We have entered a lovely time of the year now when our Spring-born pullets have started laying like crazy! Ideally we would have started our chicks in the Fall, so they would begin laying in the Spring, but our plans were derailed by the stray dog attack of 2017. We had plenty of hens to produce a good number of eggs each week, but our flock was decimated, and so was our egg production for much of the Spring and Summer this year. We aren’t starting any more egg laying chicks this Fall because we are at a comfortable number of hens that are just entering their prime. But, going forward we will probably start rearing our egg layers in the fall and try to implement a plan to cycle through our aging hens to keep production as efficient and cost-effective as possible. Robbo, our farm matriarch, is the one hen that will be granted immunity from the cycle-o-stewing-hens.
So, why am I emphasizing starting our future egg layers in the Fall? Doesn’t everyone think of baby chicks in the Spring? Well, Spring does bring with it the romantic excitement of growth and regrowth as we throw off the shackles of a long winter, but for production purposes, it’s not optimal. When we start chicks for our laying flock in Spring (say March/April), we are not going to get eggs from those chicks for 4-6 months. Well, as you may or may not know, egg laying is triggered in large part by the number of daylight hours. So, as our days are getting longer in the Spring and Summer, our young pullets aren’t in production yet. Just as the pullets come into production in late Summer the days begin to get shorter, thus slowing egg production. Spring-born pullets will be flush with eggs in late summer, but will only have a small, optimized window before things slow down in the fall and winter. As consumers we don’t really think of eggs as being seasonal, but they really are. Some producers use artificial lighting to create the “daylight” required for hens to continue laying through the winter, but we have no desire to do that to our hens. We think it’s important to allow the biology of our birds to act as it would in nature and allow their bodies to have a period of time to recover. We still get plenty of eggs through the winter, but it’s significantly less than the summertime.
Now, when you consider hatching chicks in the Fall (September-November) you can see that these chicks will be spending that first 4-6 months of their lives when they wouldn’t be laying anyway, during the darkest time of year. As you can see, it makes sense to rear chicks at this time of year because they will begin to lay right as our days are getting longer, providing for a much longer and productive laying season.
Since we are flush with eggs right now, I’d like to take a moment to talk about our eggs. I recently heard some college students at Target (who were buying cheap eggs) talking about the price of “farm fresh” eggs they had come across and were incredulous that they were $5/dozen. I was in a hurry, but I really wish I would have had time to stop and chat with them about the economics of local, small-scale, pastured egg production. As many of you know, we currently sell our eggs for $5/dozen (by the way, holler at Shannon on Instagram @1450Farm or email us at 1450Farm@gmail.com if you need some eggs and live in Lawrence!). We have amazing customers that understand the value and quality of our product, so we haven’t gotten any pushback on our price. In fact, we’ve had several people tell us that they pay more for “Organic” eggs at local natural grocery stores. Obviously eggs prices are all over the map. I’ve driven past large grocery store chains here advertising eggs for $0.99/dozen and I’ve seen eggs for $7/dozen. I think it’s important to compare apples to apples (or eggs to eggs as it were) because not all eggs are created equally. Those sub-$1 eggs come from chickens that have been stuck in a wall of artificially lit cages inside a factory (I wouldn’t call it a barn), fed cheap food, and live a horrible life. Some people don’t care about the animal welfare of a chicken, but I am not one of those people. But, beyond the poor treatment of the chickens, the egg coming from that system is nutritionally inferior. So, if you don’t care about the animal, perhaps you care about your own health? Eggs that are labeled “organic” are a step up in that they are fed a better quality of feed and are generally required to have a little more space than conventional chickens, but the organic standards for animal production are pretty laughable. This is where local egg production has such a wonderful advantage over large-scale producers. Well, that and the fact that you are going to get a much fresher product because they haven’t been stored and shipped all over the country. Local producers are typically going to be selling you eggs that are less than a week old and often times just a day or two old.
Beyond the freshness, local producers are more likely to be raising their hens in a more natural system. Most local producers I know either allow their birds to day range on pasture or have them in large, mobile structures with wire mesh ends that get moved to fresh pasture daily while allowing the birds protection from predators. These systems allow the birds to scratch and peck, eat bugs, clover, grass, etc. The end result of these systems is a final product, the egg, that has a more nutritious nutrient profile because of how the chicken was able to get its nutritional requirements filled. Our hens are currently housed in a stationary coop at night and then allowed access to a portion of one of our fields during the daylight hours. Once we have this field perimeter fenced, we are going to start moving them around the pasture along with our meat birds to help spread their manure around and improve the quality of our pastures.
Another important component of our egg production is our feed. As we’ve mentioned in the past, we use only certified organic feed milled here in Kansas. Organic grain is quite expensive, but we feel that it is worth the extra cost. When you account for the cost of grain, the cost of egg cartons (which aren’t as cheap as you’d think they would be), the cost of labor (feeding, watering, collecting eggs, washing eggs, packing eggs), raising chicks, coop and nest box bedding material, water, etc. you can see that our cost to produce a dozen eggs is much more than a conventional production system. So, next time you see a local farmer selling a product at a premium over what you see in the grocery store, please take the time to consider the quality and nutrition of their product over what you see at the store. Take the time to learn about how and why a local farmer raises their food and try to understand the difference in products that share the same name, but are vastly different. An egg isn’t just an egg and not all bacon is created equal.