Posted by Kim Chase on 05/29 at 08:32 AM
Eggs are cheap and plentiful in the grocery store, so one might wonder why you’d venture out to a local farmer’s market to buy pastured eggs. An egg is an egg, right? Well, as it turns out, there are vast differences that all go back to how the chicken is raised.
I raise laying hens on pasture just outside of State College, and I just love selling that first pastured dozen to someone who tells me they’ve only bought eggs at the grocery before. I know exactly how much of a surprise they are in for! (I should note that “free-range” at the grocery store means that the hens are not caged and have access to the outdoors at least part of the day. How much space they have outdoors or what the surface is made of is not specified. “Cage-free” hens are raised entirely indoors, but are not confined to cages.) Here are a few surprises you might encounter if you’ve never tried a pastured egg before.
1. Nutritional differences - Hens who have access to green grass and other plants, insects, and a ration of fresh grains, vitamins and minerals, produce far more nutritious eggs. Heather Karsten of Penn State University completed a study comparing the nutritional profile of eggs from pastured hens and caged hens who only received a commercial grain ration. The pastured eggs had twice the vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than twice the total omega-3 fatty acids, and a 38% higher concentration of vitamin A. Similarly impressive results have been found in nutritional testing completed by the magazine Mother Earth News.
2. Chickens that get to be chickens - The majority of egg-laying hens in the country are confined indoors in cages. This practice certainly does yield the most economically efficient egg available. However, it is important to me that my animals get to exercise their full range of natural behaviors and lead a life low in chronic stress. Hens on pasture get to scratch and peck in the dirt, forage for greens and insects, enjoy the sunshine, and get plenty of exercise. They are undeniably happy hens (and endless fun for farmers like me to watch).
3. Manure happens - In my former career as a hydrologist, one project I worked on was studying the effects of high concentrations of nutrients downstream of large-scale confinement chicken farms as a result of the chickens’ feces. They had experienced algal blooms and fish kills because of very high phosphorus levels, which is an unfortunate possibility when manure is mismanaged in agriculture of any scale. Pastured chickens, when properly managed, are rotated to fresh pasture on a regular basis during the growing season. This way, the hens naturally disperse their litter and the land gets to rest after the chickens leave, so that the manure can break down and the nutrients fertilize the pasture rather than contaminating water sources.
4. Visual appeal - Compared to the pale, yellow yolks and watery whites of supermarket eggs, cracking into a pastured egg is a real treat. First, you’ll notice that the shells are generally much sturdier. The yolks vary from deep, bright yellow to orange in color and the viscous whites stand up in the pan. Beautiful!
5. TASTE! - I love that there are lots of high-minded reasons to eat pastured eggs, but like most folks, I’ve got a hedonist streak that just wants delicious food. Pastured eggs do not disappoint. Their flavor is far richer, more complex and satisfying than anything you’ll find at the store. Someone once told me they found their richness to be more comparable to a fine cheese than a supermarket egg. They perform amazingly well in baked goods, as well.
Author: Kim Chase
Bio: Owner/Manager of Chase Farm - Petter of Pastured Pigs and Poultry - Mom of 5-year old boy and another son on the way.
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