Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ruffled Feathers

I am climbing back up on my soapbox, today. Why am I all riled up this time? It is my frustration at the issue of wintertime egg scarcity. Every year, without fail, we have customers who become downright irate, we even lose business, because we do not have an abundance of eggs. So, let us consider how chickens work.

Keep in mind, first of all, that a chicken lays an unnaturally large number of eggs. The purpose of laying eggs, for a bird, is to reproduce. So, most birds will lay a clutch or two a year, hatch them, and go on with their lives. Chickens have been selectively bred over centuries to lay eggs just for us to eat. Even in the last century, the average number of eggs per year, per chicken, has gone from 83 eggs to 300 or more, thanks to our clever genetic manipulation.

The strain this puts on a body is significant. As I have harped on before, an egg contains everything necessary to make a baby chicken, and provide it with enough food and water for three days after it hatches. So a chicken is, essentially, always pregnant.

What stimulates a chicken to lay is light. To keep a chicken constantly laying eggs, she must have sixteen hours of light every day. Now, when the days are so short, it is a signal to her body to cease production. This is naturally when they begin to molt.

Both eggs and feathers are protein. Laying eggs consumes all of a hen's resources, and there are none left over for making feathers. Feathers that are old and worn out, damaged or lost, cannot regrow until laying has ceased. So, the timing is just right, as the days grow shorter and the weather gets colder, to grow a fluffy new set of pajamas to keep warm for the winter. Shown here in progress by the fabulous Clovinda.

Winter, to my mind, is a time for things to rest, and I believe the chickens earn their right as much as anything else.

But! Aren't the holidays a big time for baking? Don't you need eggs for all the bread and cookies and pie? What are we to do?

In the old days, folks used several methods to preserve their surplus eggs for the winter, including coating them with a layer of fat. Mother Earth News did an interesting experiment using some of them-read about it here.

I notice that their best method is also my favorite-don't wash em, don't refrigerate em! Shocking, I know. I only keep the very clean ones, and they sit there on my kitchen counter, happily not spoiling forever until I am ready to use them. Eggs are coated with a cuticle, or "bloom" when laid, which prevents bacteria from penetrating the shell. This is very helpful if you are a growing chick inside!
Note: the eggs we sell are promptly washed and refrigerated, 'cause thems the rules.

Secondly, if you raise chickens, and allow them to follow their own individual rhythms, you will find that some will molt in the late summer or the spring, which means they won't all quit laying at exactly the same time. So, a few troopers will keep on laying through the winter months. If you have a hen that lays well late in the year, take note, and breed her, for her daughters are likely to share the same trait.

I don't believe little Red, here, has molted yet in her two years, and still lays an egg almost every day. I expect when she does, she will grow her little scalp feathers back out-meantime she looks kind of pirate-y.

What if you don't have chickens? Heck, I am not saying do without, but be aware that the eggs you will find in your grocery store may have been produced in less than desirable ways. In a commercial system, egg production is kept optimal by the use of 16-18 hours a day of artificial lighting. If the hens are not intended to be slaughtered at eighteen months, after their first year of lay, molting is forced by two weeks of starvation. This means more efficiency, as all are on the same schedule.

Eggs will also keep at 33 degrees for several months, so it is possible, if you can find organic, high welfare products, that there is nothing wrong with these store eggs except that they are old. My feeling is that nutritional value is lost in this method, but that is just me, and not based on any scientific evidence, at least none I have found so far.

It is not always convenient or easy to be a good locavore. I think that it is important, whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or an omnivore with a dilemma, that you respect your food. Whatever you eat, it was once a living thing. To know what it was, what it looked like, where it came from, and how it was treated-that is how you honor the thing that is giving you life.

We had the pleasure of touring our state university's poultry research facility not long ago. The scientists who led the tour were wonderful, welcoming, open minded, and sympathetic to us small farmers and homesteaders. They do most of their research for big industry-but then, that's who pays for them to do it. What are ya gonna do? It is not to say that their work isn't important (but it can be pretty scary). We are ever seeking more efficient ways to exploit our food animals.
One of the tour leaders said to us-what y'all do, you will never "feed the masses."

That may be very true, but the way the masses are being fed is not sustainable-that is also true. Right now, it is a matter of consumer education and choice. If peak oil is here, there will come a time when it is no longer a choice. We ought to change our ways now.

Whew! That is my two cents and then some, so I will step down from here now. Love your food, love your farmers. Thank a chicken.


Billie Jane said...

Hip Hip Hooray for that!!! Well done for a really good post! I have been trying this year to only buy food that is in season... and luckily my hens are still laying enough to keep us in cake and omelette but their production is always down in the winter. Ultimately I think the masses will have to go a bit hungry before real change is made to the way we eat.

ACE said...

I love my farmer. thank you for the excellent, thought-provoking post. Who would have thought that good eggs are as seasonal as good tomatoes?

Sara said...

Thank you for lending your ears, or eyes, I guess. Yes, I suppose things will have to get pretty rough before there will be a significant change, but baby steps in the right direction is better than nothing.