by guest blogger Leah Zerbe, online editor for Rodale.com
During prime-time growing season on our farm, you can look out onto our fields and see a rainbow of colors: pink, purple, yellow, and green tomatoes hanging from hundreds of plants, cayenne peppers blazing red against bright green leaves, and sunset-orange pumpkins fattening up for the fall. But not even the multicolor flashiness of the fields can capture our visitors' attention once they look around the corner and set eyes on our chickens.
All types of people visit our 65-acre sustainable family farm, ranging from local Girl Scout troops to friends and family members from foreign lands. Inevitably, the farm tours always wind up centered on the pastured chicken operation, where we raise hens in a respectful way for their eggs. Over the past four years of tending to these feathered friends, I've found that many visitors ask the same questions, or find the same handful of chicken facts particularly interesting, so I've compiled a list of them below to share. Enjoy!
1. Some chicken breeds are on the brink of extinction. Just as certain wild species in the Amazon rain forest are facing extinction, diversity in the domestic species used in farming is slipping away. Industrial farming favors just a handful of laying hen breeds designed to crank out the optimal number of eggs, leaving many heritage breeds' numbers dwindling. Keeping a diverse gene pool and raising as many different breeds as possible is a matter of food safety--one breed could have natural resistance to pathogens that could entirely wipe out other breeds. Ask your farmer to raise heritage breeds, or raise them yourself. Check out chicken breeds at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
2. In their prime, many chickens will lay about an egg a day, regardless of whether there are roosters in the flock.
3. If there are roosters in the flock, the eggs are likely fertilized. Don't worry--if the eggs are collected at least once daily, there will be no baby chick developing inside.
4. A chicken's egg color can often be determined by its earlobe color. For instance, white earlobes generally indicate white eggs, and red earlobes usually indicate brown eggs. Different breeds lay different colored eggs, which is how our farm's mixed-breed flock is able to offer "rainbow eggs." Example? Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and Dominiques lay brown eggs, while Polish, Anconas, and Leghorns lay white eggs. Ameraucanas even lay green or blue-tinted eggs.
5. Chickens aren't related to dinosaurs--they technically are dinosaurs.
6. Organic eggs don't necessarily come from chickens living outdoors. Organic eggs at your supermarket often come from hens that live in large warehouses with access to smaller outdoor areas. Regardless of where they are kept, organic certfication means the hens must be fed grown without the use of genetically engineered seeds or chemical pesticides and they can't be fed antibiotics (the way most hens on industrial farms are).
7. Chickens love to slurp grass like spaghetti. We run a pastured egg operation, supplementing with feed grown without pesticides, drugs, other chemicals, or from GMO seeds. Every morning, we open their mobile coop on wheels and they spend the day foraging for bugs and sucking down fresh blades of grass. A study in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems found hens raised on fresh pastures boasted twice as much vitamin E and 2.5 times more brain- and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as standard supermarket eggs had. Other tests show pastured eggs also tout four to five times the vitamin D of regular eggs, along with 1/3 less cholesterol, ¼ less saturated fat, seven times more beta-carotene, and 2/3 more vitamin A.
8. Chickens want to take dust baths. You know how it feels when you work hard all day and then take that refreshing shower in the evening? Judging by the look on a chicken's face, I think the birds get that same type of satisfaction when they dig a shallow pit in the dirt, roll around in, and flap the dirt up through their wings. Scientists believe they do this to maintain proper feather insulation, and possibly to ward off parasites.
9. Chickens' sounds mean something specific. Spend enough time around chickens, and you'll start to associate sounds with particular actions. For instance, the call warning that a hawk is flying overhead is very different from the "I'm about to lay an egg" announcement.
10. Chickens like to play. During the day, you'll see pastured chickens running, jumping, sparring, and even sunbathing. Unfortunately, more than 90 percent of chickens raised in the U.S. are raised in cages, with each chicken's living space the size of a letter-sized piece of paper. They'll live like that for two to three years. If that bothers you, seek out farmers who raise pastured hens. Check LocalHarvest.org to locate pasture-based farmers in your area.
Leah Zerbe is online editor for Rodale.com. Prior to working at Rodale, she was the senior online editor at NBCPhiladelphia.com, where she headed up the station's "Going Green" initiative, wrote about center city crime, and blogged about her beloved Philadelphia Phillies. She and her husband run a sustainable organic farm in Schuylkill County where they grow vegetables, strawberries, herbs, and flowers, and raise heritage breed chickens.
For more from Maria Rodale, go to www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com