I have a confession to make. The family history I laid out in my previous article, “Understanding Egg Carton Labels,” was a complete farce. My family has never owned or worked on an egg farm, nor did my grandfather fight in WWII (he did marry a Swede, though). My interest in chickens and eggs stems purely from an animal welfare standpoint. I’m vegan, but because my family isn’t, I decided to raise backyard chickens so they could eat eggs laid by happy hens. This is also why I brought backyard chicken supplies into the Co-op. It was my way of advocating for the backyard chicken movement, which in my opinion is the most humane way to consume eggs. That’s all fine and dandy, but truth is, raising backyard chickens isn’t an option for everyone.
About the same time we started carrying chicken supplies, the Cornucopia Institute released its report on organic eggs. This got shoppers talking about chicken welfare, and consequently, Co-op staff had to field a lot of questions regarding which eggs were the most humane (an almost impossible question to answer).
Also around this time, we had requests for soy-free eggs. Folks mainly wanted this option to avoid GMO’s. Organic soy should technically be GMO free, but cross pollination with conventional soy-crops is commonplace. Another common reason for this request was soy allergies. A study out of Ohio State University showed that soy-isoflavones (the proteins that cause allergies) from soy-based feed are transmitted to eggs in small quantities, although the American Egg Board argues that the amount isn’t sufficient enough to cause allergic reactions.
All this got me thinking
Customers want soy-free eggs from happy chickens, but not everyone can produce them in their own backyard. Here was an opportunity to fill a niche.
My first step was finding a local egg that already fit this bill. I combed the state but turned up bupkis. I combed the Midwest but turned up bupkis. There were some small farms that partially filled these criteria, but none that produced in quantities large enough to meet our needs. I was left with only one option: convince one of our current vendors to produce soy-free humane eggs.
What is a “humane” egg?
Before I could proceed, I had to determine exactly what a “humane” egg is. By most accounts, the Co-op already sells humane eggs. New Century, for instance, scored an admirable 4 out of 5 eggs on the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Score Card, and Phil’s eggs are Certified Humane by HFAC (Humane Farm Animal Care). In fact, I felt comfortable saying that all the brands we carry do well by their chickens, including Pasture Patterns and M&M Organic Farms, both of which are certified organic and allow their flocks meaningful time on pasture. So what was there to improve on?
It really boils down to one thing: flock size. Chickens are happiest when they can recognize every bird in their flock. This is how they maintain pecking order, the social system that governs their day-to-day activities and ensures harmony within the group. Ideally, flocks wouldn’t grow larger than about 12 birds. Any more than this and chickens can’t identify their place in the pecking order, leading to fighting, death, and even cannibalism. For this reason, it’s actually more humane to trim beaks in large productionflocks which often contain thousands of birds.
However, research shows that beak-trimming can cause chronic pain and inhibit a chicken’s instinctive need to scratch and peck at the ground. It was clear that the most humane flock was one small enough for the birds’ beaks to remain intact.
Working it out
With this in mind, I contacted Michael Miller from M&M Organic Farms. Aside from being a great vendor to work with, I knew him to be up for trying new things. I asked him about the possibility of raising a small flock of hens with intact beaks, fed organic soy-free feed. He was open to the idea, and we spent the better part of the following year meeting with livestock nutritionists and other experts to determine the feasibility of such an undertaking.
While I knew from the beginning that 12 birds wasn’t a practical size for a production flock, the trick was figuring out exactly how small we could go. The flock had to be small enough that the birds wouldn’t require beak-trimming, but large enough to turn a profit. Michael calculated that the magic number was 300. With enough space, 300 birds can break off into smaller social groups, achieving something close to the 12-bird ideal.
The other point we agreed on was access to the outdoors—not just by the loose standards of organic certification, but meaningful time on pasture for the entire flock.
Breaking new ground
This was a huge risk for Michael to take. There was no guarantee that our experiment would succeed, because there was no data on soy-free production. He was truly breaking new ground with this type of flock management.
Michael ordered the chicks for this special flock in the fall of 2011. The birds had to be sequestered from the main flock all winter, which meant he was dedicating resources and barn space to a flock that, when all was said and done, might not turn a profit.
Fortunately, this fear proved unfounded. By May of this year, the flock was laying enough eggs for us to sell. In fact, Michael projected about 75% production from the flock (a poor rate by normal standards), but it’s actually been producing at around 90%, proving this type of management system can be successful.
We were also successful with regards to welfare. Michael reports that there have been no instances of pecking or cannibalism, and the flock enjoys over 1500 square-feet of vegetation-covered ground. Michael lets the birds out in the morning after they lay eggs, and doesn’t close the doors again until they return to roost at nightfall. That’s not to say they have to stay out that long, as they can return to the barn at will to avoid predators, or if the sun becomes too hot.
Eggs for sale
Michael initially started the soy-free flock at my request, but we never intended for these eggs to be sold exclusively at Willy Street Co-op. As of right now, they are also available at Metcalfe’s Sentry West, and may potentially be incorporated into the eggs he produces for Organic Valley. Michael is very excited about these results, and hopes to eventually carry this new system over to other flocks. For me, this is the most gratifying and hopeful part of the project. Perhaps we’ve started a “better” egg movement here at the Co-op. The more widespread these methods go, the more successful the movement will be.
You can support M&M Organic Farms (and thank Micheal Miller for taking a risk) by purchasing these eggs the next time you’re at the Co-op. You’ll notice that the eggs are labeled “ungraded.” This means they vary in size, but are typically medium or large. They’re available at both East and West locations.