Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Free-Range Egg Production

Last week I had the opportunity to visit a free-range egg farm located a few miles from my house. The farm is run by a religious family, not Mennonites, but close. Many aspects of the farm were appealing. The hens roost on perches inside a converted sileage hopper during the night, carefully secured (mostly) from predators, mainly raccoons. The hens have ample room such that no fighting occurs and no beak trimming is necessary. They are let outside in the morning where they quickly begin foraging for bugs, grass, and the family's leftovers.

The day I visited the leftovers were squash.

The hens were busy little animals, with roosters scanning the skies to check for predators and occasionally bringing a hen the gift of a bug it had caught. Bugs and grass were but supplements; the hen-house provided all the grain they cared to eat. The hens would come back to the hen-house during the day and lay eggs in the individual straw-ladden nests. The farm simply had every single thing a chicken could ask for in terms of animal welfare. They had plenty of room, desirable nests, ability to behave naturally, etc.

Except one: predator protection. Last summer the farmer was carrying for 250 hens, but lost 50 of the hens to hawks. When I asked him what they did with spent hens, the answer was that they never had spent hens. A predator would always kill the hen before she matured into the unproductive portion of her life.

This farm exemplifies the same tradeoff involved in cage and cage-free egg production. A hen has freedom to walk and behave naturally in a cage-free system, but is frequently injured by other hens. In the free-range system she is afforded even more room and allowed a more natural life, but suffers 25% mortality rates due to predators.

So where does Bailey buy his eggs? I still purchase from this free-range farm, well aware of its drawbacks. Moreover, I would not blame someone for shunning eggs from this farm due to the predator problem. Though that person has different preferences from mine, their preferences are understandable and I would not seek to force free-range eggs upon them. Studies have found that hens are more stressed in a free-range environment, probably due to the constant threat of predators, but I must say these hens did not seem stressed. Many would wander far, far away from the hen-house (as you can see in the video below).

I simply enjoyed being on the farm, and I guess that makes it more appealing to me. It was also nice that I could visit the farm. I tried hard to visit a large-scale egg production facility this summer but no one would allow me to visit. Perhaps if I did visit I would change my mind.

There is probably some reader who has considered free-range egg production but wanted to see it for themselves and learn more about it. Hopefully, this short posting, the pictures, and the video provides them with the information they sought. The people who purchase these free-range eggs at the farmers' market are probably unaware that so many hens die from hawks. I wonder how many would purchase eggs from the grocery store instead if they knew?

(See video of farm below)