Monday, February 20, 2012

Back to the start...

I can't recall the last time I watched a commercial without rolling my eyes and screaming at the television, "REALLY?! You really think I'm that stupid to buy into this crap?!" I'm a little obnoxious to watch television with and a little too into the conspiracy that television is actively trying to make us dumber.

This commercial however made me want to climb a mountain just so I could shout my approval from the top of it.

I like Chipotle. They're not perfect, but they are setting an example and proving that fast food does not have to be a production line of slime in the form of something that resembles food. They are quick to respond to questions and open about their practices and standards. In general, it seems like they care. Whether that's a promotional gimmick or not, it is refreshing to see, and they hit the nail right on the head with this one.

Willie Nelson singing Coldplay's 'The Scientist' with the theme of getting back to sustainable small scale farming? What's not to love?

Friday, February 17, 2012

When to buy baby chicks

You know you want them. Coop planning is already underway. You keep looking out the back window all dreamy-eyed envisioning your own flock of hens waddling around the yard chasing down bugs.  But when is the right time to actually go to the feed store and make the commitment to buy your baby chicks?

Photo courtesy of KRO-Media
I actually called the feed store to ask this exact question last year as I was anticipating my very first baby chick purchase. The voice on the other end of the phone was that of a seasoned farmer and advised me to wait until the weather is warm, at least upper 60's during the day before I get my baby chicks. This translated as "go ahead and wait an eternity." I wanted baby chicks now, like a cry baby wants candy.

My local feed store and farm supply chain started "chick days" sometime in the beginning of March and had chicks available through the end of May. On April 1st I thought I would just go and see what was available at the feed store. With this much excitement pumping through my veins there was no way I could leave that place without buying my chicks. So against the farmers advice, I bought 13 baby chicks.

What I have learned about buying chicks in April instead of waiting until May like I should have:
  1. Baby chicks are cute until they trash the place.
    Chickens, even super fluffy butt cute ones make an inhumane amount of dust. Baby chicks need to be at about 90 degrees for the first week or two of their lives. Since you generally buy the chicks within days of being born, you must keep them under a heat lamp in a warm, dry environment for a minimum of 2 weeks. After that you can cut the temperature down to about 80 degrees, and then eventually 70 degrees. It's not until they're maybe 6 - 8 weeks old that they can handle 40-50 degree nights outside. They will trash whatever room you have them in by throwing shavings all over and creating some sort of super layer of dust. And that dust is partly poop. Just saying...
  2. Building a coop in the snow is hard.
    I live in Michigan, so April is a very unpredictable month. It could be sunny and 60 everyday, or it could be 20 degrees with a blizzard for the majority of the month. Planning a coop and actually building it can be tricky. If you don't already have your coop built or live in a warmer more predictable environment, you should wait until May to buy your chicks. It wasn't until the chicks were over 6 weeks old that I was finally able to move them out of my house and into their finished coop.
  3.  Chicks aren't as enjoyable in a cage in your house.
    I wanted to let my chicks free range, feel the earth beneath their little chicky feet and pick at the dirt until they find a little worm or special treat. Instead they were in a large dog cage wrapped in cardboard under artificial light making a mess out of my back bedroom, smelling sort of like sweat and socks. The commodity of having little baby birds in the house wore off after a week. It was really hard to hold them, clean their cage or let them run around the room for a few minutes to stretch their little legs. We once bought a dozen crickets for them to chase around the room, but I'm pretty sure a few of them escaped, headed south to the basement and started a new life of their own living in my dirty laundry. And the little chicken land mines left all over the floor when the chicks were done was not pleasant to mop up. 
My second batch of baby chicks I bought in mid July. This past July was very warm, and the week that I bought the chicks was in the 90's. Since it was so warm out I was able to keep the chicks safe right in our entrance way and they never had to come into the house. I only needed to turn their heat lamp on at night for the first week because it would get down to 70 degrees. Their coop was built and they were in their house by the first week in August.  The mess in entrance way was minimal, the chicks were able to get outside almost everyday and their coop was built in record time. We could have actually just put the brand new baby chicks right into the coop with a heat lamp if we had it finished before we bought them. With the weather so warm there is no need to keep baby chicks in the house at all, which is very ideal.

Something else to keep in mind when buying your chicks: The feed store and your local farm supply chain will carry chicks for a few months, but the selection seems to get more scarce right near the end and the shipments aren't always predictable. New chicks are brought in weekly and I noticed at our local Tractor Supply the variety was always different.

So hold tight, May will be here soon and you will be glad you waited.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Common misconceptions about farm fresh eggs

Photo courtesy of: EAWB
Let's get a few things straight about the eggs we eat. A lot of people give me the stink eye when I suggest they try farm fresh eggs instead of conventional store bought eggs and the conversation that follows is annoyingly predictable at this point. There is this assumption that store bought eggs are somehow not connected to chickens at all. We as a society have went ahead and eliminated the chicken from the process all together. So there's your answer, the egg came before the chicken, the egg and chicken now live separate lives, one moved on to KFC and you recognize it only in fried form, and the other lives in the refrigerator section of your local market or super Walmart, comfortably resting in a bomb proof carton.

I hope you're sitting down because here's the truth; the chicken still lays the eggs. *GASP* Yes, the chicken is the one laying the eggs you are buying at the supermarket, only this chicken is housed in some sort of large warehouse type of establishment with minimal room to move around, if any, its eggs are collected, sterilized and shipped to you hopefully within 30 days or so.

Some other things you need to take into consideration before offering the stink eye:

Nutrition in supermarket eggs vs hens raised on pasture:

Mother Earth News conducted a study testing the nutritional levels of eggs from 14 different flocks around the country, had an accredited laboratory in Portland, OR test the results and compared their findings with the official U.S. Department of Agriculture's nutrient data for commercial eggs.
Eggs from hens allowed to peck on pasture are a heck of a lot better than those from chickens raised in cages! Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain: 
  • 1⁄3 less cholesterol
  • 1⁄4 less saturated fat
  • 2⁄3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene 
  • 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D 
Information provided by Mother Earth News
Aren't supermarket eggs safer?

The summer of 2010 over 550 million eggs were recalled due to salmonella. 550 million. How can you produce and ship out over 550 million eggs before you realize they are tainted? Because with the practice of industrial farming days can pass before the farmer even realizes a hen is even dead in its cage. Because an industrial farmer cannot evaluate the health conditions of 100,000 hens each and every day. Because the level of fecal dust within the 'warehouse' is so high the farmer wears a mask when he enters and if a case of salmonella does arise its spread is rampant. Rodents are often a main suspect in the lineup when a salmonella outbreak surfaces, with such a large farm it is nearly impossible to keep rodent feces out of the hens feed and cages.

The outside of a commercial egg is sanitized to remove any dirt or fecal matter that may be present. This generally removes any salmonella on the shell of the egg. However, salmonella bacteria can be inside the egg if the chicken is infected. It is always important to fully cook eggs to kill any of this bacteria and wash your hands after handling any eggs, commercial or free range.

Though it is possible, a small backyard flock rarely contracts salmonella because it is easier to maintain a clean environment and regularly evaluate the health of the flock. It is also easier to keep their feed and cages free from rodents and any contamination from their feces. With a small flock it is also possible to analyze the health of any new hens before integrating them with the current flock to ensure disease isn't spread if present.

Which egg would you trust? 

I'm scared that the yolk is orange...

The healthy orange of an egg yolk is a good indicator of a pasture fed hen.

Free-range eggs may have more of an orange color to their yolks because of the grasses and insects in their diet. This deep color is a good sign that the hen which produced your egg was given the opportunity to free range on pasture as it was intended to do, not serve its life in a cage eating a specific ration of powdered feed. However, feed additives can also be added to the feed to change the color of a caged hens eggs; don't be fooled by eggs in the supermarket that are orange but are not labeled as pasture raised or certified free range.

But the package says it has omegas, and yours doesn't have a package...

Well, isn't 'omega' the buzz word of the year! Yes, all eggs have healthy omega-3s in them and that is one reason why eggs are good for us. Some companies are smart enough to put that word on the package to entice shoppers to buy theirs over the competitors. And some companies add additional omegas to the feed so they can advertise that their hens are fed a diet 'rich with heart healthy omegas,' oh boy, that sounds like it will cure all my ailments!

According to Medical News Today:
Eggs from chickens fed corn, for instance, have one-tenth the omega-3s in them as eggs from free-range chickens that eat greens and bugs.
This same information was also verified from the extensive study that Mother Earth News conducted. Time and time again studies have proven that animals raised on pasture and in small herds, flocks, gaggles or whatever they're called, are not only happier but also healthier and in turn produce healthier meat and eggs.

Forget you, you charge too much!

I have always considered myself lucky if a farmer is willing to share the culinary pleasure of farm fresh eggs. Three dollars, four dollars or even six dollars for a dozen has never seemed like a high price to pay if I know the eggs I'm buying are quality. The beauty of buying straight from the farmer affords you the luxury of asking about the health of the hens, how often they have access to pasture and what they are fed as a supplement. Can you say the same about the pre-recorded 800 number on the carton you bought from the supermarket?

I am now very fortunate to have 9 hens in my own back yard roaming around and laying eggs for me almost every single day. Farm chores are actually only romantic in theory and most of you would not like to do it yourself. We let our hens out to free range almost daily. Fresh water is provided daily, and sometimes twice a day if it is freezing outside. Feed is always available and vegetable scraps are given as a special treat. The coops are kept clean, dry and well vented and the eggs are collected regularly. At least every other day I watch the hens and evaluate each and every one to make sure they are not showing sickness in any way. I can tell you the breed of each of my hens, where she was hatched and how old she is. I can even describe to you the different personalities of each one of my girls. The coops we built are sturdy and accommodate their needs well, believe me $4 a dozen will never repay the money we have put into having backyard chickens. No one is getting rich here.

So if you would prefer to pay $1.29 for a dozen generic eggs from the supermarket because you don't think the quality matters or the life of the hen is irrelevant, than please do, my eggs are reserved for those who appreciate their exceptional quality and respect the life of the animal.