Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Thoughts On: Winter Eggs
The boundless energy of some of my women farmer friends puts my lazybones writer gig to shame (as I sit here in my bathrobe typing away). I've posted bulletins by Chrissie Zaerpoor of Kookoolan Farms before, and I thought her recent piece on the seasonal variation in the price of farm eggs would be worth sharing.
Why are "winter eggs" so expensive? Eggs are a commodity product evenly available year-round, right?
Our chickens are raised exclusively outdoors, in open-air houses with no proper doors. The chickens come and go at will, and have free reign over our entire 3.5 acres of pasture (well, except we fence them out of the vegetable garden). When we occasionally have a flighty bird that insists on breaking into the vegetable garden, we clip her wings and confine her for a few weeks to "rehabilitate" her. Through this process we have confirmed that confined hens lay about twice as many eggs as wild-pastured hens, and because of their lower activity they actually consume less feed. In other words, just feeding the hens costs twice as much per egg when the hens are truly free-ranged. And that's just the beginning.
Wild birds only lay eggs in the spring. Because eggs are so nutritious, chickens were among the earliest animals to be domesticated. Thousands of years of chicken-keeping has selected for birds that lay continuously for most of the year, but this is not their natural pattern.
So how do birds know when it's spring? They are sensitive to the number of daylight hours, and to the rate of change of the number of daylight hours. In the spring, when daylight hours are rapidly increasing, chickens lay the most eggs. Consider Easter egg hunts: they're timed for the peak harvest of eggs! Conversely, in late October and November, when the days are rapidly shortening and darkening, egg production drops off dramatically.
In early September we collected two buckets of eggs a day. Now we collect a half bucket of eggs a day. By the winter solstice on December 21st, we'll pick up about five eggs a day. From over 500 laying hens. Of course, we still have to feed them all winter—and in fact they eat more to keep up their body heat. This seasonal "molting" is a natural conservation and renewal process: next spring the same hens will lay lots of eggs, and bigger eggs than they laid this year. We generally keep our hens three to four years.
In factory farms, they both keep the hens confined indoors, usually in small cages, to reduce the calories they consume and thereby reduce their feed costs. They keep the light on 24/7 so the hens have no idea what season it is. Most of these hens never spend a moment of their lives outdoors. And as soon as an individual's egg production drops off, she gets gassed, generally around age 16 months. These measures are "necessary" for keeping egg prices down.
If we put up factory houses, we could easily keep 100,000 hens on our 3.5 acres. Instead we have 500 hens free-ranging and eating lots of grass and bugs. By not taking all these incremental cost cutting measures, we bring you the finest-quality, high-omega-3, free-ranged, pasture-fed, humanely raised eggs you can buy anywhere in Oregon. Our eggs are $6 a dozen in winter, $5 a dozen in summer.
You can find Chrissie's eggs, cheesemaking supplies, milk and so many other good things at her farm store in Yamhill. Make an appointment or sign up for a cheesemaking class by calling the farm at 503-730-7535.
Photo at top by Fredrick D. Joe for The Oregonian.