Backyard chickens are easy to look after, but they do take some effort to get started. So what are the benefits and why should you bother? Are the eggs really worth it?
In this section I'll take you through the benefits of backyard chickens. This will help you get clear on what you want to achieve and the best way to go about it. But to start with, it's useful to compare your options to put things into perspective.
Option 1. Buy your eggs from the supermarket (Factory farming)
The easiest option is to stick with the way things are and buy your eggs from the supermarket. But regardless of how they're labelled, eggs from the supermarket are supplied by factory farms or Confined Animal Farming Organisation (CAFO’s). These are large corporations that operate by keeping tens of thousands to millions of chickens under one roof. While these eggs might seem cheap and convenient, they come with hidden costs to the environment, our health and our humanity.
Option 2. Buy your eggs from local farmers
Supporting local and ethical farmers is a good alternative to buying your eggs from the supermarket. These are local and usually small scale egg farmers, who support a sustainable and ethical approach. This tends to be a bit more work than getting your eggs from the supermarket and mean an extra trip to the farmers markets. It can also be a challenge to find a good local farmer you can trust, as there aren't any guarantees that you get what you pay for. Look for farmers who have pictures of their farms, have an open door policy and welcome visitors.
Option 3. Get started with backyard chickens
Backyard chickens provide an abundance of nutritious, freshly laid eggs. And they're way better than any eggs you can get from the supermarket. They taste better, are much more nutritious and are free from chemicals and contaminants. You simply haven't had a real egg, until you've tried a freshly laid egg from your own backyard. And once you get started, you'll realise eggs are just the tip of the iceberg. Chickens are such great pets, that have so much to offer and need very little in return. On top of the that, backyard chickens have a positive impact on society and the environment. The only downside is they take a bit of extra effort to get setup. But for your effort, the returns are magnified ten times. And with the right information and support, you'll find chicken keeping a fun and rewarding experience that gets the whole family involved.
7 reasons to get started with backyard chickens
Here are 7 reasons to inspire you to ditch the factory farmed eggs from the supermarket and join the backyard chicken movement:
Supermarket and backyard eggs are produced in a completely different environment and with a very different purpose.
Supermarket eggs - Produced as cheaply as possible.
The problem with eggs you buy from the supermarket is that they're produced as cheaply as possible, in order to make the biggest profit for shareholders. There’s no concern about how nutritious the eggs are or how the chickens are treated, because they all look the same on the supermarket shelf.
Backyard Eggs - Happy, healthy hens
With backyard chickens, the goal is happy, healthy pet chickens that provide nutritious eggs for the family.
When it comes to food, transparency is super important. You want to know what your getting and how healthy it is.
Supermarket eggs - Deceptive marketing means you never know what your getting
There’s lots of deceptive marketing used which make commercial eggs sound better than what they are. People often pay twice as much for eggs labeled as free-range as they would for cage eggs, believing that they meet certain standards. But in most countries, standards that define free range don't exist or are very loose. Egg companies have exploited this, producing eggs which are no where near expectations of what free range actually means. To market eggs as barn laid, they simply take the chickens out of their cages and cram them into a large barn. If they go a step further and add a small opening to a barren dirt paddock, these eggs are labelled “free range.” Even though the reality is that most of the hens will never venture outside.
Backyard Eggs - You know exactly what your getting
When you keep backyard chickens, you know exactly where your eggs come from and the conditions they're raised in. You have control over what they eat, how they're treated and the environment they live in.
Eggs from backyard chickens are a nutritional powerhouse and can’t be compared to conventional eggs from the supermarket. Thats because the hen's diet hen has been shown to have a significant affect on how nutritious the eggs are.
Supermarket Eggs - Nutrient deficient
So called ‘free range’ eggs from the store often come from hens that are fed solely on grains, with limited to no access outdoors – let alone grass and bugs. As a result they are not as nutrient dense which means the eggs have a lower concentration of vitamins and minerals. The use of cheap soy based proteins and a lack of variety means they also have an unbalanced fatty acid profile, with a much higher ratio of Omega-6 compared to Omega-3.
Backyard Eggs - The healthiest food on the planet
Backyard chickens are also fed grains, but a significant amount of their diet comes from foraging on grass, insects and healthy kitchen scraps. Because of this, the eggs have a much higher concentration of vitamins and minerals. They also have a balanced fatty acid profile with a higher ratio of omega-3 compared to Omega-6.
A comparison of Pastured vs Caged eggs
A study by the Pennsylvania State University shows that real free range eggs raised on pasture (land covered with grass) are much more nutrient dense:
Vitamin A - 160% more concentrated: Vitamin A is critical for eye health, boosts your immune system, is a powerful antioxidant, fights inflammation and supports skin health.
Vitamin E - 200% more concentrated: Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that fights cholesterol oxidation, reduces free radical damage, reduces inflammation, repairs damaged skin, thickens hair, balances hormones and improves energy.
Omega-3 - 290% more concentrated: Omega-3 maintains cardiovascular health, stabilises blood sugar levels, lowers inflammation, improves mood, is essential for brain development, reduces the risk of cancer and improves skin health.
Its important to note that this study is based on 'real' free range eggs, that are actually raised outdoors on grass. This doesn’t include the typical eggs you find in your supermarket, even if they are labelled free range or organic.
With the scale and density of industrially farmed eggs, there's a much higher risk of the eggs being contaminated with harmful bacteria and antibiotics, compared to backyard hens.
Supermarket Eggs - Are laced with antibiotics and Salmonella
When you buy factory farmed eggs, they're more likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria such as Salmonella.
Salmonella was not a problem until the early 1980s, when mega egg producers formed. Factory farmed eggs are now the leading cause of Salmonella infection, which cause more than 142,000 incidents of food poisoning in the US every year. Its a billion dollar public health problem.
Conditions in factory farms provide an ideal environment for the spread of Salmonella. When you have more than 100,000 birds living in crammed conditions under a single roof, this creates a massive amount of manure dust in the air that can rapidly spread harmful bacteria. This is compounded by:
- Hens that have compromised immune systems from the stress of confinement
- Hens with un-healthy digestive systems (gut micro-flora) because they are not exposed to the natural environment.
- Ideal conditions for disease carrying rodent infestations and flies.
The poultry industry uses significant amounts of antibiotics to prevent and treat diseases. As this research paper explains, one of the problems with antibiotics used in laying hens is that it accumulates in their eggs for weeks after treatment. In some cases traces of antibiotics are found in eggs more than 50 days after treatment. Many of these antibiotics are so toxic they could never be used in medicine. Because of this, their effect on humans have often not been studied and are largely unknown. From studies that have been performed, some of the health impacts of antibiotic residues in food can include autoimmune disease, cancer, allergies, damage to your digestive system, reproductive disorders, kidney disease and liver damage.
Because of the contamination risk, there are a lot more restrictions on antibiotics used in laying hens compared to meat hens. There are certain antibiotics that are not licensed for use in laying birds and withholding periods are used, which mean eggs can’t be sold for a certain period of time after treatment. Despite this, antibiotics still make their way into eggs at levels that are likely to be harmful to your health. Antibiotic residues often come from cross contamination of medicated feed at the mill, or when drugs are given off-label.
As this research paper explains, babies and young kids are particularly at risk given:
- Egg yolk are often recommended as a weaning food for babies as young as six months old because they contain high levels of essential fatty acids. Eating only one egg yolk contaminated at some of the recorded levels, would result in the infant consuming 5 times more antibiotics than safe levels.
- Antibiotics are passed through human breast milk (transfer rates vary depending on the antibiotic).
- Egg-yolk lecithin is included in some infant-formula milks, which are not tested for all types of antibiotic residue.
A study was conducted in Britain which focused on just one antibiotic called Lasalocid. A summary of some of the key findings include:
- The antibiotic is permitted for meat chickens but not in egg production. At the same time contamination of chicken meat is low and contamination of eggs is high.
- More than 12% of samples tested contained Lasalocid residues.
- Lasalocid was estimated to be in 3 million eggs eaten in Britain every day.
- Many people will have eaten quantities of Lasalocid which exceed (sometimes many times over) safe levels (the Acceptable Daily Intake).
- It's effects on humans are largely unknown, however animal studies show that it's likely to have toxic affects on the heart and nervous system, which are linked to conditions such as Cardiac arrhythmia and Alzheimer's disease.
Backyard Eggs - Organic eggs that are free from nasty stuff
With backyard chickens, you know that your eggs come from healthy hens that are free from harmful bacteria and antibiotics.
Risk of salmonella contamination is much lower with backyard chickens that are kept in a clean and well maintained coop. An extensive Salmonella survey conducted across the European Union, found that free range eggs have a 98% lower risk of being contaminated with Salmonella compared to caged eggs. And with a small backyard flock, if any of your hens actually do get sick with salmonella, it will be very obvious. A hen that is sick with salmonella will be weak, lethargic, have a slightly purple comb and watery green diarrhoea.
You are much less likely to need antibiotics when you keep chickens in your backyard. A stress free environment, more natural diet and a healthy digestive system mean that your hens are much more healthy than industrial layers and are much less likely to need treatment with antibiotics. If they do happen to get sick, you're in control of and aware of what treatment they receive. And because the health of your family is your first priority, your motivated to take a more cautious approach by ensuring that sufficient time has passed to prevent contamination.
Our perception of taste is very psychological. We eat with our eyes first which is why appearance and colour are so important. Colour and appearance entices us to eat a particular food and changes our perception of taste. Once we put food in our mouth, what we "taste" is a mixture of flavour, smell and texture combined into a single sensation. And the interesting thing is that studies have shown that flavour and colour are an indicator of the nutrient content of food. For example, the same compounds that make tomatoes nutritious also make them more tasty.
When it comes to eggs, the biggest difference in taste relates to colour and texture. Eggs are not a strongly flavoured food, so there's not a huge amount of difference in the flavour itself.
Supermarket Eggs - old and tasteless, with artificially brightened yolks
If you think bright orange egg yolks are a sign of nutritious free range eggs, think again. Most eggs you find on supermarket shelves have yolks that are artificially brightened by adding manufactured food dyes into the feed. Because commercial hens are fed a grain based diet without access to forage, the eggs yolks would be a pale yellow colour. Rather than improve the hens diet, commercial producers have found a shortcut. They have identified the specific plant pigments (carotenoids) which are responsible for bright orange and yellow yolks. This process has been perfected to the point that it's become a lot like mixing paint. They’ve done studies to identify the egg yolk colours most preferred by different cultures around the world. Based on this they've developed a colour fan, with 16 egg yolk colours to choose from. Each colour requires a specific quantity and type of additive to achieve a precise and consistent egg yolk colour. You can easily tell when eggs have been artificially brightened because they are all exactly the same colour, at any time of the year. In comparison, the colour of egg yolks from backyard hens vary a lot.
Eggs from the supermarket can be months old by the time you eat them. Because of this they have a cloudy appearance, flatter yolks and thinner consistency. They don’t hold together very well and tend to spread out across the plate.
Backyard Eggs - fresh and tasty with naturally bright yolks
Fresh backyard eggs taste amazing and can’t be beat. If you have not tasted a fresh backyard egg, then you don’t know what you are missing.
Because Backyard chickens forage on lots of different bugs and plants, they naturally have brightly coloured yolks, that varies from rich yellow to a deep orange colour.
Eggs from backyard chickens are super fresh. Because of this, they:
- Are richer and creamier
- Have tight whites that hold together
- Have tall yolks when cracked open on your plate.
- Look clearer and more healthy than eggs from the supermarket.
“Over the past century tens of billions of animals have been subjected to a regimen of industrial exploitation who's cruelty has no precedent in annals of planet earth. Modern industrial agriculture might just be the greatest crime in history.” Yuval Noah Harari, Sapians.
It can be confronting to hear about the cruelty and torture inflicted on chickens by commercial egg factories. It hits close to home. Its uncomfortable. Its possibly the last thing your want to think about after a hard day at work, or a busy day chasing after the kids. It would certainly be easier and more fun for me to talk about making cute little treats for your chickens.
But its an important topic which comes with a positive message. Getting into backyard chickens is one of the most powerful ways to take action and to make a real dent on the egg industry.
Supermarket Eggs - Tortured hens treated like egg laying machines
Agricultural productivity has exploded during the last century, thanks to the industrial revolution. Productivity gains have come from machines such as tractors, artificial fertilisers and insecticides.
Productivity has also came from treating farm animals like machines in a production line. Chickens are treated as if they are incapable of suffering and don’t feel pain or emotions. But it’s been proven that birds feel pain, have emotions and have social needs. Chickens have a strong urge to forage, groom themselves, build nests and establish a social pecking order.
Even though it's been proven that chickens do suffer physically and emotionally, modern factory farms keep them in tiny cages, often with the space of an A4 piece of paper to live in. They are crammed in so tightly that they can’t express their natural ‘chickeness.’ They can’t even flap their wings or stand up straight.
These highly stressed chickens go a bit crazy in the head, which causes severe feather pecking and cannibalism. To stop the pecking, they are tortured even more by searing off their beaks. A chicken’s beak has lots of nerves which means debeaking causes significant pain.
Factory hens have also been bred to pump out as many eggs as possible in the shortest time possible. They’re spent and exhausted by the time they are 18 months old, when they are slaughtered and replaced with fresh hens.
Egg laying hens can be compared to to slaves. The slave trade existed because people were indifferent and just accepted the way things were. As a society we have lost our connection with the food we eat. We buy our food from supermarket shelves, which means the realities of factory farms are out of sight and out of mind. Things would be a lot different if eggs were sold next to the cage they were laid in. A factory hen is not a pretty sight. No one would ever buy these eggs.
Backyard Eggs - Family pets that are treated with love
Backyard chickens live a lot more closely to the way their jungle fowl ancestors live. They are able to express their natural behaviour, their "chickeness" - as they spend their days flapping around and foraging for food in the sunlight and fresh air.
One of the biggest impacts of backyard chickens is awareness and empathy. Many people start out with chickens because of the eggs. But then are surprised that they make such entertaining pets for the family. Chickens can be trained to come when you call them (they are a lot smart than you think) and have a clear pecking order which makes for some interesting antics. You see first hand that they are social and emotional creatures with individual personalities. This makes it hard to imagine them beak-less and crammed into dark cages. And it becomes clear that chickens are not machines and shouldn’t be treated like one.
This connection to our food and the awareness and empathy it creates, gets passed onto our kids, neighbours, friends and the wider community. I got started in chicken keeping after a family friend was telling me about his chickens. The idea stuck and I was inspired to take action. So without even trying your likely to inspire some of your friends, family and neighbours to get into backyard chickens. Or at the very least inspire them to support local farmers who raise their chickens in a more natural and ethical way.
Backyard chickens should come with a warning - they’re highly contagious and the bug is spreading!
Supermarket Eggs - factory farms that impose a significant cost on the environment
Factory farms are able to produce eggs a low monetary cost but this comes at the expense of the environment. Environmental impacts are one of the many hidden costs of factory farmed eggs. You might assume that factory farms produce low cost eggs because of increasing modernisation and efficiencies. But the truth is, a full accounting of the cost of eggs reveals that these large corporations are far from efficient. Consumers are actually paying a very high price for factory farmed eggs, with hidden costs that factory farms are not being held accountable for. These costs are either passed onto consumers through taxes or deferred to future generations to deal with.
As reported by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, some of these environmental impacts include:
In large concentrated egg farms, manure is collected and stored in piles or lagoons. With so much manure concentrated in a small area, this has significant environmental impacts:
- Waste disposal: Bulky and heavy manure needs to be transported for disposal, which causes significant transport emissions.
- Water pollution: Large stores of manure often results in runoff and leaching of waste into surface and groundwater. Poultry manure from factory farms contains concentrated amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, antibiotics, heavy metals and pathogens. These substances then contaminate drinking water and kill aquatic and plant life in local streams and estuaries. Its estimated that 75 percent of antimicrobial agents administered to confined poultry may be excreted back into the environment.
- Air pollution: Airborne ammonia has a sharp pungent odour and can cause respiratory irritation and disease
Commercial eggs usually come a long way to make it to your dinner table. They are trucked long distances from the egg laying shed, to a distribution centre, to the supermarket and then to your home.
Backyard Eggs - eggs that don't cost the earth
Backyard chickens provide an opportunity to have a positive impact on the environment and to inspire your neighbours, friends and families to get on board.
Chicken Manure to turbo charge your vegetable patch
Rather than being a problem like commercial egg production, manure from backyard chickens is a valuable resource that can help you build healthy soil and turbo charge your vegetable patch.
The average soil in backyards needs a lot of work and a lot of organic material. Healthy Soil is alive, full of organisms such as bacteria, fungi and worms. The living organisms break down organic matter and turn it into rich soil. And healthy soil produces healthy food.
Backyard chickens provide a free, convenient and chemical free source of manure. Forget paying $20 a bag for manure or compost. Four pet chickens will easily give you that in a week. The best part is you don't even have to think about it, because chickens spread their manure around for you while roaming around your backyard. It saves you a lot of time and money, saves transport emissions and eliminates packaging waste. My lawn is luscious and green and I've never had to buy fertiliser. Our chickens also love to hang around under our fruit trees, which keeps them well fertilised and full of fruit. Having your own source of manure enables a more self sustaining garden, with less organic material that needs to be brought in to your backyard. It's a system that just makes sense.
Eggs from your backyard don’t have to travel anywhere. Straight from your backyard to your kitchen table. Compared to eggs from the supermarket, backyard chickens save a tonne of energy and greenhouse gas emissions.
Chickens turn waste into food like magic
With a few chickens at home you can easily reuse all your food waste, which is usually about 5% of total household waste. That's a pretty significant amount of waste, that would otherwise end up in landfill. Rather than all the valuable nutrients and energy from your vegetable scraps ending up in landfill, it's converted to food for your chickens and fertilizer for your garden. It creates a mini natural ecosystem in your backyard.
Chickens as farm hands - chemical free insect control and weeding
Chickens love to eat protein packed insects and will even gang up to chase down a tasty bug. Because they love to snack on insects, you will never have a problem with lawn grubs or ant mounds. They also keep insects like grasshoppers at bay, that would otherwise be feasting on your vegetable patch. They are also known to eat ticks and spiders. They are the natures equivalent of an automatic vacuum cleaner, except are way more efficient.
Chickens also love to eat weeds which keeps them under control and saves you time. They are great for prepping soil before planting.
You might not realise it, but you are currently making a choice. Your making a choice to outsource egg production to someone else. The problem is, deceptive marketing means you never know what your getting.
With a little bit of effort to get started, backyard chickens are a great alternative that just make sense in so many ways:
- The eggs are way better than any eggs you can get from the supermarket.
- They make great pets and have way more to offer than just eggs
- They have a positive impact on society and the environment.