Free range cage free eggs command a premium price and rightly so; or you can keep your own hens. It's all about what they eat.
If you carefully observe hens that are able to range freely you'll quickly notice four things.
Caged birds have no access to any of these; dried alfalfa and
corn makes up most of their diet; corn is low in the vital vitamin
I'm no expert on keeping hens but I have a profound interest in nutrition and permaculture. Growing as much of our food as we possibly can has progressed to backyard chickens.
It all started with building one of the chicken tractor designs which has a floor area of about three square metres, with five hens and a rooster.
The idea of a tractor is that you can keep moving it about your garden once they've cleaned up the remaining vegetation after the cabbages or green beans have been reaped. It's a good concept and a very satisfactory half way house between caged birds and real free range eggs. That way they don't destroy your new seedlings that are popping up.
Sodexo is a very large company that focuses on quality of life. Operating at 32,000 sites in 80 countries, they have just declared in July, 2016 their commitment to source only free range cage free eggs.
Their drive has to do in the main with compassion in world farming; ours is that free range cage free eggs are so much tastier and more healthy.
Be warned though that some farms allow their hens out for five minutes a day and call them free range; we live in a world filled with deceit.
Free range cage free eggs are very hard to come by, in short; so we decided to keep our own hens.
I made a tactical error; I started letting them out to range freely for an hour in the evening. I could never bring myself to cage them permanently in the tractor again; they simply sleep there overnight; and that, in fact, no longer since we started to consider simple chicken coops.
During the summer months everything was moderately fine; there are plenty of grubs and greens to keep them happy. Except for the beans which they love; I soon realised that hens have an insatiable appetite for vegetable protein and most of our legumes took a hammering.
I didn't mind them rooting up every last shred of the clover, but those beans were for our own pot, not for them.
A new strategy is growing as much of their food too as possible; the corn was a huge success last summer, and this coming year we'll have a new paddock for them; plenty of green beans will be part of their diet. That's what it takes if you want proper free range cage free eggs; plenty of planning and aforethought.
Six birds in about 25 square feet in the summer months was a reasonable compromise provided we kept moving the tractor. But once winter arrived and our family of four adults and three children demanded a couple more birds, there simply wasn't enough food for them.
The veggie garden started looking like a desert and when they began to attack the broccoli, Helen demanded a solution to the problem; I've had to divide the veggie garden in two, and now in three, with the birds roaming freely in one half, fertilising and cleaning up the bugs. Periodically we'll swap, allowing them into the other territory. In fact, a third paddock is almost complete.
Interestingly, although they love most legumes, the broad beans in the foreground are untouched at this stage; we'll see what transpires when they start fruiting; still no interest.
As we have a very large broad bean patch in this next summer season we're considering a new strategy; they have the highest protein content of all legumes.
They show no interest in the sweet potatoes in the background either; the compost heaps is where they spend a good deal of their time. Foraging under the mulch is of course another great favourite.
They have two nests hidden in the sweet potatoes where they lay their cage free eggs.
A local supermarket that boasts about its concern for the environment and commitment to organic foods, sells so called free range eggs for nearly double the normal price.
However, on closer investigation, they keep 8 birds per square metre; I wouldn't call that free range. Certainly compared to our hens they get very few creepy crawlies, greens and fresh legumes.
To be honest, I think true free range eggs are virtually impossible to buy.
If you want them, you have to keep your own cage free hens. Birds that can scratch and forage is not really compatible with the corporate environment.
In addition when I'm working in our general gardening area I take two hens with me; they go eagerly hunting for greens and a host of insects and worms. Your best chicken feed should be far better than any commercially produced food, if you want real free range eggs.
Actually, the very best of cage free eggs is the joy of watching our three year old grandson hunting for the nests in the sweet potatoes.
First thing in the morning, and again when he gets home from play school the first thing he asks for is a visit to the hens. It's the joy known only to grandparents who have the privilege of helping to rear the little people, and introducing them to a richer life.
The arrival of our new handsome cockerel was also the very best introduction to sex education; why can't he lay eggs was the first question.
Imagine the size of his eyes the day we found this nest; they had been ferreting away their eggs unbeknown to us.
We had to learn about testing eggs for freshness; only one had gone bad.
I had the good fortune to visit a free range cage free eggs farm last week in Kent, England. The owner gets her hens after the commercial farmers dump them, aged only 8 months old. I was shocked at the state of a group of ex caged layers she had received the day before.
This poor creatures aptly describes the term "hen-pecked".
Grand'mere Jenny's favourite saying: "One should see what one gives one's family to eat, see it growing."
- For Love of a Rose
Would you give your family an egg from this poor stressed hen, if you'd seen her?
Compare the poor bird above with her hens below. Animals in poor condition cannot possibly produce eggs of the same nutritional value as healthy birds.
Commercial producers look to corn for carbohydrate and alfalfa for protein; in principle there's nothing wrong with that, but real best chicken feed also has access to varied greens and creepy crawlies.
Greens like purslane plant are where they get their omega-3 fatty acids; free range cage free eggs have at least three times more. They reduce not only inflammation in our muscles and joints but also cancer.
Research published in J Nutr Biochem 2010 found that lactating females on a diet enriched in omega-3 fish oil not only themselves, but also their offspring in later life had less breast cancer.
And in juxtaposition, on a diet high in omega-6 fatty acids such as corn and sunflower oil both they and their offspring had a higher incidence of breast cancer. Olive oil is neutral, neither high in ω-3 nor -6.
Best chicken feed gives the birds access to fresh greens rich in omega-3; purslane is a weed, some would call a herb, that proliferates in our garden.
According to Wiki it has more omega-3 than any other leafy plant; 350mg in half a cup of fresh leaves. The hens cleaned it up and we'll collect it now instead of weeding it out. I see it's also used widely both raw and cooked throughout the world.
Next spring we'll try it in our eggs Florentine breakfast; most of our omega-3 comes from freshly ground flax seed and fish like salmon and herring.
Then free range eggs are one of the best choline food sources; it's one of the lesser known B vitamins that is profoundly important in preventing inflammation in the body, and birth defects such as spina bifida and cleft lip.
In the long run we have found that a chicken tractor does not give the birds the protection they need from the elements, nor from the predators; it's fine during the day but for the nights I had to start looking a simple chicken coops.
Free range cage free eggs are truly wonderful but not if you arrive in the morning to find that a mongoose has decimated your flock.
Here our hens, when there were only five, are feasting on a shovelful from the worm farm; it's a gourmet meal.
At our permaculture green home we try to work with nature, rather than against it; we use no pesticides. All the kitchen waste goes to the wonder of worm farms; the "worm wee" as it's known feeds our plants and the surplus creepy crawlies go to the hens.
There can be very few commercial farms anywhere in the world where the hens feed better than ours. I'd like to be able to eat the birds too, but that I think would break our hearts.
We had a famous guest who came to breakfast this week; a quite rare juvenile crowned eagle. For every 100,000 common white hens there's probably only one of this very unusual bird; perhaps for every million.
I can't begrudge him his breakfast thus, though we miss Snowy. It's part of the price of having free range cage free eggs; you have unwelcome guests periodically.
Or should that be very welcome? Never before have I been so close to one of these majestic eagles.
In the winter months when eagle food is in short supply, the hens are now confined to quarters unless we are working in the garden.
Chickens in the garden; let's get started.
It's not only slugs and snails, birds and Peter Rabbit that will raid Mr McGregor's garden; protecting your veggies from your own hens is important.
Mark I, our first chicken tractor design was less than satisfactory; it stemmed from a failure to recognise that our hens needed a permanent roost, safe from the weather and a hungry mongoose.
This chicken tractor design is much simpler and lighter, and easy to move but the hens sleep elsewhere in a simple coop. You can either put the hens in it, or place it over precious lettuces to keep them out.
These lettuce cages were very easy to weld together. Covered with bird netting, they keep the hens out.
More difficult was the creation of different camps so the hens were restricted to one area only; we now have four.
One of the beauties of the permaculture lifestyle is the learning of different skills; building a vegetable garden fence has been indispensable; it's not rocket science but some inexpensive tools are necessary.
So was building a steel gate design; if I can learn to weld, so can you; inexpensive and no more dangerous that taking your car out on the road.
Bernard Preston, a semi-retired chiropractor just loves the outdoors; whether it's soaring in gliders, keeping bees or working in his organic garden, life is a joy. He borders on fanaticism when it comes to a sustainable world for his grandchildren; and making sure the girls in particular get enough omega-3 to prevent breast cancer. Free range cage free eggs is part of that thrust.
The boys get plenty of tomatoes and avocados for their prostates. Too many of us unnecessarily from cancer.
In the early mornings he writes his Bernard Preston books. If you've enjoyed this site, you'll love his novels. Hang onto your hat; they are controversial; and dead cheap on your Kindle or smartphone. At a dollar apiece he joking says they are aiming for a million sales!