Why There Aren’t Any “Real” Free-Range Eggs in the City

I’m sure you’ve noticed that real, grass-fed free-range eggs aren’t available in city supermarkets, and that they’re pretty rare even in the country. Not only that, but the few farmers who produce them rarely expand their operations. At best, they keep the same number of chickens every year.

This has been true for ages. Why?

The answer is that free-range eggs aren’t very profitable. Anyone who can make a buck from free-range eggs can make two bucks doing something else. If this weren’t true, the farmers would be expanding their flocks as fast as they could.

Why isn’t it profitable? Because consumers aren’t willing to pay what it would cost. By my calculations, real grass-fed free-range eggs would need to retail for about $10 per dozen in city supermarkets for the farmers to earn a living equal to the U.S. median family income. Of this $10 per dozen, the farmer would receive about half, while wholesalers and retailers would get the other half. (That’s how it always works.)

Out of the farmer’s half, most goes to expenses — feed, interest, depreciation, equipment, replacement chickens — and only $1.69 per dozen goes to paying the farmer’s wages.

(I’ll post the assumptions and the calculations later, but in this post I want to cut to the chase.)

People can complain about factory farming as much as they like, but until they are willing to pay $10 a dozen for eggs, factory-farmed products are what they’re gonna get. You’ve basically got your choice between factory farms that uses cages and ones that don’t, and factory farms that are organically certified and ones that aren’t.

If you buy ’em in the city, non-factory-farmed eggs are gonna cost you ten bucks. Activism will have no effect on this whatever. Farmers deserve to get paid, and so do the wholesalers and retailers. Real free-range eggs are expensive to raise. Nothing real will happen until enough people put their money where their mouth is. Ten bucks a dozen.

Do Chickens Like Music?

Here’s an article that claims that chickens grow better if provided with music.

Is it true? Do chickens do better if they have the ability to put on an impromptu hoedown anytime the mood strikes them? Beats me, but no doubt there’s been research on the subject. Any poultry question that (a) comes up over and over and (b) can be researched cheaply has been looked into: our Extension Service is like that. And it’s not like putting a radio in a chicken house is very complicated.

I do know that chickens make noises to communicate with each other, and a contented flock sounds different from an unhappy flock. They also react to noises in their environment. So it seems reasonable that appropriate background music will mellow them out.

Of course, chicken farming has always been plagued by stuff that “seems reasonable” but doesn’t work. For example, people still believe that you can tell the sex of a baby chick by the phallic symbolism of the egg: long skinny eggs hatch males. And others still believe in the irritant theory of medicine, and think that cayenne pepper in the diet will force a hen to shoot out eggs like a machine gun. It’s always the Middle Ages in some people’s heads. But then again, some of these wacky ideas work. Maybe I can dredge up some research the next time I find myself in the basement of OSU’s Valley Library.

I’ve noticed that anecdotal reports of music for chickens rate rock and roll higher than you’d expect if the music is supposed to be a lullaby. Of course, since we don’t know what the music actually does, it’s hard to guess what the best playlist is going to be.

Do Chickens Like Music?

Keep Those Waterers in the Shade

We had a few hot days in a row, and Karen noticed that the broilers looked pretty stressed. It reminded us that modern hybrid broilers don’t like sunshine on hot days and often won’t leave the shade, even to drink. They can actually die of heat stress because of this.

Karen gently hosed down the birds to cool them off, and they recovered almost instantly.

The fix is to make sure every broiler pen has at least one waterer in the shade. In most pen designs, this means having a waterer at the back of the pen. We always use two waterers per pen in case one fails, and now we’ve got one in the front and one in the back.

This reluctance to leave the shade is most pronounced with modern hybrid meat chickens. Other types are less reluctant to go out in the noonday sun. My hens have waterers smack in the middle of the pasture with no shade at all, and they don’t hesitate to go there for a drink at high noon. Still, hens like shade. People sometimes complain that, when they see a free-range flock, the hens aren’t scattered decorously across the pasture, but are hanging around the henhouse. If the critics came back near sunrise or sunset, it would be a different story.

Reducing Feed Waste

Feed is way too expensive to waste these days, but try telling that to the chickens! How can we keep our chickens from wasting feed?

The biggest culprit is feeders that are too shallow. One of the old rules of thumb was to never fill a trough or feed pan more than one-third full. This is harder than it looks, because most of the readily available poultry equipment consists of glorified chick feeders — way too small for grown (or even half-grown) chickens.

Here are some tips:

  • If you build feed troughs out of boards, use 1×6 or even 1×8 boards for the sides. That oughta do it.
  • Buy the big tube feeders with the deep feed pans. The little tube feeders are basically chick feeders.
  • Tube feeders often have adjustments that let you vary the distance between the tube and the pan. Set these to the narrowest gap they will allow. Open up only if the feed doesn’t flow.
  • You can start using bigger equipment earlier if the trough or pan is mostly full, but let the level fall as the chicks get bigger
  • Feeders that are low to the ground encourage waste. The pan or trough should be roughly level with the chickens’ backs.
  • Never use a feeder that’s so low that broilers can eat from it while sitting down. It’s disgusting.
  • If you scatter scratch feed outdoors or in the litter, use whole grains. The hens won’t miss these, but finer particles will be lost.
  • Really low-grade feeds, moldy feeds, and other stuff that has inedible or unpalatable ingredients will force the hens to rummage around looking for the edible portion. Don’t bother with such feeds unless they’re nearly free. Even then, have a separate feeder of good feed, so you don’t accidentally poison or starve your chickens.

You might also want to look at my Feeding FAQ.

One of the books, I’ve reprinted, Feeding Poultry by G. F. Heuser, has everything you’d ever want to know about feeding.

Are Expensive Hatcheries the Cheapest?

Suppose you bought 100 pullets from the lowest-price hatchery you could find, and 100 pullets from an expensive hatchery. What do you think the results would be?

I don’t know if anyone has tried this recently, but I found this very experiment in an old British poultry magazine. The results went like this:

The box from the expensive hatchery had more chicks in it (something like 106), and they were all alive. The chicks were energetic and did very well during the brooder period. The order was for pullets, and what was delivered were pullets.

The box from the cheap hatchery had no extra chicks in it. Some of the chicks were dead. The chicks were did less well during the brooder period. Many of the pullets were really cockerels.

(I wish I hadn’t lost the reference to the article, because I’d like to quote it directly, but you get the idea.)

So what’s up with that? The explanation goes like this: Suppose you’re running a hatchery, but you’re not very good at it, and you get complaints about quality. You need more money to put the kids through college. You have two choices:

  • Clean up your act and produce a product that can compete with the best.
  • Lower your prices to attract cheapskates. Cheapskates ignore quality and buy solely on price.

On the other hand, suppose you run the best hatchery anywhere, but profits are disappointing and you need more money to put the kids through college. Your choices are:

  • Find more sources of efficiency so you can make enough money to live on without raising prices.
  • Raise prices.

The difference between the options at the two hatcheries will eventually mean that the crummy hatcheries are all cheap and the good ones are all expensive.

Take-way: never buy from the low-price leader. It’s not just that cheap chicks are more expensive in the long run, it’s that it’s so depressing to have them die on you. You should insure yourself against disappointment by buying quality chicks.

Actually, the best thing to do is to ask around and see where the most successful local poultry folks buy their baby chicks. If you’re raising show birds, ask the show-bird raisers, since the commercial guys won’t know, and vice versa.

I always buy from Privett Hatchery in Portales NM, since in my opinion they’re the best hatchery in the West. I’ve tried ’em all, and their commercial-quality layers are very good. I use Phinney Hatchery in Walla Walla as my backup hatchery. I’m less familiar with hatcheries in other parts of the country, but I know that there are good ones and bad ones. Probably most of the well-known ones are good ones: Murray McMurray Hatchery, Ideal Hatchery, Stromberg’s, Moyer’s, Belt.

I go into this topic (plus many more) in my book, Success With Baby Chicks. If you don’t have a copy, you should. I went through an enormous amount of source material and tried all sorts of different techniques before I wrote the book, all aimed at keeping your baby chicks happy and healthy, giving you that wonderful baby-chick experience that’s what attracts us to poultrykeeping in the first place. I can guarantee that it will be worth purchasing, even if you’re an experienced poultrykeeper. And that goes double for beginners, because there’s a lot to learn, if you don’t get good results with your first batch of chicks, the heartbreak of letting down the baby birds who are so dependent on you will likely leave you discouraged, and you might never try again.