very little mobility and an outdoor pen large enough for a few dozen chickens to roam freely. For most hens, free-range does not equate to having real access to the outdoors.
Here are a few more you may have come across:
"Farm Fresh" or "United Egg Producers Certified" - $ The least expensive eggs you'll find at the grocery. These chickens are fed left over cow or poultry parts or other scrap material and are housed in small cages until they are no longer at the peak of production.
"Vegetarian fed" or "Omega-3 enhanced" or the ominous "All Natural" - $$. These chickens are not fed leftover meat related material, so perhaps their diet is a bit better. However, they are still generally raised in cages. The Omega-3 enhancement is usually derived by adding flax seeds to the chicken's diet.
"Certified Organic" - $$$. Generally means the chickens are vegetarian fed, cage-free but not outdoors.
"Certified Humane" - $$$. Cage-free, indoors, but much lower bird density.
"Pasture Raised" - $$$$. This is the highest designation to have - meaning your eggs are from truly free-range chickens and they are allowed to eat grass and other items found in nature that they may come across (insects, vegetation, worms, etc). Of course, this method requires more land and is therefore the most expensive to produce. There are limited customers willing to spend $5.00-10.00 per dozen eggs.
As we've recently learned, many folks consider raising chickens in an urban environment completely crazy. Over the next few months, however, we hope to dispel that viewpoint on Patch.