Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Egg Myths, Cracked

A few weeks ago I had the chance to go visit Twin Willows Farm in Rosedale, BC. Twin Willows is a smallish farm that produces eggs Free Range/ free run eggs for Country Golden Yolks.

I've always been the curious sort; our family has visited a lot of farms, and to me, it's always fun to visit places such as Purdys, Ethical Bean, and Bella Gelateria to see how things are created behind the scenes and meet those who produce products that my family loves. We watch shows like Food Factory and Unwrapped, always curious to find out how things we love are made.

Really, it's not much different with eggs.

eggs in wooden bowl
Brown eggs from Twin Willows, white from the grocery store

What kind of eggs do you buy? Free range? Free run? Caged? Do you buy them at a farm gate, or at a grocery store? Are there any kinds of eggs that are better than others? How are they produced, anyway?

I was about to get schooled in the ways of free range and free run chicken farming.

First, let's just be honest about something; chickens don't have feelings. They can't really be happy or sad like us people, so a romantic view about a loving, happy chicken is a little unrealistic. Chickens are, however, prone to stress. When they are not getting what they need, or feel threatened, they do not lay as many eggs. The goal of a farmer is keep their chickens as comfortable and stress free as possible, and they can tell how this is going simply by the production rate. A comfortable chicken will lay an egg every day. So if your production rate is about 98%, you're doing really well!

Chickens arrive at the barns as chicks. Farmers have more than one flock going; chicks not ready to lay eggs yet, chickens that are laying eggs, and an older flock that are still producing but getting on in chicken years.

Chicks, as it turns out, get vaccinations. Now before you get all excited, think of it this way; you have thousands of animals, all living together loose under one roof. It's very easy to pass illnesses to each other (just think of your kid's elementary school), and chickens, just like your pet dog or cat, are prone to some naturally occurring diseases. As a result, the chicks must be vaccinated against them. Think of it like the shots you gave Rover before you brought him home.

Do chickens get injected with hormones? Nope. That is banned in Canada. Useless if you are an egg farmer, too.

Curious Chickens
Chickens are really curious. Note the floor-this keeps the manure away from birds.
The chickens I saw lived in big, roomy barns. If you looked inside yes, there were thousands of chickens in each barn, but there are standards for amount of room per bird that the farmer has to follow, and chickens actually like to squish together. It's called flocking behavior. Think schools of fish who like to stick together to avoid a predator and being eaten. The barns are amazing-as is the use of technology at the farmer's fingertips.

chicken barn
Inside one of the bars. On the left, a perch. Next is the water, and the red things hold food. This barn had chicks, so the floor is different than the above photo.

I wanted to call the buildings SmartBarns, specifically because everything, and I do mean everything, is automated. From the grain to water, temperature, fans to blow cool air over the birds, scales in strategic locations to weigh them, the barns pretty much take care of the birds on their own. The farmers can check in on little cams located throughout the barn and check on how much food the chickens ate or water they drank just by looking at their phone or laptop. Even egg collection is automated; little egg laying houses sit over a conveyer belt so a hen can go lay her egg in peace, and out in a different area, all you do is push a button and all the eggs come to you.

freshly laid eggs

What if the power goes out, you ask? Well. There are generators as back up. When I say the barns can take care of the birds on their own, they can, but they don't. Rob tells me that each night most of the chickens return to the barn but about 50 don't, and he personally picks them up and returns them to the barn. The farmers are there, every day, among their animals. These birds are their livelihoods. They are the mortgage payments, food on the table, and more so it's in the farmer's best interest to have them as healthy and stress free as possible.

"Well," you say, "Free range and free run are the way to go. They are the best kind of eggs. They are least stressed birds, obviously." Um, yes and no. I think there could be arguments both ways. When you have a bunch of animals running around freely, there is way more chance of disease to spread. There is also a lot more chance for them to peck at each other. The farmer must do far more to ensure the birds are healthy and not stressed than a farmer who uses the caged method.

Rob explained to me that this is why he installed perches in his barns, as a way for birds who are being pecked by others to have an escape route. Up in the perches they will be left alone. Chickens can be pretty vicious if blood is drawn and will then literally peck each other to death.

Another behavior that I didn't realize was common is that you can raise the doors to the barn and give chickens the opportunity to go outside, but often they won't even step out the doors. Oh sure, many will but about half just hang out in the barn. Most will cluster as close to the barn as possible in the shade.

free range chickens

Why is this? Chickens don't like direct sunlight, rain, snow, or cold temperatures. They are wary of being eaten by the eagles who swoop overhead, looking for a snack. Some will make a break for shady spots under trees, but it appeared that they don't really like being out in the open. What they do like, is noise and their sense of curiosity had them go from the photo above...

chickens this when they heard us talking by the window. I did get the chance to step out for a little to get a quick close up for you.

older chicken
Dude. Don't peck the camera
Notice the chicken with no neck feathers? She's an older one. Just like when we age and we don't look so cute and perky like we did in our 20's, neither do chickens. They tend to start losing feathers and while they are still healthy, aren't quite as pretty. Which is totally okay and natural.

I had a great time at the farm, and it was wonderful to get the chance to talk to Rob and go home with some amazing JL eggs. (Insider speak: "JL" = just laid) I don't think I'll ever look at eggs the same again. It is so obvious that farmers really are extremely passionate about the work they do and care so much about their chickens.

I couldn't resist going home and having scrambled eggs for lunch.

Have any egg questions? Ask me below!

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