I think about cows a lot. Yes, I could have gone for the easy verb choice there - ruminate - but I think so highly of cows that I don’t want to borrow their word without permission, which, being bovine, they would grant, I’m sure. Cows grant and gift us plenty of wonderful items: meat, milk, and life-giving butter, are the obvious but most folks will be surprised when I also add ‘companionship’. Its true - they make great friends. They wait patiently for us to come to them for a visit, they make room in the pasture for us, and when we sit, they gather round to listen to us talk about them and their lives.
Turkeys have arrived! We order our baby turkeys, called poults, in June to grow up on pasture and be ready in time for Thanksgiving. We raise two types of turkeys: the White Holland and the Standard Bronze, both heritage breeds. They arrive fully capable of eating, drinking, and chasing each other around, even at one day old. They'll spend several weeks in a 'brooder,' an indoor room with heat lambs and radiators keeping it at a balmy 100 degrees. Always curious to an extreme, I found it difficult to take a photo with all the turkey beaks pecking the camera.
Our pastures are slow to spring up this year after the difficult winter, so we've had to get creative with areas to graze our sheep. Here they are enjoying lush grass and tasty weeds on 'goat mountain' behind the cow barn at the farm. With a flock of over 100 sheep, the ewes and lambs quickly demolished the tender spring flush of new growth.
We are surrounded by eggs. Every day Elana or Julie or super-volunteer Maria bring in more, mostly very clean, very large and very many. Even the pullet eggs - from the ‘teenage’ hens - are getting bigger as the birds mature. We’ve donated over 150 dozen so far, and taken hundreds to Cronig’s, supply the Charlotte Inn and The Harbor View but we still can’t keep up. And later in the year we’ll lament the diminishing numbers and wonder why we didn’t freeze them.
Well, we didn’t freeze them because you can’t. At least not in their shells. You can break them and freeze them either as mixed or separated white from yolk, but we’ve not yet discovered the market for this here on the Island…or could afford the machinery. There is an entire segment of the egg industry called ‘breakers’ that does just that and 32% of all the eggs produced in the US are handled this way by machines that can break 145,000 eggs an hour.
A hen can lay around 250 eggs in a year, some more (300 or better), some less. The industry has a different measurement: of the 292 million layers in the US, Rate of lay per day on March 1, 2013 averaged 74.3 eggs per 100 layers. (The American Egg Board has a great website:aeb.org where I got most of the numbers.)
Nutrition and age are the keys to production but at some point even nutrition can’t keep the eggs rolling and we cull the under-performers and get stewing hens. Raising laying hens has a major conceptual and practical distinction from raising meat birds. Your broiler or fryer is a terminal bird: its value is in its death. But hens - the value is in keeping them healthy and alive because the value is in the product: the egg.
So, what’s in the egg?
A 50 gram egg (typical serving size or Large Egg) = 6 grams of protein, 70 calories (45 of them from fat) and a total fat level of 5 grams and 1.5 grams are saturated. And, of course, cholesterol - 185 mg. If you choose to eat just the whites of the egg you lose about half the protein, all the fat, most of the energy, all the vitamins and, except for sodium and potassium, the trace elements as well.
It is commonly reported that eggs are the ‘perfect protein’ and that they rank extremely high on ‘satiety’ indices - how full you feel after eating. I’m not sure just how that relates to the food choices we make either at the store or at the refrigerator, but I think a better marker is consumption. Mexico has led the world in per capita egg consumption for many years, and they are currently at 335 eggs per person. The US and Argentina are at 248 and 244 respectively, but Peru is at only 167. Interestingly, the consumption of ‘processed eggs’ - eggs from the ‘breakers’ that go into processed foods - has grown at a faster clip than shell eggs.
Globally, China produces somewhat over 33% of total eggs, outlaying the US by almost 5:1. In the US the leading egg producing state (ranked by total number of laying hens) is Iowa, almost double that of Ohio and Indiana. With corn and soybean meal being the basics of layer diets, this isn’t too surprising.
- U.S. egg production during August 2013 was 6.95 billion table eggs.
- Presently, there are approximately 59 egg producing companies with 1 million-plus layers that represents approximately 87 percent of total production and 16 companies with greater than 5 million layers.
- Only about 3% were certified organic.
- Our second most important export market is Hong Kong.
The eggs laid here at TFI or in your backyard are about 65% water - which indicates what single nutrient they need most reliably if you want egg production. And they need the usual nutrients on a daily basis as well - proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. They also need grit - literally. Without some pebbles or shells or small stones their gizzards won’t work. The gizzard, properly the ventriculus, is a muscular organ that needs something hard to help grind the food, and pass it to the true stomach. Alligators have gizzards as well, but the food industry seems to have overlooked this, focusing mostly on cooking poultry gizzards which are specialty treats around the world, although perhaps not here. Almost any commercially available diet will produce eggs, and yes, your hens can produce eggs in the summer without supplementation IF they are allowed to run free and scratch/forage/ on their own, but the production will be, understandably, lower.
Now, about the color of the yolk. It’s not quite the robust standard for judging an egg’s source or quality as is conventionally promoted. In fact the color of the yolk is easily manipulated by diet changes, both naturally occurring or through deliberate inclusion of specific ingredients or additives - pigmenting agents to be accurate. Natural pigmenting agents are obtained from flowers (marigold and paprika), which then go through a lot of processing before they are added to the feed. By varying the amounts in the feed the color of the yolk can be changed, just as the transition from winter to summer can deepen the yolk color as natural xanthophylls are ingested. There is an actual color wheel for yolks (I have one) just like a paint color wheel. (Actually, it’s a fan not a wheel, but…) In fact, the skin color of broilers can be tinted this way as well, as different markets prefer a more or less ‘golden’ skin. It takes about 5 days for the diet changes to show. These pigment agents all have trademark names - Orogold, Nutrigold, etc. - and, if they are included in the laying hen feed, have to be on the label.
Feedstuffs generally used in the US all have differing levels of naturally occurring xanthophylls, with wheat having barely any (2mg/kg) in comparison to alfalfa meal (160mg/kg). When chickens are allowed to scratch and roam on pasture - grasses, clovers, alfalfa - the egg yolk coloration changes in response. During the winter, adding good quality alfalfa hay to their diets works well, as would adding alfalfa pellets or alfalfa meal. For commercial use this is pretty vague and too inconsistent, so they use available pigments, if desired.
Another difference between small farm/backyard eggs and commercially produced eggs is sonar. Yup, sonar. Commercial operations use sonar to detect cracked eggs by tapping the egg and listening for the sound it makes. Apparently an egg without an cracks makes a "high pitch and a sustained ring" whereas a thud noise indicates a cracked, no good egg.
For all the technology and efficiency, there is still nothing like a farm fresh egg, fried or scrambled, in an omelet or being whipped for baking. I even made breaded and deep-fried whole eggs awhile ago and they were great! Our 400 hens are from various breeds, have different attitudes, make different sounds, run from the hawks, peck at our egg-stealing hands, give us bounty. Come by and visit, they’re busy all the time.
Spring is finally here! The cows are excited by the green flush that is spreading through our pastures. These two St. Patty's day calves are starting to nibble grass and bouncing in the sunshine.
Spring Easter calf! Halo gave birth to a girl this morning that looks just like her - spotted eye and skunk markings, except baby has a pink nose. New baby took a long nap in the spring sunshine after having her first meal, an important start to a calf's life.
All of our lambs have been born leaving us with a grand total of 58! Here are two of our orphan lambs, one Katahdin and one Cotswold, having a post-lunch nap. They're fed a milk replacer three times a day and have access to hay which lambs start to nibble on at just a week old.
Our Barred Rock chickens have just started to lay eggs and they are averaging 10 dozen a day! Since they are our youngest laying hens and under a year old, they are technically called 'pullets' and lay eggs about half the size of a normal chicken egg - pullet eggs. These mini eggs are fun fried and boiled.
The rest of our chickens have started laying eggs again too after their winter break. Our Buff Orpingtons, Black Australorps, and Rhode Island Reds enjoyed the sunshine today on the windy Katama plains.
Even with all our new lambs, we can't forget about our cows and their calves from this summer and fall. In fact, we're expecting new calves within the next month! This British-American White Park calf was born this summer but still nurses. Since we raise cows for beef, we don't ever milk them; instead, we let their calves drink mom's milk to grow big and strong. On a dairy farm the calves would be taken from their moms at birth so that humans could milk them instead. Below is a Belted Galloway calf from this fall also nursing on mom.
With two new lambs born this morning, we're now at 43 lambs! This mamma, Irene, and her two babies, Squeak and Isaac, are still my favorites though. Irene is super friendly, and her son Isaac has inherited her calm, inquisitive demeanor. Squeak, however, is Irene's adoptive daughter; another successful lamb grafting! These two siblings are some of the bigger lambs and have been leading the ever-growing pack in playful romps: running circles around moms and doing figure-eight loops through the nursery pen. People who braved the snow yesterday afternoon to come to our lamb viewing time got to see first-hand how playful the lambs have become.