This post is sponsored by Best Food Facts. All thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.
I am super excited to talk to you today about sustainable egg farming. It is something I recently learned a lot about, and so much of it was new to me. This summer I was supposed to head to Iowa with Best Food Facts to visit egg producers and see everything first hand. But we all know things aren’t going as planned this summer, so instead we did a virtual get together with a few top experts and farmers instead!
Everything with food is about sustainability lately, but what does that really even mean? Dr. Dan Thompson, who is one of the veterinarians at Iowa State and Chair of the Department of Animal Science, said to him it means “leaving things a little bit better than you found it.” This goes for farming, animal care and even when it comes to the retail side of food. We also got to talk to Coby Newbold who works on the retail of things for a grocery chain in Iowa. He defined it as “meeting the present and future food needs with minimal impact on the environment.”
When you talk about sustainability, everyone is mostly on the same page. They want to take care of the animals in the best and most efficient way, be able to produce enough food for the country, and get it to the consumer in the most efficient way. It really does benefit everyone involved.
I have been on a few farm tours in the past few years and the one thing that always comes through is the way the farmers care about what they do. Whether it is caring about the crops they are growing or the animals they are raising, they really do care. The well-being of the animals is the number 1 priority of a farm. If the animals aren’t healthy and happy, they aren’t going to produce. And if they don’t produce the farmer is out of a job and can’t support their family.
Truly 24 hours a day, no matter what the weather a farmer is out there and making sure the animals are taken care of. Sometimes they have machines that help them so they can monitor it that way, and other times it means trudging through a snow storm in the middle of winter to go out to the barn.
There are multiple ways to house hens that are laying eggs. They each have their benefits and drawbacks, so there are farmers that do all of them to provide choice and options to the consumer.
Conventional Cages – these have a small footprint and house 6-7 chickens per cage. The chickens don’t get to move around as much, but they are fed and taken care of the same as other methods. The result is the low cost eggs you find at the grocery store.
Enriched Colony Cages – these have a larger footprint with more room for the chickens to move around. They usually hold about 60 chickens in a cage. They are equipped with nesting boxes, perches, and scratching areas for the hens. These are the 3 areas of behavior that are most important to a healthy hen. More and more studies are showing that this is the best system for the birds, the workers taking care of them, food safety and sustainability. The result is a middle of the road price at the store.
Cage Free – these animals are able to go almost anywhere in a building, and eat almost anything. This means it is harder for farmers to take care of them and make sure all of their needs are being dealt with. It also means food safety can be a concern when the chickens are eating their own feces and other things containing harmful bacteria. It takes 2-3 times the amount of labor to care for cage free hens. The result is the high cost eggs at the grocery store.
Studies are showing that the colony cages are leading to the happiest and healthiest chickens. The farmers are able to be more hands-off, which means the chickens act more natural. Not all natural behaviors are good for the birds though. Same as with people, not all of our behaviors are good for us. With chickens the farmers can see these behaviors and help change them, to make sure the hens are healthy.
The really interesting thing to me is that no matter how the hen is raised, the eggs have the same nutritional value. American farmers produce what the American consumers want, and it is all about having a choice on the shelf so you can pick what you want for your family. Eggs are a cheap food that help sustain so many people at every income level. So having different types of eggs available is so important to keeping our society fed.
Every farmer I have ever talked to focuses on sustainability. It is how they are able to continue farming. Cameron Hall, the farm manager at the Iowa State University poultry research farm, shared how they specifically partner with their neighboring farm for corn. The farmer gives them corn to feed their hens, and he in turn gives them chicken manure for their fields. Chicken manure is actually the 2nd most well-rounded fertilizer. It is very nutrient rich and works really well with the soil.
Farming is an ever-changing landscape. When the demands change, the farmers adapt to meet the new demands. Knowing more about where your food comes from and trusting the farmers is an integral part of what makes food affordable and accessible to people.