Norton Creek Poultry and Chicken Lore

Poultry Myths and Scams

There are a lot of myths and a few scams in the poultry world, and I thought I'd take a swing at some of them.

1. I've heard that long eggs hatch into roosters and short eggs hatch into hens. Is this right?

Ah, the appeal of phallic symbolism! Nope: it doesn't work at all. Lots of people believe it, though.

2. Aren't there hormones in poultry meat and eggs?

If this were 1948, the answer would have been, "maybe." Using hormones to boost egg production was a brief fad in the Forties, but was abandoned because it didn't work. Using hormones to produce soft-meated roasters lasted into the Fifties, but the improved growth rates of normal, untreated broilers made the practice irrelevant--the broilers got as big as anyone wanted without chemicals.

The only hormone that was ever used in any quantity on poultry (DES) was banned in 1959, and everyone but a few die-hard farmers had given up hormones by then, anyway. Hormones are now illegal in poultry and eggs.

The people who advertise "No hormones" are either fear-mongers, or ignorant, or both. The USDA won't let you put "no hormones" on inspected eggs or poultry because they're awfully tired of this scam.

3. Is it true that the eggs in the stores are six months old?

If this were 1920, the answer would be "yes -- but only in the fall and winter." In the bad old days, the hens laid mostly in the spring, and practically stopped in the fall and winter. The only way to have a decent supply of eggs in the stores year-round was to buy them in the spring and refrigerate them until fall.

This was a lot better than nothing, but long-term humidity-controlled refrigeration costs a lot of money, and every day the eggs are stored, they lose a little quality. In the old cold-storage business, you put them in as Grade AA-quality in the spring. When you took them out in the fall, they'd be Grade B quality if you were lucky.

These days, the average commercial hen lays about three times as many eggs as in 1920, and production is hardly seasonal at all, what with artificial lighting and controlled-environment housing. My farm has problems with seasonal production because my hens go outdoors into the weather every day of the year, but it's different with modern confinement housing.

In any event, you can't sell Grade B eggs anymore (consumers refuse to buy them), and eggs under USDA inspection (which includes all the giant producers) have to have a sell-by date of 30 days or less. So there isn't a cold-storage egg industry anymore. Instead, all eggs that are hard to sell because of grade or age are turned into "liquid egg product" and used by bakeries, restaurants, and the processed food industry. Liquid egg product can be frozen indefinitely, and this allows any lingering seasonality or bumps in supply and demand to be absorbed.

4. Don't they put all sorts of yucky horrible stuff in chicken feed?

It depends on your threshold of yuck, but not usually. You can easily ruin the productivity of a flock by forcing them to eat things they don't like or that aren't good for them. Chickens have a high metabolism and are very productive, and this requires careful feed formulation.

As with most pet and livestock foods, it's a good idea to taste chicken feed yourself. I'd switch suppliers if I ever ran into off-flavors (like burned, rancid, or other yucky tastes). In my experience as an amateur chicken-feed taste tester, it has always tasted wholesome, though very bland. It would make a great cereal for particularly ascetic health-food types.

The bulk of just about every chicken ration consists of corn and soybeans, with other ingredients playing only a very minor part.

This is not to say that there are never disgusting ingredients in chicken feed, because sometimes there are.

The most unpleasant ingredient is chickens. "Spent Hen Meal" consists of whole hens, ground, steamed, and dried. While such an ingredient obviously contains all the nutrients necessary to make a hen, and the use of spent hen meal has been proven through long use to be safe, the concept is pretty offensive. You won't see spent hen meal in the feed you buy at the feed store; it seems to be used only by large egg producers who have absolutely no market for their old hens. You can't even sell them for soup or dog food anymore, because "broiler breeders" -- the hens that lay the eggs that broiler hatch from -- are dirt-cheap and have better carcass quality.

Beef scrap and beef tallow are often added to chicken feed. Beef scrap is all the pieces with meat on them left over after butchering cattle; ground up, steamed, and dried. This can make a very good ingredient for chicken feed (though its quality varies widely and the crummiest stuff is junk), but it isn't used as much as it used to be because the pet-food industry uses up most of it, so it's expensive. Beef tallow is just the rendered fat. This is also an excellent feed ingredient.

Some people object to these ingredients in chicken feed, but I've never seen anything wrong with them as a general thing. However, in the specific case of my farm, I avoid  beef scrap, because my goats and sheep sometimes get into the chicken feed, and I don't want them getting any beef scrap, because if they did, I wouldn't be doing my part to keep the U.S. BSE-free.

5. Is it true that a lot of "free-range" eggs are from birds that are really being raised in confinement?

Yep, it's true, all right. All the "official" free-range systems that I've come across are scams, at least by my standards. This includes both the totally unconvincing U.S. free-range egg producers, and the "Let's give our scam a governmental seal of approval" EU system.

My test for a free-range system being "real" goes like this: If you move all the feeders and waterers outside, do any chickens die of hunger or thirst? Obviously, in a true free-range system, where all the chickens wander in and out of the building all day, it doesn't really matter if the feeders and waterers are indoor or outdoors. They'll be fine either way.

But in fake free range, the goal is to run a factory-farm operation while getting a price premium for the "free-range" label. The best way of doing this is to discourage the chickens from going outside, through the use of doors that are too few or too small, and by other methods. If only a handful of chickens actually go outside, you've really got a confinement operation, and can run it like any other factory farm. But if most of the chickens never go outside, if you moved the feeders and waterers outdoors, many of the chickens would die.

Here's how you do this: Chickens can recognize about 100 other chickens, and hang out with the ones they know. If they have to go past a lot of strangers to get outside, they won't go outside. So all it takes is a long walk past other chickens, and they'll never even try to go out the door. Given the immense size of modern chicken houses, this problem is almost insurmountable. You have to use more and smaller houses if you want to do it right. This, plus the other sources of increased labor in real free range, makes real free-range eggs very expensive to produce. I guess consumers prefer scam eggs to the more expensive real ones.

The same situation is true to an even larger degree with free-range broilers, since meat birds have been bred for lethargy, and are less willing to trek long distances to reach an outside door.

6. Is it important to protect my chickens from drafts?

No, that's a myth, based on the 19th-Century notion that drafts cause colds. The concept is pretty much meaningless. True, chickens need to be protected from hypothermia, so you wouldn't want to (for example) leave them outdoors, soaking wet, in sub-zero weather. But creating a tightly sealed chicken house to "eliminate drafts" is very unhealthy for the chickens, even in cold climates. See my housing FAQ for more info.

Baby chicks, of course, need to be kept relatively warm, so limiting the wind-chill factor in cold weather can be important. But that's not about "drafts," it's about warmth.

7. Is it important to use standard-bred birds?

Not unless that's what you like. The idea that purebred chickens are better than "mongrelized" chickens (based on crosses) is based on Nineteenth-Century racial theories, and was thoroughly discredited a hundred years ago. Commercial chickens are far more productive than purebred chickens. The purebreds are better-looking, though: many breeds are beautiful. And breeding for competition is a fascinating hobby. But if your requirements are practical, commercial strains are better.

8. Don't old-fashioned chickens do better in a small-farm environment?

I used to think this, too, but when I put it to the test, the commercial breeds ran rings around the heritage breeds. Commercial White Leghorns are extremely productive and are very active foragers on free range. Commercial brown-egg birds are much the same. I'm not even convinced that the heavily feathered standard breeds have higher winter production than the commercial chickens. They lay so many fewer eggs to start with that extra-thick feathers aren't enough to even up the score.

With meat birds, it's even more of a walkover. Standard-breed chickens will give you a two-pound dressed carcass at twelve weeks if you're lucky. A modern broiler will give you a four-pound carcass at seven week.

Back to the Free-Range FAQ Page

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