Let's start with the egg.
Recently at a Farmers' Market a customer looked at our eggs and said, "your eggs are very pale, how come?". I answered, "because they are laid by white hens", (as was the case in that particular instance). The questioner had no idea that the colour of the hen related to the colour of the egg - which I guess is fair enough if you hadn't had the experience! (Actually to be strictly accurate it's related to the colour of the ear of the chicken - but perhaps that's going to far with the explanation.)
The incident made me think about egg shell colour and how we in Australia think that brown eggs are 'normal' or somehow better because they are brown. If you travel to Europe, white eggs are considered to be more desirable. Funny hey? So what is the story?
Indeed, brown eggs are very common in Australia amongst commercial producers and even pastured eggs producers because they typically raise hens that lay brown eggs (ISA or the commercial layer Hyline Browns). This breed of hen lay pretty much every day and so this makes these hens very 'productive'.
But just because the egg is brown doesn't mean it is better or more nutritious. Egg shell colour is determined by the genetics of the hen not by the nutrition of the hen or the egg. Here is a very interesting and simple piece about egg shell colour. You might like to read it.
And that brings us to the chicken.
At Highfield we do not raise ISA or Hyline Brown Hens (the ones that lay the brown egg common in commercial operations) because large-scale commercial producers do that well enough and we want to offer something different.
Instead we aim to raise a mixed flock of Leghorns, Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks and Araucanas and Marans which in combination produce a range of egg shell colours from a very dark brown to brown to white to pinkish to blue. This makes our dozen eggs look very pretty and the mixed breeds also look very pretty in the paddock. And again, why have the same breed as the commercial producers when you are trying to do something different? And genetic diversity is a good thing, right?
But it is not as simple as just the chicken or the egg. We like to do things differently right from the beginning.
Most egg farmers - even the groovy and pasture-raised ones - buy chickens in from commercial hatcheries at point-of-lay (nearly ready to start laying). Hens bought from hatcheries usually have their beaks trimmed (the tip is cut off to stop them pecking each other when they are raised in batteries or in close quarters in sheds). This is pretty horrible and unnecessary and in a pasture-raised system like ours this damage to their beak interferes with the chicken eating grass.
So, we are working towards hatching all our own replacement hens ourselves. We are making good progress! Raising our own hens means they do not get de-beaked but more importantly we think, it means that we take responsibility for the lives of our cock birds.
In a commercial hatcheries, where most egg producers buy their point-of-lay chickens from, the male chicks get 'sexed' and killed at day one. We think this is such a terrible waste of a life and animal protein. So instead, we grow our rooster birds on so they have a life. Some lucky lads get to live with the girls full time as they would in nature. The roosters find food for the hens and because they stand taller than the hens they look out for danger and make 'danger calls' to the hens if something is amiss whereby the hens run for cover.
But we can't keep all roosters. The ones not chosen to live with then hens still get to have a life, still graze on pasture and get the goodies from our compost bays! And on their dispatch they provide nutrition to our vegetable garden or are made into chicken bone broth or coc au vin (a French dish designed as a way to make good, nutritious use of cock birds).
Anyway that's a little bit of our chicken and egg story - there is plenty more to tell but that is enough for now. We are always open for you to ask us about our approach to our hens and their eggs at any time.