Food choice, when well informed, can be an act of agricultural enlightenment.  That is an educational mission of this blog and the NOFA Winter Conference (Jan 26-27, 2018) program, where Mike Badger will be speaking, representing the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association.  Also as part of another NOFA sponsored program, I will be teaching (Feb 21, 2018) a special workshop at Hillsborough Public Library for homeowners wanting to learn about keeping a small flock of backyard chickens.

Not all eggs are created equal.  Egg quality matters, especially when the function of eating is both nourishment and pleasure.  An egg connoisseur is much like an expert judge of fine wine.  They are discriminating with regards to taste, color, freshness, and source, and are particular about methods of production and will pay a premium for “eggsellence”.

Although eating and taste are in many respects subjective experiences, certain attributes of egg quality can be quantified and directed by production system.  For example, published research has documented that eggs produced by chickens on pasture are significantly enriched in vitamins A and E as compared to birds in confinement.  These nutrients are part of the team of fat soluble vitamins, specifically vitamins A, D, E, and K2.  Taken in together they work synergistically in well informed eaters of nutrient rich foods to advance public health.  Follow this link to learn more about the role of pasture feeding for better nutrition and with benefits to the environment.

Besides the scientific literature my opinions have been shaped by years of real farm experience.  Since 2005 I been keeping a small flock of chickens on pasture and making sales of eggs to happy customers.  Pasture is a key quality factor.  People who buy pasture raised eggs tell me that they are deeply disappointed if they must return to eating ordinary eggs.

But how can a farmer produce pasture eggs year round, especially with the challenges of winter?

With the exception of the most severe winter weather I have designed ways of keeping my layers outside on green pastures year round.  In the winter when others move their flock inside for the winter I keep my flock outside grazing winter wheat or rye shoots grown from cover crops seeded in September.  Even when the soil surface is frozen my birds happily graze the green shoots of wheat or rye.  This grazing makes the egg yolks exceptionally dark orange as shown in the photo with this post.  So long as the chickens are moved every day to fresh wheat/rye pasture, the small grain plants survive and regenerate as a cover crop.  Using this system, genuine pasture raised eggs of exceptional quality can be produced in winter while other so called “free range” eggs in the market exhibit pale yellow yolks.

In addition to pasture other important measures to ensure exceptional egg quality include freshness and use of organic feed which precludes GMO ingredients and minimizes exposure to pesticide residues.  Another increasing popular consideration some customers is avoiding the feeding of soy.  In this regard, some organic chicken feeds now use peas as an alternative to soybean.  And of course chickens are not vegetarians by nature as they happily hunt living protein sources such earthworms and other critters from outside pasture.

Joseph Heckman
Author: Joseph Heckman