6 years ago, my aunt gave me a cookbook for Christmas titled simply, “Chicken.” She had no idea that this book, which was published by the restaurant she managed, would begin a long term obsession with owning my own small poultry flock. I own many, many cookbooks, and none ever held my attention the way this one did. It had recipes for chicken and eggs, but it also had poultry lore, facts and tidbits, along with gorgeous oversize photos of different chicken breeds. It was here that I learned about Araucanas, the blue-green egg-layers, and Leghorns, Javas, Sumatras and Bantams, to name a few.
After 5 years, my dream came true, and I drove home with three lovely chicks. One year later, I get two eggs every day, while one of those chicks became a very fine Coq au Vin. This spring we are planning on adding two or three more lovelies to our flock. I adore my hens, which are Hubbards’s Golden Comets. They are very sweet and calm, and loving. We allow our chickens to free-range on our .30 acre during the day, and lock them up in a coop with a run at night. During most of the year they each produce an egg every day, and their eggs are so large that they don’t fit in the “Extra-Large” egg cartons I have. During the winter, their egg production drops to one egg every other day for a couple months, so for a few months I went back to buying eggs at the market to supplement the ones we had. My girls’ eggs have yolks that are about 1.5 times larger than the store-bought “organic free-range” eggs, and a light golden orange instead of the standard lemony yellow.
According the good folks at Mother Earth, who have been conducting scientific analysis of free-range egg nutrition for several years now, true free range eggs contain:
4-6 times more Vitamin D than store-bought eggs
1⁄3 less cholesterol
1⁄4 less saturated fat
2⁄3 more vitamin A
2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
3 times more vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene
Oh — and don’t forget the 5 times more happy whose RDA has not been established, but can only bring good things to the table.
Remember, most store-bought eggs are not really free-range, no matter what they say. Traditional free-range chickens are free to roam in a pasture or yard for at least a few hours a day. Meanwhile, modern free-range chickens by regulation are merely loose in a large indoor, cement room, with access through a tiny hatch to a small outdoor pen. The door in most facilities stays open only a couple hours a day, and while there may be hundreds of chickens in the room, only tens of them will be able to fit in the pen. Most don’t make it outside. Given the choice between battery cages and store-regulation free-range, of course free-range is going to contain more “happy.” But if you want real free-range eggs with the extra nutrition and honest-to-goodness happy, go to a local farm or backyard grower.
My chickens receive only cracked corn, vegetable scraps from our kitchen, and oyster shells and field peas (in the winter only, for calcium and protein). I don’t give them organic layer feed b/c most of them contain a b-vitamin which is fine in the feed, but when it is excreted by the chicken and hits ground water it becomes toxic in drinking water.
For more info on chickens, check out http://www.backyardchickens.com/
which has a huge amount of resources, including a fantastic member forum with loads of people just aching to share their knowledge with you.
Finally, one last tidbit of information: growing your own chickens and eggs insures that you will have your own healthy poultry supply in the event of an avian flu outbreak or other zoonotic disease quarantines. This is just one reason that when you build your coop and run (outdoor pen), you should be sure that it is large enough to keep the hens indoors all day if you need to. Also, that way if you go away for a trip, anyone can feed your chickens for you once a day, and not have to worry about rounding them up, and if they get snowed in they are OK, too.