Wednesday, August 25, 2010

An Egg Of One's Own

The minute the salmonella egg brouhaha broke out, I started surfing the web for information about the incidence of salmonella in the eggs of backyard flocks.  Like every researcher, I had something I was hoping to prove:  that an egg from a hen who is known to you personally is safer  than an egg from an industrial egg factory.  This would not only make me feel good about the eggs I eat, but would enable me to write a post encouraging my myriad readers to get (just a couple of) hens.

I'm sorry to say that my searches failed to yield the results I wanted.  Salmonella can infect an egg externally through fecal matter.  Thus, cleanliness is important, and one could make the case that it is easier to keep a clean environment for three hens than for three hundred thousand.  But industrial egg producers do clean and disinfect the eggs, so external salmonella is not likely to be the culprit.

Unfortunately, a hen can be infected with salmonella and, while appearing perfectly healthy, pass the bacterium into the egg while it is being formed.  I could find no studies of the incidence of salmonella-infected hens in backyard flocks.

Today, at last, I heard on Morning Edition an interview with Dr. William Schaffner, Chair of the Department of  Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt, (you can listen to it here ).  He said--briefly, and in passing--that, while there are no studies to this effect, it makes sense that hens from smaller flocks would be less likely to be infected than egg-factory hens.

Thus, though it is remotely possible that one of your three or four hens might be infected, the rest of your little flock, having access to the great outdoors, living in clean, well-ventilated quarters, and enjoying a natural, stress-free existence, would be much better able to fight off the infection than their caged egg-factory sisters, who lead the most inhumane lives of all domestic animals.

Now for a statistically insignificant data point:  my family and I, and my dogs too, have been eating eggs from our own hens off and on since 1975.  These eggs have been consumed in various stages of doneness--the dogs eat them raw--and we are all alive and well.  (Well, some of the dogs are no longer alive, but they didn't die of salmonella.)

So yet again, I will make my case for keeping a small backyard flock of hens:


1.  Eggs from your own hens are fresher, tastier and probably healthier (see above) than eggs from industrial farms.
2.  Hens are good for you.  They are companionable, attractive, and not at all stupid. I am sure they raise your oxytocin levels.
3.  Hens are good for the garden:  they produce fabulous manure that, mixed with old bedding and allowed to age over the winter, will make your vegetables and flowers flourish.  Also, they will happily consume your garden waste and all the extra veggies that you would otherwise feel guilty about throwing out.

Hens Feasting On Overgrown Zucchini


4.  A few hens are not at all time consuming.  I probably spend no more than five minutes a day feeding and watering my six hens, and gathering eggs (I'm not counting the time I spend chatting to them).  Because I use the "deep litter" bedding method, I only clean their shed in spring and fall.  I should mention that my hens spend the day outdoors except when there is deep snow on the ground, and their shed is quite large.  A smaller shed, or a bigger flock, would require more frequent cleaning.
5.  Many cities (including NYC) now allow people to keep small flocks of hens.  My feeling is that as long as you keep things small, clean, and are generous with gifts of eggs, you'll get no complaints from neighbors, and that means that you can keep hens just about anywhere.  Please note:  I'm talking about hens, not roosters.  Regardless of his other charms, the male of the chicken species is always loud, and often bellicose.

If you're curious about raising eggs of your own, here is a terrific website.

5 comments :

  1. I'd love to raise a few hens (in the city we can keep up to 4, with no roosters allowed). But my yard keeps getting smaller and smaller, with playground and summer pool and deck and so forth...we talk about this a lot, but I just can't figure out how we can do it. NEighbors have discussed opening yards with each other and letting hens run free, but there's one neighbor between me and the enthusiastic group, and I know he doesn't want chicken poop in his manicured lawn (or kid access to the same lawn). We go back and forth. I think eventually we'll get a couple of hens, but I'm concentrating on the vegetarian/vegan side of farming at the moment!

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  2. Bridgett, glad to hear you're thinking about it. Is your deck raised above the ground? My chicken houses have always been a little raised, and the hens love to hang out underneath, out of the rain, for shade and dust baths. Of course they also need a bit of sunny space. But a couple of hens don't need a lot of room.

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  3. It is raised. I hadn't considered that (our deck actually is about 1/3 of our yard at this point--city yards are so narrow and small). So it's still on the table.

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  4. i was thinking the same thing--feeling a little smug about buying our eggs from a friend who keeps a small flock of free-range happy chickens. and i am going to continue to feel smug. because even if that's no guarantee against salmonella, i still know that it's the right thing to do.

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  5. Laurie, good for you! And of course, there are no guarantees in life.

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