Thursday, May 19, 2011
The laying hen
Lets say you were in the market for a new car would you go to the dealership and just pick one off the lot without knowing anything about the car? No? Why the heck then would you walk into the store and pick an egg carton off the shelf without knowing anything??? Knowing the safety of the car you are going to put your family in is just as important as knowing about the food that you are going to feed your family. Maybe it is just me but I think people want to know more about the food they eat, they are just not sure where to start. So lets talk about laying hens.
Before talking to your local farmer it is important to know some facts about chickens. The first and most important- chickens are omnivores, lets review a little of our grade school science. There are herbivores meaning green eaters, then carnivores, they only eat meat, and lastly the omnivores they eat both greens and meat. Laying hens are omnivores- they need to eat animal protein, along with greens.
Okay so I know what you are thinking, how natural is it to see a chicken picking at a hunk of meat, and besides where the heck would they get that? Well as much as they would like a big hunk of meat, insects are meat too. We have even seen hens running around the pasture with a mouse they caught, while several other chickens are chasing after. So if the farmer tells you the hens are vegetarian-fed, these hens are probably undernourished. What does that say about the health value of the egg?
It is important to ask your farmer where the hens get their animal protein. If they are pastured the protein will come from the insects that they eat- that is when they are on pasture. If they are confined that protein will come from their feed. Most laying hen feed has animal protein mixed in, I like to know what that animal protein is. When we farmed we did not give them supplemental animal protein in their grain we gave them bones (with meat still on) from the animals that were butchered on the farm, pigs, lambs and beef cows. We never fed the laying hens chicken, not to say they would not eat chicken I just felt weird about that.
Chickens eat grass, okay so they are not ruminants (animals like cow, sheep, or goats), but I once read that they will consume 30% of their calories in grass, that is a lot of grass! The one time we raised meat chickens and butchered them on the farm, it was very evident that they eat a lot of grass. The crop would be full of grass, bugs and grain.
What does pastured mean, this is where it is important to go to the farm so you can see with your own eyes. We had a movable hen coop the coop would move behind the cows. The idea being that you would move them after the fly larva would hatch the hens would scratch the manure to find the larva. The chickens would help us with our fly control. To me this is pastured, our hens had almost 20 acres to run around on.
Some farmers have a coop that has a fenced area attached to the coop, this is considered free range. The problem that I see with this is that the grass won't have time to regrow before the chickens eat it down. Over time you will have a bare area with no grass and few bugs, not only does this make for unhealthy soil, the hens don't benefit. That being said there are some farmers that have multiple fenced in areas that they can rotate, some call these fenced areas runs.
Another farmer might have hens that run around the yard eating grass and bugs, they have free range of the farm. Not pastured just able to run free. This I see as the same benefit as pastured.
Next we can talk eggs.