A lot of us raise chickens for the fun of collecting our own backyard eggs. I never grow tired of reaching in the nest boxes and filling my little chicken wire basket with delicious, sometimes still warm, home grown eggs. But there are times when this isn’t possible.
This winter has been a doozy. We live in Michigan and like much of the northern states, we’ve experienced temperatures as low as -16 with windchill around -40 to -60 degrees at times. The air seems so cold that sometimes it hurts to breath! We’ve also received feet of snow. Being a Michigander, none of this is really new. I grew up with similar style winters, but in the last 8 to 10 years our winters have been somewhat mild, and I think we’re a little spoiled. This winter has been more of a true Michigan winter and honestly, it’s been hard.
The chickens think so too. They had a hard molt this fall that lasted a little longer than usual, and that was followed by an early winter with early cold temperatures. Their little bodies have to be struggling to keep up.
For this reason we don’t provide any artificial light to encourage laying. I’ve never read (per say) that offering additional light is detrimental in any way, but we agree to let chickens be chickens and if they naturally take a break in the winter, then we let them.
We treat egg collection as a season. Just like I can’t pick heirloom tomatoes from the garden right now, egg collection is also out. And as a result, we eat very few eggs in the winter months.
Usually I can squeeze a few from our really good layers to at least get us through the holiday baking, but this year that wasn’t the case. I have a feeling that many of our neighbors were experiencing similar empty nest boxes. I drove by a few of the neighbors houses to see if they had any eggs for sale and found that their signs were down, or they had the “sold out” sign up.
So to get through Christmas, I had to buy eggs from the grocery store. Something I haven’t done in a while. And my oh my, have the options changed. It took me an absurd amount of time to choose an egg carton. I was interested in buying the most natural, humanely raised eggs that I could. But that proved to be a task that required a dictionary.
If you find yourself in a similar situation hopefully this breakdown will help you to understand the terms on your next grocery store egg carton. Please feel free to express your opinions and knowledge on the matter as there isn’t a lot of “certified” information on the subject. Much of the reading was I found, was opinion based, and not from any authoritative site. A lot was from personal blogs trying to make sense of the language as well. Which begs the question, do these terms mean anything at all, and are they being invented stretched and manipulated? I hope not, it would be nice to be able to have a bit of faith in advertising. So let’s see what we can do here!
Local: Before we even step into the grocery store, my first option is to buy local. I scan the neighbors, to see if they have anything to buy. Farmers markets are my second choice. But if you’re experiencing seasonal empty nests, chances are so are your neighbors.
My thoughts: Buying local supports your community. It also cuts down on the effects of transportation and shipping. Chances are, if the chickens are kept in a backyard family setting, you’re eating eggs similar in quality of those you might have in your own coop.
Organic: Organic eggs are eggs that have been collected from chickens who were raised on organically grown feed and in a setting where no chemicals were used in the pasture, living areas or the chickens themselves. If they are USDA approved then the eggs were produced “according to national USDA organic standards.” www.eggnutritioncenter.com
My thoughts: While organic feed might be healthier for the consumer, (as far as lack of chemicals) organically raised chickens are not guaranteed a better lifestyle as far as space and confinement. It would however, make sense that chickens raised organically might be treated somewhat better than traditional factory farms as they have to keep the chickens healthy without antibiotics etc. Many factory farms use chemicals to keep chickens healthy because the living conditions are so terrible that they would otherwise be susceptible to disease. I also try to stay away from soy as I’ve read that non-fermented soy may have negative effects on the endocrine system. Organic feed can contain soy.
Non GMO: Non GMO means that the chickens were not fed genetically modified feed. Usually from corn or soy.
My thoughts: Like organic, this type of egg may benefit the consumer, but says little about the way the chickens were kept.
Vegetarian Fed: This means that the chickens were fed an exclusive diet of vegetarian feed. Usually the protein source is soy.
Unless you have personal beliefs about eating a vegetarian diet which would include eggs, this term is not something I would buy. The first reason is that chickens are naturally omnivores. I’ve seen them eat snakes, frogs, bugs, snails and even mice. So naturally, a chicken is designed to eat “meat”. The second reason is that these chickens (I would assume) must be raised in confinement to ensure that they are only eating the vegetarian feed provided. This means that they don’t have access to bugs or pasture where they might come in contact with non-vegetarian protein.
Supplemented: These are eggs that claim to have additional nutrients, usually Omega 3 fatty acids. This is because the chickens who are laying these eggs were fed a diet rich in Omega 3.
My thoughts: Pasture raised eggs usually have higher nutrient contents because the chickens are raised with access to healthy greens, sunshine, etc. So if you can ensure that this is the source of added nutritional value then that seems like a good choice. However, most large companies simply add a supplement to the feed like flax seeds. (For more information on this subject check out this article in Mother Earth News.)
Free Range: Free range means that the chickens have access to the outdoors.
My thoughts: This sounds great right? However, there is no regulation as to how large this access spot has to be. Many chicken houses are packed with chickens with a very small opening allowing chickens “access” to the outdoors. Many of the chickens don’t even know that this opening is offered to them. So in a sense free range, when it comes to large operations, means nothing.
Pasture Raised: Chickens are raised on pasture with access to grass, bugs and the outdoors.
My thoughts: This is my go-to label when buying eggs. However, I wasn’t able to find if there are any regulations concerning chickens given access to supplemental feed and if so, are they still considered pasture raised? (Perhaps some of our readers could comment on this?)
Cage Free: This means that the chickens are not raised in cages.
My thoughts, this does not mean however that the chickens are not crammed in a chicken house with little or no access to the outdoors.
All Natural: The term “Natural” means nothing.
My thoughts: There are no restrictions on the word “natural” as far as packaging. The only thing you are guaranteed is that you are probably eating an egg, or something that looks like an egg, or an egg-like substance.
Egg Color: There is some debate as to whether brown eggs are healthier than white eggs.
My thoughts: The color of the eggshell has more to do with the chicken that laid it. Some chickens (like Leghorns) lay white eggs, others lay brown, green, blue etc. So it would stand to reason that if two chickens were raised under similar conditions, that their eggs would have similar nutritional value regardless of the egg shell color. However, our French Black Copper Marans which lay a deep chocolate brown egg, always have a darker yolk than any of our other chickens and they are raised in the same conditions as all of our other chickens. What is your opinion on this? Please share by leaving a comment below or at the Community Chickens Facebook Page!