In my mind, the #1 benefit of having poultry on our homestead is fresh eggs. They are a wonderful food; small, self-contained, nutritional treasures. An average chicken egg is 50g, containing 6g of protein, and about 78 calories. In a 2000 calorie/day diet this represents 12% of the daily recommended protein and only 4% of the daily calories. Granted, an it also contains 62% of daily recommended cholesterol, but managing your diet in other ways can counter this.
Once your flock is established, you can expect to get 4-6 eggs per hen, per week, which represents a significant resource for your homestead. A flock of just 10 hens can produce can produce as many as 5 dozen each week, which can lower your grocery bill, augment your homestead’s income, and/or be used for barter.
Homestead eggs (HSEs) vs. grocery-store eggs (GSEs). With HSEs, you have control over what your chickens eat, and whether they are given additional antibiotics or hormones, both of which can directly impact your the qualities of your eggs. Just looking at them next to each other, HSEs have much darker yolks — usually dark yellow to orange. This is because of additional carotenoids in your hens’ foraging diet and doesn’t necessarily reflect the nutritional value of the egg itself. Homestead hens — even those that are not ranged but spend their days in an outdoor run — get a more varied diet that includes plants, seeds, insects, and even small reptiles and amphibians. Average GSEs, which come from factory-farming facilities, are fed a set diet consisting only of commercial feed. This regulation results in a more uniform appearance — inside and out — which is important to commercial facilities.
HSEs are also fresher, which directly impacts the taste and quality. Most GSEs have a Julian date printed on the carton noting the date the eggs were packaged, not laid. Although the farmers normally get them to the stores within a day or two, they are allowed up to 30 days. The stores then have 30 days to sell them. Granted, if you have over-achieving hens, you may have eggs hanging around that long, too. But remember, those come from hens that you’ve raised, so you know the environment in which they were laid.
Storing eggs. There are lots of opinions on this topic. The FDA is more conservative compared to most homesteading sites, and the way my family did it when I was growing up. The FDA recommends that eggs be used within 3 weeks of purchase for best quality. I normally clean the eggs and mark them with a letter — so I’ll use them first-in/first-out and none of the eggs get too old — before I put them into cartons, then put them into the refrigerator. In the winter, I’ve been known to keep them in our basement because the temperature hovers around the mid-40s in some corners. I prefer the cardboard cartons to store them. Our wonderful friends at Amazon are a great source for these, or you can always recycle any that you, your friends, neighbors, or family might have. Until they are washed, eggs are said to have a film on them that some believe improves the shelf life, though I’ve been unable to find any definitive information on this. Washing eggs after they’re collected does make prettier, but it also removes this film. If you’re comfortable with unwashed eggs in your storage area, that’s fine, but I’d wash them before I use them. This film is more noticeable on duck eggs.
Freezing eggs. For those of us with over-achieving hens, surplus eggs can be frozen. Simply beat the whites and yolks together and freeze. Do not freeze them in the shell. Yolks and whites can also be separated and then frozen. Be sure to include the number of eggs in each container on the label.
Duck eggs. When most of us think of eggs for breakfast, we think of chicken eggs. However, if you’ve added ducks to your homestead, duck eggs increase your available resources. Some people say that they taste gamier than chicken eggs but my family hasn’t noticed a difference in taste.
Ducks don’t lay quite as many eggs as chickens, usually one every 2-2.5 days, although there are days that our duckies out-lay the chickies. Duck eggs are as much as 30-50% larger than chicken eggs, about 70g on average. The positive impact on this size difference is 50% more protein at 9g. The negative is an increase in fat and cholesterol, say double. Again, this can be offset by other choices in your diet. The higher protein also makes the whites of duck eggs thicker and slimier.
As a baker, my favorite impact of the higher amount of protein in duck eggs is softer and fluffier baked goods. Cookies and muffins bake higher with a lighter texture. When using duck eggs in baking, remember that they are larger, so it’s not going to be a 1:1 substitution. Be sure to weigh them before adding them. A large chicken egg is about 1.7-2 oz, so a recipe using 2 eggs will need 3.4-4 oz of egg. Simply weigh out the same amount of whole duck egg.
Duck eggs have much thicker shells and this gives them a longer shelf life. It also means that you’ll need to whack them harder to crack them.
Financial impact. Some quick math; a small flock of 5 laying hens will produce about 2 dozen eggs per week. At $3 per dozen (the current going rate for eggs in my area) that’s $24 per month (or $288 per year) of quality protein with a shelf life of several weeks; up to a year, if frozen. A flock this size will use about one 50# bag of feed per month at about $12 per bag, which adds up to $144 per year. So, those 5 little hens net $144 per year worth of eggs. HSEs are perceived as more valuable that GSEs and homesteaders/farmers in my area charge as much as $4 per dozen for chicken eggs. Duck eggs are harder to find and may require some education for your consumers, but could fetch $4-5 per dozen.
Nutritional differences. I’m a bit of a skeptic on this. I haven’t found any studies that confirm significant nutritional differences between GSEs, and those that come from homestead (or pastured) hens. There are lots of articles out there, like this one on Hobbyfarms.com, that list the nutritional benefits of HSEs over GSEs as having less cholesterol and saturated fat, increased vitamins A, E and D, more omega-3 fatty acids, and more beta carotene. But I haven’t been able to find any specifics about the “studies” that these results came from. Mother Earth News conducted their own testing, and posted the information here. In their article, Mother Earth referenced 5 other studies that found significant nutritional differences, but I couldn’t find any information on these referenced studies, other than the note in Mother Earth News and links back to the same Mother Earth News article. I want to note here that I am in no way a scientist, but I was hoping to see the researchers’ analysis on the results because, again, I’m a bit of a skeptic that there is any real difference in nutrition between the two, and would like to see the researchers’ own interpretation of the research data. The referenced studies also point out that not all HSEs are created equal. The hens’ access to different foods and whether they are allowed to forage has an impact as well.
It seems logical that HSEs would be better for you, as with organic food vs. non-organic food but research has never been able to prove this – even research by organic food organizations. If you have the means, choose organic whenever possible. The worst thing that could happen is you pay more for the same product. I do know HSEs taste better, and are probably fresher than anything you’d get in the grocery store, and that is enough for me. Any nutritional benefit is a bonus.
I’d love to hear what everyone has to say on this. As I noted, I’m not a scientist and I welcome clarification and correction when I need it.
So, there’s my take and experience with HSEs. I actually bought a dozen GSEs from the local grocery store so I could show the difference in the pictures. I had truly forgotten how pale they are. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out, so I used them. As a result, my weekend omelet was bland and disappointing. Flavor and freshness trumps any convenience from the grocery store. Bottom line is that as long as I have the ability, I’ll have a few laying hens in my yard; and if I can’t have my own hens, you know I’ll be finding a nearby farm with extra eggs to sell.