Before the 1950s, most laying hens lived in moderate-sized flocks in a barn or free-range system, and eggs were sold locally. In stark contrast, today more than 94 percent of eggs are from hens who live in overcrowded conventional facilities, with little access to nature. (1) Unfortunately, these concentrated animal feeding operation farms prioritize egg production and efficiency over animal welfare and egg quality.
Pastured eggs are a healthy, nutrient-dense food, and raising backyard chickens means steady access to them. Check out this article for more benefits, and to learn how writer and researcher Katie Melville set up her own coop. #paleo #nutrition #wellness
We’ve been told for decades that a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol leads to heart disease. Many people avoid eggs altogether or eat only the egg white because of cholesterol concerns.
But, in reality, dietary cholesterol has little to do with heart disease, and eggs have even less to do with it. (2) The diet–heart myth has been perpetuated for too long. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans even admit that cholesterol is no longer a nutrient of concern. (3)
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Observational and prospective data have confirmed that egg consumption doesn’t increase the risk of heart disease or stroke. In a meta-analysis from 2013, up to one egg per day was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or stroke. (4) Another large data set from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES III, study showed that even so-called “high” egg consumption of more than seven eggs per week did not increase these risks either. (5)
Even in people whose blood cholesterol levels do increase from dietary cholesterol, so-called “hyper-responders,” increased cholesterol consumption doesn’t increase the risk of heart disease in otherwise healthy men. (6)
Eggs Are Nutrient-Dense Foods
- B vitamins
- Vitamin A
- Fat-soluble vitamins D, E, and hard-to-obtain K2 (found in the yolk, where the cholesterol is)
- Omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
Many of these nutrients are contained entirely, or at least more abundantly, in the egg yolk rather than the egg white. But the nutrient content of an egg depends on the hen’s diet.
Pastured vs. Conventional: Not All Eggs Are Created Equal
What hens eat directly and dramatically influences the nutrition of their eggs. It’s a great species survival mechanism; they put all the good stuff toward ensuring the next generation. Hens housed in overcrowded cages or barns are fed mostly corn, soy, and industrial seed oil byproducts. (8) They have little, if any, access to the outdoors or green pastures.
Chickens are meant to graze in greens like alfalfa and clover and to forage for bugs. A growing body of research compares the eggs from pastured hens versus the eggs from hens kept in conventional housing systems, and the differences are staggering. Hens who have at least some access to pasture have increased levels of many nutrients:
- Omega-3 fatty acid levels in pastured eggs are up to three times higher than in conventional eggs. (9, 10, 11)
- Pastured eggs have a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio, which helps combat the excessive and inflammatory omega-6 content of the standard American diet. (8, 9)
- Pastured eggs can have double the vitamin E content and up to four times the vitamin D content compared to conventional eggs. (8, 9, 10, 12)
- Vitamin A and antioxidant flavonoids are all higher in pastured eggs. (8, 13)
Four Benefits to Raising Chickens in Your Backyard
Unless you own a lot of land and allow your chickens to roam free, backyard chickens may not produce eggs with quite as much omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins as truly pastured eggs. However, many of the studies mentioned in the previous section were conducted on chickens who did have genuine access to pasture, but the chickens’ diets were still heavily supplemented with conventional and/or organic feed. Therefore, even a little access to grass and bugs—like chickens in a spacious coop and run in a backyard—can make a meaningful difference in egg quality.
Owning backyard chickens yields benefits beyond nutritious eggs:
- Fewer pesticides: You control what your chickens eat, and if you buy organic feed, the harmful synthetic pesticides will be lower in the feed, and residues will be lower in the eggs. (14, 15)
- Antibiotic-free: Likewise, backyard chickens fed organic feed won’t be exposed to antibiotics, which are often persistent in conventional chicken farms and contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (16, 17)
- Fresh air and sunshine: Every morning, you have to open the coop to let the chickens into the run and/or yard. Exposure to bright light in the morning helps entrain circadian rhythms and improves mood. (18)
- Feeling of reward: Producing your own food is satisfying. With processed food and grocery stores, we are so easily disconnected from the source of our food. Collecting eggs from the backyard and serving them for breakfast connects us to our ancestral roots.
Backyard Basics: How to Set up Your Own Chicken Coop
Chickens need food, space, and shelter. Chicken coops come in all varieties, ranging from super basic to extremely fancy. You can build your own, or buy a premade structure, but it should include the following:
- An enclosed, weather-proof structure to keep chickens safe from predators and the elements
- Three square feet of space per chicken
- A secure door to let chickens out for the day
- Roosts for chickens to sleep perched up on at night
- Egg boxes—one for every three chickens—that are separate small spaces within the coop where chickens will lay eggs
- Friends! Chickens are social creatures, and generally do better in small- to medium-sized flocks
The chicken coop should open up to a run and/or a “chicken field” that provides at least 10 square feet of space per chicken. A run is connected to the coop and still secure, but it’s usually more open with wire fencing and a roof. A chicken field is a larger, movable, fenced-in space that can be rotated among grassy areas as needed.
Additional supplies needed for backyard chickens include:
- Feed to supplement foraging, which can often be purchased at a local farm or gardening store
- Water and a waterer
- A feeder
- A water heater to keep the water from freezing during cold months (if applicable)
BackYardChickens.com is a great resource for more in-depth information.
Backyard Chicken FAQs
Q: Do I need a permit to have backyard chickens?
A: Most likely, yes, you will need a permit from your city/town. Different towns have different rules and regulations regarding backyard chickens and other domestic animals. Some requirements may include a minimum plot size, distance from neighbors, limits on the total number of chickens, etc. Here is a good starting resource for chicken laws.
Q: Do I have to worry about Salmonella?
A: It’s possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a rise in Salmonella outbreaks, presumably connected to the rise in popularity of backyard chickens. Salmonella can be found on chickens or the eggs they lay. Personally, we make sure to wash our hands (and change clothes, if necessary) after handling the animals or eggs.
Salmonella and other disease risks are why we don’t allow our chickens to free-range. Ours are in the coop, in the run, or in an adjacent fenced-in area.
Q: Are chickens smelly?
A: Yes, the coop gives off that farm-like scent. However, we have a small yard and it’s noticeable only when you’re very close to the coop and run.
Q: How much care do backyard chickens require?
A: Building the coop is very time-intensive. To save time, or if you don’t have the skills in that area, you can buy a coop. It will be more expensive, but will save time.
Having baby chicks is a little more involved than having laying hens. Chicks need heating lamps, require different food, and need their bedding changed very frequently. Hens won’t start laying eggs until they are 18 to 26 weeks old.
For laying hens, daily care usually doesn’t exceed 10 minutes. If you have automatic waterers and feeders, you don’t have to replace those every day, but you will have to open and close the coop and collect eggs.
Cleaning the coop does take significant time. There are many ways to keep a coop clean depending on the coop design, and some require less frequent cleaning than others.
Q: How many eggs can I expect?
A: You can expect about two eggs every three days for each laying hen during the laying season, which will depend on your location and weather. Chickens need a certain amount of daily sunlight to continue to lay eggs. We live near Boston. During the summer, we get nearly one egg per day per chicken. In the winter, we may get one egg total per day among all eight chickens. Hens will lay eggs consistently for around three years, and can continue to live well beyond that.
Q: Do I need to put fresh eggs in the refrigerator?
A: Nope! Fresh eggs have a protective layer that helps keep pathogens out. Gently wipe off the dirt with a cloth or dry brush, and they can safely stay at room temperature on the counter for weeks. Keeping them dry is important. If the eggs are wet, that allows pathogens to permeate through the shell.
Don’t wash the eggs with soap and water until you are ready to use them, so as not to compromise the protective coating.
Where to Buy Pastured Eggs
If you’re unable to have backyard chickens but still want pastured eggs, be wary of the catchy phrases stamped on egg cartons at the grocery store. My friend so aptly refers to these claims as “supermarket sorcery”—the labels like “cage-free” and “free-range” that seem to imply happy hens who roam fields all day, when often nothing could be further from the truth. Most of these phrases are marketing schemes, and are often not very well regulated.