Better than free-range or organic: 
grass-fed eggs from happy outdoor chickens

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What are Grass-Fed Eggs?

Okay, I admit it: eggs don't eat grass! In fact, they don't eat anything. "Grass-fed eggs" are eggs from grass-fed chickens: that is, happy outdoor chickens that have free range over an area rich in green growing plants.

This is the kind of flock that people like to think about, and it's the kind of egg they want to eat.

Hens can't survive on grass alone, but they like grass, and eating it makes their eggs noticeably tastier and more nutritious. Besides, if you've seen a pasture-raised flock, you know that this is the way it's supposed to be. Nutrition, flavor, aesthetics, sustainability, nostalgia -- grass-fed eggs have it all. You want to live in a world where your eggs come from these chickens.


Grass-fed hens on my farm.

Isn't that the same thing as "Free-Range Eggs"?

Alas, no. When people buy free-range eggs, what they want are grass-fed eggs. That's usually not what they get, though. The average free-range egg is no better than a confinement egg, either because the hens don't really go outside, there are no green, growing plants out there, or both. More on this later.

Okay, I'm sold. Now what?

You're going to look for suppliers with grass-fed eggs to sell. Or you're going to raise a flock of grass-fed hens. Either way, you'll share the bounty and spread the word, changing the world one egg at a time.

You'll also want to join the Grass-Fed Eggs Discussion Group.

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Where Can I Find Grass-Fed Eggs?

Look on Craigslist for "grass-fed eggs." If you can't find a for-sale ad for them, put in a want ad. Producers and consumers of grass-fed eggs are thin on the ground right now. (Look for "free-range" while you're at it, since it will take a while for the "grass-fed" term to catch on. You're an early adopter!)

You should also check out the grass-fed eggs discussion group, which I have just started. You might find a producer near you.

Or you can start raising your own grass-fed hens. It's a lot of fun! You can have a small flock of hens even in many urban areas. Corvallis, Oregon, for example, allows anyone to have up to three hens in town (no roosters, though). Even with a tiny flock, you'll probably get more eggs than you can use.

I have more eggs than I can use. How do I sell them?

Put up a notice at work first, since delivering a dozen eggs to a coworker is easy and doesn't require extra driving or anything like that. If that doesn't work, put an ad in Craigslist, using both "grass-fed" and "free-range."

How do I get started with grass-fed hens?

Since the movement is brand-new, there's not a lot of specially targeted information yet. See my reviews section for recommended reading.

You should also check out the grass-fed eggs discussion group, which I have just started. It's where grass-fed egg enthusiasts (both consumers and producers) hang out.

I want to spread the word. How do I do that?

Grass-fed eggs almost sell themselves. Giving them away tends to create converts. Also, flocks of grass-fed hens are immensely appealing, so a few photographs of your flock (or your supplier's flock) will make a big difference.

It's better to have people ask you about grass-fed eggs than for you to buttonhole them. I selected the term "grass-fed eggs" specifically because it makes people go, "Huh?" They can't resist asking about them. I had the cartoony artwork done to make it look like fun. You can leverage this by getting some of the grass-fed egg merchandise -- T-shirts, mouse pads, shopping totes, mugs, etc. -- which will prompt people to ask you about it. Give them the short spiel (better flavor, more nutrition, humane, sustainable, and fun!) and press some eggs into their hands if you possibly can. The proof of the eggie is in the eating.

I've been getting a lot of questions because of my "grass-fed eggs" signage at the farmer's market, and I'm sure it will work just as well in other contexts.


Buy Grass-Fed Eggs Merchandise

Please don't imitate the example of so many other people, who try to build up the things they love by tearing down everything else. Because grass-fed eggs are the best in the world, it follows that all other eggs are worse. It's a logical necessity! And because of this, you can emphasize how great grass-fed eggs are, without condemning the other kind. Sure, you can get some atttention by nauseating your audience with lurid tales about bad egg. But you shouldn't. Some of the emotions you stir up will stick to you, and to grass-fed eggs. Let's make those emotions positive ones.

And while I'm on the subject of "us vs. them," let's remember that, at the moment, grass-fed eggs represent a tiny fraction of one percent of the market. That means that practically everyone is "them." But every "them" is a future "us." Love of good food and a delight in keeping hens are things that cross all political and cultural boundaries. Seriously! "Us vs. them" just doesn't apply here, for which we should be thankful. Let's make the most of this.

Don't you like activism and organization and certification and stuff?

Nope. I won't join any organization that wants me to fill out more than two sheets of paper per lifetime. I think that regulations are gorgons that set yesterday's ignorance into stone, stifling creativity and preventing people from doing the right thing. What I like are grass-roots movements, where we help each other out one-on-one.

Are you getting rich off of this?

I wish! But let's face it: I haven't quit my day job.

I figure that, one of these days, someone (maybe you!) will figure out how to become wealthy from grass-fed eggs. It's not going to be me, though. I like the idea of someone getting rich, because anytime a single innovator can do this, lots of ordinary folks can make a good living. Anyway, that's what happened when a neighbor of mine, Hal Schudel, reinvented the Oregon Christmas-tree industry.

Do grass-fed eggs have a future?

Right now, the rule of thumb is, if you can make a dollar on grass-fed eggs, you and make two dollars doing something else. This will start to change as we become successful in promoting the idea of grass-fed eggs. Consumers love the real thing and are only settling for substitutes becaue they can't find the real thing or don't know any better. The more successful we are at pressing a few really top-quality eggs into people's hands, the more demand there will be. Some people are cheapskates, but plenty of people value high-quality ingredients, even if they don't think of themselves as gourmets.

That's true of husbandry as well. Given the choice, just about anyone would prefer their eggs to come from a grass-fed flock, since it's the only kind that matches their mental image of what a flock of hens ought to be.

The free-range and cage-free and other alternative egg suppliers have been getting a free ride because the good stuff has been unobtainable, to the point where most consumers aren't aware of how good the good stuff really is. We can change this, one egg at a time.

In the bad old days, eggs were shipped to market by slow, unrefrigerated freight. Imagine what the eggs were like after arriving in New York after a slow summer journey from the midwest! That's what people ate, and grade "B" eggs, though disgusting, were considered adequate by many people. End-to-end refrigeration made grade "A" eggs a lot more available, and consumers quickly abandoned grade "B" entirely.

We can do the same thing, one egg at a time. Quality sells itself. But the eggs have to be the real deal. The people who are raising organic or free-range eggs that taste just like confinement eggs are missing the boat.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, by promoting the real deal, we build the base of consumers who are willing to pay extra for the real thing, which will in turn attract producers and distributors. So far, this hasn't happened because too many people have allowed themselves to be distracted by substitutes, like organic-confinement eggs or mud-yard free-range. But we'll win in the end because reality is a lot more real than fakery.

There's three feet of snow on the ground? Do my eggs count as "grass-fed"?

Climate happens. The image we all have in our minds of grass-fed eggs and happy outdoor hens is a springtime image. Let's not beat ourselves up unduly just because the world has seasons in it! Let's do the best we can and think about ways to beat the seasonal loss of grass-fed-ness. Silage? Hay? Canned green beans? I don't know. We'll figure it out.

My hens are in a "chicken ark"/"chicken tractor." I move them to a fresh patch of grass every day, but do they count as happy outdoor hens?

Sure, why not? They'd prefer being loose, and hens in confinement have more social problems like feather-picking than ones on free range, but let's all giving ourselves passing marks for "doing the best we can." Our best will get better over time. Let's not be hard on ourselves.

What about keeping the hens in confinement, cutting grass with a lawn mower, and achieving grass-fed-ness that way?

The hens would rather be outside, but the eggs will be wonderful.

Don't you have ANY hard-and-fast rules?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I do:

  • Be forthright and honest about what you're doing.
  • Handle the chicken, the eggs, and the customers with care and respect.

If you can only get halfway to the goal of "grass-fed eggs from happy outdoor chickens," you're still miles ahead of most people. It's a start. More than a start.

More Information About Grass-Fed Eggs

Are grass-fed eggs really more nutritious?

Yes. This has been known forever. It's mentioned in books on poultrykeeping from the Forties (see Jull's "Successful Poultry Management," 1943), and gets verified from time to time even now.

Mother Earth News did an article, Meet Real Free-Range Eggs a couple of years ago that tested a number of grass-fed eggs (including mine), and demonstrated that, compared to ordinary supermarket eggs, they had:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times as much Omega-3 fatty acid
  • 7 times as much beta carotene

The thing I find amusing about grass-fed eggs is that they have high levels of the fad nutrient du jour, and always did, even before the nutrient became fashionable. Confinement operators spend millions of dollars trying to chase after fad nutrients, while grass-fed eggs always seem to be there already.

Grass-fed hens eat their greens, while confinement hens eat nothing fresh at all. It makes a big difference.

The ultimate test of nutrition. The ultimate test of an egg is whether it can hatch into a healthy chick. For decades, breeder hens (whose eggs are are put into incubators for hatching) were kept on grassy range, since eggs from confinement hens didn't hatch very well. It's hard to make a clearer case for the nutritional value of grass than that.

These days, poultry nutrition is very well understood, and breeder hens lay eggs with excellent hatchability without being grass-fed. But this is true only if they are fed a special breeder ration. Hens laying table eggs are fed a cheaper ration that's comparatively deficient, meaning that the eggs in the supermarket are much less nutritious than they could be.

Could confinement eggs be as nutritious as grass-fed eggs? Certainly. Do enough people care enough to support a high-nutrition confinement egg industry? Beats me. It's not a branch of the biz that appeals to me.

Grass-Fed Eggs and Flavor

Do grass-fed eggs really taste better?

Try 'em and see. Some people, like me, need to try them both ways: switch to the good stuff for a while, then switch back to the old stuff. Sometimes I don't really notice when the quality goes up, but I recoil in horror when I switch back to the cheap stuff!

Side-by-side taste tests are also good. Some of the worst eggs I've ever eaten were certified-organic free-range eggs from California. These were clearly mud-yard free-range eggs, which have no reason to taste better than supermarket eggs. Worse, they seemed to have been shipped up from California by slow, unrefrigerated freight, since that's the only way I can explain their appalling lack of quality. (Some people think that political correctness somehow trumps things like careful handling and refrigeration, but it doesn't. Not even close. If you raise grass-fed eggs, do me a favor and avoid poisoning your customers! Don't sell them old or improperly stored eggs. It would give us a bad name.)

The more grass the hens eat, the darker the yolks will be. They'll be somewhere between a dark yellow and a deep orange. The color correlates nicely with the beta carotene content of the yolk, by the way. I think the flavor correlates with yolk color as well, though I haven't done enough taste-testing to be certain.

It's possible to darken the yolks with feed additives, so that eggs from confinement hens are just as dark as those from grass-fed hens. Marigold petal meal is often used for this. I don't know if it has any effect on the flavor of the eggs. Such ingredients are used mostly to swindle the public, rather than an effort to maximize quality. (As a consumer, your best protection is to know your farmer, or at least to go by reputation. A local reputation is rarely wrong.)

I want to learn more about raising grass-fed hens!

I'll add more pages to this web site as time permits. In the meantime, check out my Free Range Poultry Pages. And don't forget to join the discussion group.

Robert Plamondon
Norton Creek Farm


 

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