It was the best of eggs, it was the worst of eggs … okay, enough of that. While shopping at my local big-box store I saw they were selling a small backyard chicken coup.I know that keeping chickens has become more popular lately among small hobby-farmers, but what about people like me, who live in the suburbs?
Why would anyone want to raise chickens at home when eggs are available and affordable at every neighborhood grocery store? I have a big yard, I like eggs, and, now that the USDA has redacted their nutritionally-negative point of view regarding eggs, we can enjoy them almost guilt-free. I’d consider raising laying hens, but let’s take a more in-depth look at the pros and cons. My dad raises hens, so I’ve gathered a few bits of first- and second-hand knowledge from his experience.
Living Conditions for the Hens
Many of us want eggs from hens raised under clean and humane conditions.Large-scale laying operations are not regularly inspected by the USDA so the promises made on packages claiming free-range or cage-free, hold little value. Store-bought eggs come from highly mechanized egg factories in which a chicken is fed a measured portion of a grain product formulated for egg production.
However, raising your own hens at home provides control over the conditions and feed. At home, chickens can roam and scavenge from a mixture of grain, grass and produce scraps. This varied diet enhances the quality of the egg, as well as the hens’ overall health.
Living Conditions for the Humans who Keep Hens
Sitting on the patio, watching healthy hens peck around the yard is relaxing. Collecting fresh eggs from a coop is rewarding.
Throwing down handfuls of fruit and vegetable scraps and watching hens eat something we don’t want in order to produce something we do want is a fascinating example of the circle of life. Those are nice things.
Some not-so-nice things are the smell of a chicken coop in the summer.Chickens will die unexpectedly. They attract predators and get eaten by said predators (including the family dog). Plus, they need to be fed, watered and have their cooped cleaned and eggs collected every day.It’s a big commitment. Eggs from the store don’t come with chores.
Cost & Convenience
Store-bought eggs are easy to acquire, being available at all grocery stores, super-markets and even convenience stores.
They are cheap, too. A dozen eggs cost three bucks or less, or about twenty-five cents per egg. Fresh eggs may seem free to the coop owner as he/she gathers them, but they really aren’t. Among the expenses, there is the cost to build the coop, which can be hundreds of dollars.
Then there is the initial purchase price of chicks, about $1.50 each, as well as the ongoing cost of special chicken feed, about $14 for a 50-pound bag. After the initial expense one must wait about six months for the chicks to begin laying eggs, and once they do, about one egg per hen, per day can be expected, depending on the season.
On average, hens lay one egg for every 20 hours of daylight, laying the most eggs in the summer. The per-egg price would be difficult to quantify but it becomes clear that one would not start a coop to save money or increase convenience.
Farm eggs and store-bought eggs are roughly the same size, a large egg weighing about 2 oz. each (1 oz. whites, 1 oz. yolk). The USDA considers them to be of the same nutritional make-up, containing the macronutrient components of 0 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat, for a total of about 70 calories per egg. As for the micronutrient components, eggs contain vitamins A, B complex, D, E and K, as well as the minerals sodium, potassium, calcium and phosphorus. However, having tried both, in my opinion, there is just something about farm fresh eggs that attests to their superiority.
When thrown maliciously at the exterior of a neighbor’s home, both eggs performed extremely well. The yolk spread-rate was optimum on both the garage door and brick façade. Overall, I felt assured that both eggs would be a true annoyance to my neighbor with the barking dog. Of course, I’m kidding about throwing eggs at my neighbor’s house … I filled his gas tank with sugar.
Flavor and Appearance
Determined to know why I simply prefer my dad’s farm-fresh eggs, I carried out a visual, evidence-based study and flavor analysis (I looked at, and ate, a lot of eggs).
Store-bought eggs usually have clean white shells.Farm eggs are dirty and must be washed before use. Farm eggs may be white, brown or a green/blue color depending on the breed of hen. The farm eggs used in my experiment were brown with thick, sturdy shells that were very smooth with a slight sheen. The store egg is unnaturally bright white and the shell was thin with a dull un-even surface.
When compared side by side in their raw state, the farm egg seemed fresher, having a firm, well defined inner albumin (whites). The yolk was also firmer and of a much richer color, seeming to be more an orange hue. The store-bought eggs’ inner albumin was loosely defined, and according to official description, barely met the USDA’s requirements to be classified as grade A. The yolk was yellow and comparatively smaller than the yolk of the farm egg.
The color and firmness values of the raw assessment held true for the cooked assessment, as well. The farm egg was so much firmer that it seemed over-cooked compared to the store egg. In fact the store egg was overall better for hard-boiling because the consistency was nice and it was very easy to peel. The hard shell of the farm egg made peeling a frustrating process, with an unattractive outcome.
The farm egg made a much better scramble. It had a rich color and a fluffy texture that yielded nice big pieces of egg that could be picked up in perfect bite-sized chunks. The store-bought egg was comparatively pale, loose and flat, forming small pieces that had to be scooped up with the fork. The farm egg seemed richer in flavor and had an overall more appealing mouth-feel.
The findings for appearance in the preceding categories held true in this category as well, with the farm egg being firmer in texture and richer in appearance. Like the hardboiled comparison, the farm egg cooked much faster and was removed from the pan a full minute before the store-bought egg. The yolk was tighter in the farm egg, which could be considered a positive or negative, depending on how one prefers their fried eggs.
I imagine that with practice the cook time could be adjusted to compensate.Overall it seem the farm-fresh egg has a richer flavor and color due to the hens’ varied diet in which the animal eats a combination of chicken feed, grasses and household produce scraps. The difference in firmness seems to be due to the freshness of the eggs.
The farm-fresh egg was only one day old, while there is no way to determine the age of the store-bought egg. Even after this analysis proved coop-ownership to be a less than cost effective labor of love, I was still strongly considering starting a small coop of my own. I even confirmed the zoning laws in my area and checked into coop-start classes at the farm-supply shops that sell chicks.
But my dreams of fresh eggs were shot down by my ever-practical husband, who, in his own words, said “I refuse to have a bunch of feather-covered lizards stinking up the yard, bringing the local coyote horde through the fence” … and I thought he liked eggs for breakfast.
Note: The eggs I used for this side-by-side experiment came from my Dad’s hobby farm where a Buff Orpington laying hens are kept in an adorable red hutch and fed a mixture of 16% protein corn-based chicken feed and fresh fruit and vegetable scraps. In the summer they wander the yard nibbling at grass and lay up to one egg each, every day. In the winter they lay low in their hutch where a defroster is attached to their water bucket and a heat lamp is used for warmth. They seem happy, although little chicken faces can be hard to read.
BackYardChickens. Raising backyard Chickens. http://www.backyardchickens.com/. Updated February 13, 2014. Accessed February 13, 2014.
Labensky, Sarah R., Hause, Alan M. Martel, Pricilla A. On Cooking, A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals; 5th ed. Pearson Education Inc: Upper Saddle River, 2011.
Supertracker; Food-A-Pedia. Nutrition Data; Egg, Raw. United States Department of Agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture. Updated February 15 2014. Accessed February 15 2014.
Jennifer is a wife and mother who returned to college at age 30 after a storm of personal health issues, which led her to pursue a degree in Human Nutrition-Dietetics at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and fully embrace the notion of better living through good nutrition. She loves cooking and is always eager to try new foods, recipes and preparation methods. Jennifer is also interested in farm-to-table eating and a back-to-basics approach to meal planning. She enjoys writing and is fiercely passionate about the power of positive attitude and good food.