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What Came First: The Chicken or the Eggs?

Raising chickens on a small scale has been trending ever since commercial chicken farming protocols have been brought to our attention. More and more often I hear of families and individuals bringing food production back home. People are paying attention to what they put in their body, and they are jumping on the chicken train by raising meat and eggs.

Door County is no different – chicken farming and farm fresh eggs are here and they are available. You can find locally raised eggs at the local farmers’ markets, roadside stands, family farms and some grocers.

The cost of buying or raising fresh eggs is definitely more than commercial eggs. Prices generally start around $4 a dozen and go up. In my opinion, they are worth every cent. Farm fresh eggs are laid by happy chickens. A quick internet search reveals that they contain on average 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, four to six times the vitamins, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene – plus, they taste so great!Steep Creek Farm in Sturgeon Bay, Door County, WI. Photo by Len Villano

The yolks of farm-fresh eggs are a beautiful golden orange and the egg whites hold together when cracked in a pan. Keep the grocery money local and support your neighbors, or better yet raise some chickens of your own.

Having chickens in your world is quite priceless – and they do entertain! Jay Lott of Mueller Lane Farm says, “There is nothing funnier than watching a five-year-old chase a flock of chickens.”

Like anything in this world, you must weigh pros and cons, and raising chickens is no exception. Your investment of time, on average, will require 20 to 30 minutes a day; however, the daily tasks are simple:  feed, water, clean the coop, gather the eggs. You also need to wash the eggs and make sure your girls have a safe place to roost for the night.

Be on the lookout for predators because free-range chickens are easy targets. “Foxes are sly. Even with two people and two dogs in my yard every day, I was still losing a bird a week on average,” says John Peterson of Baileys Harbor. Door County is rich in predators – the family dog, coyotes, hawks, owls, mink and weasels. Watch out – they will get you!

Once chickens are mature and the egg production begins, be prepared to have lots of eggs. A flock of 10 chickens produces an average of eight eggs a day, which can add up quickly. But, that’s part of the fun:  “Raising chickens was a natural progression for me. I was already hunting, fishing, farming…I had an outbuilding on my farm that was perfect for a coop. I started with 18 chickens in 2010 – in 2013 I have 140 birds,” says Lott.

What’s in a label?

Cage-free:  Eggs are laid by hens who live in an enclosure in groups versus in cramped cages. They have space to perch, walk, and lay their eggs in nests. They may or may not spend time outdoors.

Free-range:  Technically, hens who lay free–range eggs have access to the outdoors. However, there are no official definitions or guidelines to follow. Currently, eggs labeled free-range can mean anything from having a window in a chicken coop to the hens spending real time outdoors in a fenced area or having space to explore the wild.

Natural:  This label means nothing has been done to the eggs after they have been harvested. How the hens are raised has nothing to do with the term “natural.”

Vegetarian-fed:  This egg label is meaningless. Most, if not all, chicken feed is vegetarian (the feed consists of grains). However, if you let your hens outdoors they will also forage for bugs, worms, fruits and vegetables. So, if chickens are never let outdoors and eat only the vegetarian feed you provide then, yes, strictly speaking they are vegetarian eggs with caged mothers.

Organic:  In the egg world, to be certified organic, eggs must come from chickens who are both cage-free and free-range, fed only vegetarian, certified organic feed. This is important because some conventional chicken feed contains arsenic to boost egg production. Also, organic hens are forbidden to receive antibiotics, which means living conditions are kept clean to prevent disease.

Local:  Local eggs may or may not be organic depending on the chicken feed the hens eat. However, these hens are raised with room to explore and nests to lay their eggs. They spend time outdoors scratching in the dirt, eating bugs and flapping their wings.

What you need to get started:

  • Chickens – adult birds are hard to come by. “Buy chicks in the fall and raise them over

the winter. Most breeds start laying around five to six months of age,” says Lott.

  • Shelter / Coop
  • Food & Water
  • Electricity – lights & water heaters (cold season)
  • Nesting Boxes – apple crates or plastic milk-type crates.
  • Nesting Material – straw, wood shavings or sawdust.

Resources to get you started: backyardchickens.com, mcmurrayhatchery.com

Photography by Len Villano.