These days it is difficult to really understand what is in our food and how it is processed. It is especially hard to know how animals are treated when used for meat, milk, eggs, or other animal products. In many commercial operations, chickens are often caged without access to the outdoors. When egg production slows, food is withheld to force quicker molting to return to maximum egg production. Chickens are often debeaked to prevent pecking injuries. Commercially raised chickens are rarely able to practice normal scratching and preening practices in the limited space they are given. They also have high rates of foot injuries from standing in cages their whole lives. There are definitely some practices that are better than others, but it is important to know what to look for. Here is a summary of what egg labels mean in the grocery store.
What do egg labels mean?
Cage Free: The cage free label is used for chickens living in a warehouse without cages. However, they may have 1 sq ft or less of space. Cage free chickens may have a higher mortality rate than caged birds. This may be due to pecking injuries or disease spread in a small space. They do not have access to the outdoors and can be debeaked to prevent injuries.
Free Range: Free range chickens have access to the outdoors, however, they may not actually use that outdoor space and it can be a limited time during the day. To be considered free range, a farm just needs to provide some sort of outdoor space connected to their covered barn. Unfortunately, many times that space is not accessible by most of the birds.
All Natural or Farm Fresh: There are no standards or regulations set on using the term “all natural” or “farm fresh”. These labels don’t mean anything.
Hormone Free: Chickens can not be given hormones in the US. If your egg label reads “Hormone Free” that is simply a marketing term and does not mean those eggs are better than any other available in the store.
Pasture Raised: Pasture raised chickens spend the majority of their time outdoors and have a safe indoor place to sleep. Our chickens would be considered pasture raised, and this is the term I would look for when buying eggs elsewhere.
Organic: To have the organic label, the eggs must come from a certified organic farm. The chickens must be cage free and have outdoor access, but they can be debeaked. In many family farm cases, the label will read “From Organically Fed Chickens” or something similar, because the investment to become certified isn’t worth it for small farms.
Omega-3 Enriched: This label doesn’t mean anything as far as living conditions. It only means the chickens are fed a diet with added Omega-3s.
We are proud to have pasture raised, organically fed chickens. We are lucky to get enough eggs to sell a few to cover some feed costs and provide others with eggs they can feel good about. Our eggs generally have dark orange yolks, a sign that they are truly pasture raised and free range more than they eat grain. The eggs come in various sizes and colors, which varies by breed. Store bought eggs generally have a pale yolk, indicating a grain fed chicken.
It is also important to know that while store bought eggs generally have an expiration date a month away, they are often already 30+ days old. Fresh eggs will often be perfectly good 3+ months from when they were collected. As eggs age they are better for hard boiling. Store bought eggs peel easier than farm fresh eggs because they are older. For fresh eggs, try steaming them instead of boiling. They will peel great! When in doubt about how old your eggs are, you can test your eggs with the Float Test. To test for freshness, put an egg in water. If it sinks it is still fresh. If it stands on end, it is still good but should be used soon. If it floats, it is no good. You might be surprised at how long your eggs can last.
Food labels really can be deceiving, so I hope this has given you some clarity in what to look for. It might just make you want to get a few chickens of your own! If that’s the case, check out our Chicken Basics article. Support your local farmers and happy egg hunting!
If you have a garden, I hope this summer has been good to you! We have had our garden just take off over the last month. We have been lucky to have avoided many pests and weather problems. I hope we can have a garden like this every year!
Our zucchini has already given us enough to make 3 loaves of zucchini bread. I made 24 muffins and put them in the freezer for the kids to eat over the next few weeks. We’ve also been eating broccoli and sweet peppers from the garden, but they haven’t produced the way I would have liked. The cucumbers and tomatoes on the other hand, have so many fruits started that I fear we will be eating them all winter long. The pumpkins are beautiful, but I have struggled with getting the fruits pollinated. They have been growing to golf ball sized pumpkins and then falling off due to a lack in pollination. It will be interesting to see if we get any pumpkins by fall.
The real winners are the green beans. I have picked about 4 lbs of green beans so far and we have been eating them nearly every day. I froze a pound of them before we left for Micah’s appointment because we couldn’t eat them fast enough. I am currently picking about 8 oz every 1-2 days and the 4×4 box hasn’t even started producing. They are delicious.
The cucumbers are just starting to get to a picking size. Harrison loves to check on them. He was showing Ryan yesterday that you need to move the leaves to see them. Harrison spends almost as much time in the garden as I do. The cucumbers are going to start being ready by the dozen, so I see some canning in my future.
I like to measure how much produce I pick, just for fun. However, I will never know how much broccoli or carrots we get. The boys pick them as soon as they look ready and eat them right in the garden. Yesterday the boys passed around a great big carrot. If they all grow to that size by the end of the season, I will be very happy.
This homesteading adventure is relatively new to us, but we have enjoyed doing it as a family. Harrison has been a part of the garden from the very first seed. He has really learned how to take care of the garden and now he knows what kind of sweet rewards you can get.
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My garden is looking promising, even with our short growing season and the excessive rain we have gotten this year. I see buds or flowers on almost every plant and I’m really excited to see what kind of yield I can get!
Everything has sprouted, except the rhubarb. I’m not sure why, but the rhubarb just never came up. Today I weeded it and turned the soil. I planted some green beans in the 4×4 box so it didn’t seem like a waste. There is still plenty of time, so I think the beans will do well.
I had 3 leftover tomato plants that I put in near the cucumbers and they are doing amazing. The tomatoes I planted in the pots are drowning from all of the rain. They just don’t have enough drainage and we got over 10″ of rain in June, 4″ came all at once! Just last night we got another inch of rain. I have not watered the garden since I first planted it.
The pumpkins and zucchini are growing rapidly and I have high hopes for them. Last year something ate most of the buds off of the zucchini, so I’m hoping we have better luck this year with a better fence.
I also have sweet peppers, broccoli, carrots, herbs, and asparagus that are all doing well. I must say, I’m pretty proud! I even picked my first green pepper today. I’ve been feeling very lucky to have this distraction to keep me extra busy. Last night we had a beautiful rainbow after the rain. What a beautiful property we have!
More updates to come soon! Thanks for reading!
People often ask us how many animals we have, so I thought I would do a little update of our creatures.
I will start with our most beloved animals, our blue heeler mixes, also called Australian cattle dogs. We have 2 and both are adopted from shelters. Sadie is estimated to be about 7-8 years old, but her age was unknown when we adopted her. She is a sweet dog with some quirks. She hates wheels and is very attached to Ryan. Sadie also sticks pretty close to Micah’s side but has never taken much interest in Harrison.
Kelty is our rambunctious dog. She is sweet but full of energy and likes to bark. We adopted her as a puppy in June 2012. We try to discourage our dogs from barking, but they protect their flock in the backyard, so I can’t complain too much.
We currently have 18 egg laying chickens and a rooster. We do lose a few chickens every year to predators. It is sad every time we have a loss but it is the cost of letting the chickens live a free-range life. We could keep them safer in their run, but they really love digging up treats from the forest floor. We have had issues with coyotes, fox, and bear (more on that later). Our biggest predator prevention is allowing our dogs outside for most of the day. Every spring we get more chicks to replace any loss we predict for the summer. We currently have 6 more chicks in the brooder, bringing our total to 25.
We have 7 ducks. 6 are females that lay eggs nearly every day. The ducks nest on the floor of the chicken coop. They love swimming in their pool (when it is above freezing). Ducks are messy with water and have added a little bit of adventure to our homestead. We originally had 15 ducks, but we butchered the males. Our ducks are 2 years old.
We also currently have meat chickens. We had a tragic run in with a bear that killed several of them before we were able to get rid of it. The bear ripped the locked door open on our garage and helped himself to the birds (which were about 2 weeks old at the time). We assume this is the same bear that killed our turkeys last year when it climbed on top of and collapsed our tractor coop. The bear will not be returning… Anyways, we currently have about 35 chickens left. The remaining birds are doing well and gaining weight like crazy. We will put them outside next week with an electric fence.
Every spring we talk about getting a few milking goats. We won’t be getting them anytime soon, but I guarantee they will be part of our homestead in the future. I would also love a cat, but Ryan is allergic so it would have to be a barn cat. That means we need a barn…..Ryan?… I mean, the kids will love it.
We raised turkeys last year. The bear got our first batch, but we did successfully grow a second batch. We ground most of the meat and it is delicious. We will grow turkeys again in the future, but they take a bit more work than the chickens and we wanted to have more time to travel this summer. Between the chickens, fresh eggs, my garden, and our fruit trees we should have plenty to put in the freezer for the next year. I’ll be sure to update throughout the summer. Thanks for reading!
I am so excited to hear so many people I know are considering backyard chickens. I mean, how can you resist those little puffs of happiness when you visit them at Tractor Supply or your local feed and hardware stores? I think most people are surprised to find out that backyard chickens don’t have to be a huge investment or a lot of work. You can decide for yourself how much you want to put into building or buying a coop and their care is generally pretty simple. I have put a list together of a few things everyone should know when they bring home their first chickens.
- You will need a good brooder. For some people, this is simply a plastic tub or even a bath tub. If you want to build a brooder that can be reused for years to come, check out our tutorial. The brooder needs dry pine shavings, a thermometer, feeder, water, and a heat source. It is best to have the heat source set up a day or two in advance so that you have a nice warm home for the chicks when you bring them home. The brooder should start at 90-95 degrees (F) and be reduced about 5 degrees a week (by raising the lamp) until the birds feather out. We find it best to put a block of wood in the bottom to hold the feed and water containers, as the little chicks like to kick the shavings into them.
- For egg laying chickens, you should start your chickens on a chicken starter feed with a protein level between 10-15% for about 3 months. For months 3-5 a grower feed with a protein level around 15% is best. Layer feeds, which contain an increased level of calcium, should be fed to layers older than 18 weeks. The extra calcium can be harmful when the birds are younger, so it is important to wait until they reach the recommended age. So just remember: starter feed –> grower feed –> layer feed.
- Water should be available to chickens at all times. A small chicken waterer is perfect in the brooder, but a large one is more appropriate for the coop. If you live in a cold climate where it freezes often in the winter, I recommend just going ahead and buying a heated waterer. You don’t have to always have it plugged in and it is so useful in the winter.
- You will need a coop and outdoor run for your chickens. You can buy a small coop (usually for about 4 birds) at your local feed store, or you can build one of your own. There are so many recommendations and plans online, but just remember a minimum of 3 sq ft per chicken in the coop, 10 sq ft per bird in the run, and 1 ft roosting space per chicken. The coop needs to be sheltered from the cold, but not airtight. Cleaning the coop is the biggest job and how often you do it is really up to you. We use the deep litter method, meaning we scoop out under the roosts 1-2 times per month and then we add more shavings and stir it in. We do a full coop cleaning 2-3 times a year. The run needs to be protected from predators (which will vary based on your location.) We recommend using hardware cloth as a fence and burying it 6-12 inches under ground to keep out predators that will dig. We are lucky that we have only lost chickens while free ranging and nothing has ever gotten into our coop. Our first coop was very large, because we wanted it to be multi-functional if the next owners didn’t want a chicken coop. You can read all about our first coop in this 4 part series.
- It is a good idea to have a chicken first aid kit. We have had a couple of chickens with issues, such as bumble foot or sores from being picked on. While the issues don’t happen often, it is better to be prepared than to have to run out and buy supplies once you discover an issue. I recommend having gauze, vetricyn wound and skin care, stretchy bandage for wrapping, and rubber gloves. Sometimes when a chicken seems sick or lethargic all it takes is some water with electrolytes. Since I am not a veterinarian, I recommend doing some research or asking your local vet if you have any questions about chicken care or a specific sickness/injury.
- After your chickens reach about 6 months old the hens will start laying eggs! You do not need a rooster for hens to lay eggs, and if you do have a rooster any fertilized eggs can be used just like any other egg, as long as you aren’t allowing your hens to become broody and sit on them. You can encourage them by making cozy nest boxes and using a wooden egg or golf ball in the boxes to make them see what it is for. I wrote a nest box tutorial a couple of years ago that I recommend checking out.
- Eggs can be stored with or without refrigeration. Eggs that have been cold or refrigerated should be kept cold, as temperature changes can cause them to spoil. If the eggs are fresh from the coop, feel free to keep them on the counter. If you are concerned about egg freshness, you can try the float test. Fresh eggs will sink. Eggs that are still ok, but should be used soon will stand on end. Eggs that have gone bad will float.
- Once you are settled with your chickens, get about 20 more. Then get ducks…and maybe a goat. Just trust me.
It has taken me a long time to come back and finish this series, but here it is! Part 4 will include what finishes we added to the coop and what we learned. Since we have recently moved and are designing/building a new coop we have a lot to look back on.
We added a door to the chicken run for us to use (which helped Ryan so he didn’t have to crawl through the 12″x12″ chicken door to shovel. It was a simple project using welded wire and 1x4s. You can see the tutorial here.
We installed vinyl siding to the coop that matches the garage and house. In this case, we wanted the coop to be multi-functional in case someone without chickens buys our house. It can easily be used as a garden shed or as a dog run. We had extra siding anyways and it matches really nicely.
We also matched the roofing to our garage and house. Black shingles are always a safe bet, but are a bit expensive. Again, we wanted this to be a nice shed that added value to our property so we went with higher quality materials.
What We Learned:
Our biggest mistake was only putting hardware cloth a few feet up on the run. We get so much snow, that a weasel was able to make it into our run through the welded wire a few feet up. We were lucky that we only lost one chicken and were able to trap the weasel quickly.
We spent a lot of money on this coop. In total, it was over $1,000 to complete it. While I think it will add a lot of value to our home and lot, we won’t spend that much next time. Overall, it was totally worth it. There really is nothing quite like fresh eggs.
The nest boxes work great. We added curtains to them and the hinged top was awesome. On our next coop, we will install these same nest boxes to the outside so we do not have to enter the coop to collect eggs. Again, we wanted this to be a possible shed, so we didn’t want to have holes in the exterior for nest boxes. We were able to easily remove them and take them with us.
My biggest piece of advice: always build a bigger coop than you need. The chickens will love the extra space and you will more than likely end up with more chickens than you plan on anyways.
I hope you enjoyed this series! Thank you for reading! We will soon have more updates on our new coops, including our duck coop plans. Check back soon!
We are always excited to see what we get when we look for eggs. They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and colors. We have gotten several double yolk eggs, but today we got the tiniest egg ever.
When I put on the scale, it didn’t even register.
(Compare this to Pearls eggs that max out the scale.)
Here it is next to a large and extra large egg also collected today.
I had to crack the egg to see if there was a yolk inside. I cracked it into a 1/4c measuring cup.
It filled about 1/3 of the cup. The real mystery remains…who laid the egg?
I’ll keep you updated, but we may never find out.
Whoopi Goldbird, our golden polish, was part of the second order of chickens we placed. With our first order, we paid for an egg laying variety and they send whatever they have available at that time. The second time we ordered chickens, we selected the breeds ourselves. Ryan HAD to have some top hat chickens.
Whoopi is one of our most well known chickens, because she is easy to pick out of a crowd. Although little, Whoopi is easily recognizable in the flock. Even as a little chick she stood out.
She is our friendliest bird and will come right over when you get near the coop. Unfortunately, she is friendly because we had to treat her for an injury. In December, the flock would not go outside because of the snow and they were getting bored. Whoopi was at the bottom of the pecking order and was picked on. The other chickens pulled out the feathers on the top of her head. Once chickens see blood, they will just keep pecking. Thankfully, we caught her before she was pecked to death.
We applied some Vetericyn and kept her separated from the rest of the chickens. It took a long time, but she healed up and grew her feathers back.
Whoopi is now healthy enough to lay eggs and she lays a small white egg every couple of days.
Once the weather got nicer, we integrated her back into the flock. She hasn’t been picked on, but she doesn’t like to roost with the other chickens. This has led to a couple of adventures.
Last week, she didn’t come home to roost and the next day the neighbor stopped by to say she had our chicken. Whoopi had wandered next door where they had bird seed and let herself right in to their home. They returned her wrapped in a towel.
Last night she decided to sneak away again. She flew into a low spot near our garage and then couldn’t climb out because she didn’t want to step in the surrounding snow. I found her by clucking and hearing her call back. It turns out, she likes people more than chickens.
Now she has been happily returned to her own kennel where she can eat in peace and talk to her other chicken friends. She is a happy girl when she has her own space, so we might have to arrange something in the new coop for her. This goofy girl sure makes me smile. Thanks for reading! I hope to have more chicken updates soon.
Right now we have 18 chickens that are taking over my garage until the weather gets nicer and we can get them a real coop! They are loving the warmer weather though and are laying eggs like crazy. I have been trying to catch a peek at who is laying what since they are right outside of the door. As soon as a see a chicken leave the nest box, I run out and try to see what we’ve got.
Our best egg layer is Pearl. She is a pearl white leghorn (which we found out after we named her Pearl). She was the first to start laying and hasn’t stopped yet. She is one of the first chickens we got. She is about 20 months old.
Today I cooked her egg up for Harrison to eat for breakfast. He loves scrambled eggs, but there’s no way he could finish this one. It made more than 1/2 cup of cooked eggs.
If I were raising chickens only for eggs, I would have a whole flock of white leghorns. She is dependable, adorable, and friendly. She keeps my egg cartons from closing and keeps us in eggs year round.
Next up: Whoopi Goldbird, so check back soon!
We have moved about 30 minutes away from our first home. The new place doesn’t have a chicken coop, so we needed to set up something temporary. For a few weeks we left them in their coop and visited to feed and water them every other day. While not ideal, it worked out for a while.
Unfortunately, it got very cold one night and one of our barred rocks didn’t roost for the night. We lost her to the cold and knew we needed to move them ASAP.
We set up a temporary coop in our garage.
We used a dog kennel and some recycled signs. We put it together around our work bench, which the hens love to roost on.
We have some bins for temporary nest boxes until we go back to get our other ones.
I have a very
expensive elaborate idea in mind for our permanent coop. Now we just need the snow to melt and the ground to thaw, which should take approximately 3-4 months at this rate. In the meantime, check out my Pinterest board to see my inspiration.
Thanks for reading and stay warm!