Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Eggs and Cage -Free Hens and Dirt

The Washington Post runs an article  on caged and cage-free hens, tied in with the salmonella problem. It's accompanied by a photo, which I don't see on the website, showing hens in a row of nests. The photo called up memories, and thoughts.  (Here's a link to a similar photo, found through Google Images.)  The article said currently cage-free eggs are about twice the cost of cage eggs, and even with mass production the cost differential would still be 25 percent more.

Some points for anyone who didn't have a close association with hens growing up:
  • cages permit total control over the hen.  You can use conveyor belts to bring grain to the hen, pipe in water to the waterer, and allow the eggs to roll into another conveyor belt.  The manure drops through the cage bottom  Presto: eggs untouched by human hands.
  • cage-free hens who lay eggs in nests, as in the picture, are an entirely different matter. Someone has to collect the eggs from the nests.  Because eggs are laid throughout the day, although more heavily in the early hours of the day, the eggs need to be collected multiple times a day.  Why not just once?  Because eggs are fragile; the more eggs you have in a nest the more likely the next egg laid is going to drop on an egg already in the nest and one or both eggs get cracked.  That's bad for several reasons: you've lost one or two eggs; if the break is bad enough the white of the egg gets out and spreads over any other uncracked eggs in the nest, you've now got dirty eggs which are hard to clean; finally, if a hen tries pecking at the white/egg and finds it good, which they do, you're training a hen to peck at eggs to get the contents.
  • even if you collect the eggs often enough to avoid breakage, you face another problem not found in cages: manure.  Hens are not naturally fastidious and will defecate in their nests.  That means some percentage of the eggs collected have manure clinging to them, sometimes really staining the shell.  So after the eggs are collected you need to clean the eggs.  Growing up cleaning eggs was my mother's job, which she did manually.  Could take 90 minutes or so to do 900 eggs.  If she was sick, we could use an early egg cleaning machine, which was faster than I or my father.
So the bottom line is cage free eggs require a lot more labor than eggs from caged hens. I'd assume these days there are innovations which we didn't have 60 years ago, but I think the labor accounts for the difference.

One final note: if you look at the photo, you'll see someone who is collecting eggs will have to lift the hens in the nest to see if they're sitting on eggs already laid.  Now hens vary in their personality; some are timid, some aggressive in protecting the eggs, and some are from hell.  The latter ones will grab a fold of skin on the back of your hand in their beak and pull and twist.  Not a nice feeling.  I still feel the anger from 60 years ago. 

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