The Chicken Emperor recently mentioned that he now only purchases “cage free” eggs at the grocery in honor of our four girls. I decided to look up “cage free” to see what it means. Step one of understanding the concept is to become familiar with the “normal” approach to egg production. The most commonly used breed of laying chicken in “factory farming” is apparently the Isa Brown, a hybrid based on a Rhode Island Red, which will lay 300 eggs in the first year. These hens are cage-bound and discarded after their second laying season. Males are killed at birth; hens’ beaks are burned off to minimize pecking. While a minimum of four square feet per bird is recommended to backyard chickenkeepers when planning their coops, factory farm chickens have barely a square foot of space each.
Not surprisingly, factory farming is a controversial subject. Providing the most competitive price for a dozen eggs, which will be an average of $2.20 in a grocery store, means using the most cost-efficient methods of housing, feeding and maintaining hens in large-scale production. Free range eggs will cost up to $5 a dozen.
While “cage free” sounds like the more humane alternative, the hens’ quality of life is apparently not that much improved over that of “battery” hens. They never go outside, but they are able to walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests.
By comparison, our Gang of Four live in the lap of luxury, and I’m told their eggs will be the proof of the vast difference between store-bought and home-raised. Of course, by the time we calculate the expense, I suspect our first egg will cost around $4,000. It had better look like this:
If you live in California, the recently-passed Proposition 2 placed a ban on the commercial practice of confining pigs, chickens and veal calves to cages. However, the ban does not go into effect until January, 2015, to allow commercial producers time to change their facilities to accommodate the new law. In the meantime, I guess you’ll all just have to wait for our girls to start laying – or start your own backyard flock!