Chickens Are Moving to the Suburbs to Lay Fresh, Organic Eggs
There is nothing new about free-range chickens and fresh, organic eggs, except that nowadays more people want them – mostly because they are healthier and tastier than other eggs. This has led to a trend in many parts of the world, of keeping chickens for eggs in the backyards of ordinary suburban homes.
By keeping their own hens, people are assured that the eggs they eat are 100 percent organic and totally free from any form of medication, including antibiotics, as well as synthetic colouring that conventional battery hens are commonly pumped with. In addition, the chickens will be healthier and happier than those forced to live in the crammed battery cage conditions of commercial chicken farms in most parts of the world.
Having hens at home is also great for children; not roosters – because they’re noisy and don’t lay eggs. Apart from the fact that they become quite tame (although not very responsive to house training), children love to feed chickens and collect fresh eggs for the table. It’s an ideal way to introduce farm livestock to the suburbs on a small scale, give children a taste of the country, and get them involved in basic husbandry, helping to clean the coop and care for the birds. The chickens will, in turn, do their bit by eating the insects and unwanted bugs they come across in your now pastoral backyard environment.
Other advantages of having hens at home relate to recycling. For instance, you can add suitable (healthy) kitchen scraps to their regular feed, and you can use chicken poop as a very effective natural fertiliser in the garden. Another less obvious “advantage” is that they thrive on weedy ground, so you don’t have to worry about grass or grazing required by so many common farm animals. Just be sure that none of the weeds are poisonous.
Of course you may not want to keep chickens at home, or there may be some legitimate reason why you can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t change from commercially produced eggs to genuine organic, free-range eggs. Many people who aren’t able to keep backyard chickens, either due to lack of space or local regulations, prefer to buy from farmers markets rather than shops and supermarkets, even though there are so-called free-range eggs available from most of these stockists.
Hens Kept for Egg-Laying
It is ironic that many people with no knowledge of commercial egg production imagine that egg-laying hens live in farmyards where they can roam, “dust-bathe”, forage, scratch and peck as they wish, even roosting in trees. While this is how many small-scale, semi-commercial farmers keep their chickens (mostly the ones who sell at farmers’ markets), in the domestic egg industry this is essentially a romanticised idea. Even the alternative barn system that uses “enriched” or modified cages, where the hens can at least perch, peck and scratch in a larger space, sees them cooped up 24:7, day in and day out.
Commercial free-range systems also generally utilise barns, but the chickens must have access to an outdoor area so they can roam and forage. Instead of being crammed into cages, or sharing a square metre of floor space with 24 other birds, each hen should have between 2.5 m2 and 4 m2 to herself (although legislated specifications vary in different countries and different states). While this is certainly considered sustainable, hens kept in the suburbs generally have a lot more space than this, depending of course on the size of the backyard they are kept in.
Most times, families with three or four egg-laying hens find they have more than they can eat. In addition, most backyard chickens are kept in coops with a fenced and contained “run” that allows them to run free (in other words be really free range or free roaming) without being able to fly over fences and roost in neighbours’ trees. In the yards and gardens of small-block acreage homes, this is generally not a problem, and they may in fact be left to roam free.
Whether kept in a backyard, on a larger acreage, smallholding, or even on a small semi-commercial or commercial farm, free-range chickens are normally kept in barns, sheds, or specially designed chicken coops at night. This is for protection from natural predators, and from bad weather conditions. They might also be kept in a chicken tractor that can be moved around so that not everything under-chicken-foot gets scratched away.
Manipulation and Medication for Egg-Laying Hens
When “factory farming” of chicken eggs was popularized primarily to help overcome post-war food shortages in the mid-20th century, densely populated battery cages became the norm for the commercial production of eggs worldwide. These maximised production of eggs, and minimised costs. Systems of selective breeding, genetic manipulation, and the use of “medication” were all part of the process. So too was “de-beaking,” a cruel practice, still common, that involves removing about a third of the chicken’s beak to stop it from pecking birds squashed up next to it in the cage.
While the use of hormones in poultry production has been banned in some countries, including the USA, Australia, and member countries of the European Union, antibiotics are commonly fed to chickens to prevent disease. Other types of medication are also sometimes fed, along with synthetic colorants that change the colour of the yolk. Free-range eggs generally have a yolk that has a richer orange-yellow or almost fluorescent yellow when freshly laid. The yolks of battery-farm eggs are a dull, lifeless yellow – unless the hens have been fed colorants that in effect pollute the nutrition of the egg.
Nutritional Benefits of Organic Eggs
Chicken eggs are healthy – full stop. The age-old myths that they promote heart disease and aren’t healthy are just that … myths. Recent scientific studies show that eggs aren’t just healthy, they can even help lower blood pressure and they don’t play a role in raising cholesterol.
But (and this is a big three-letter word), not all chicken eggs are the same. The best eggs to eat are organic, pastured (or free-range) eggs laid by hens that are fed a natural diet without any grains that have been treated with pesticides or anything that has been genetically modified. The eggs will be better still if the hens have been allowed to live a natural life in an environment where they can peck and scratch and forage, and do what chickens do best, without being forced to survive in a cage or darkened barn.
This might be a strange thought, but if you keep your chickens the way children will enjoy them, they’ll produce the healthiest possible eggs. So if you live in a suburb where you’re allowed to keep a few chickens for eggs, why not try producing your own truly organic, free-range eggs for breakfast, lunch, and maybe also for supper?