Anyone who keeps chickens on their permaculture ploy knows what delightful animals they can be. Different species have their own character traits, while individual birds also express distinct personalities. Combined with their usefulness in providing manure, turning over the soil and keeping pests and weeds under control, the presence of a chicken on a site is very beneficial and pleasurable for the permaculture gardener.
Of course, one of the main reasons to keep chickens as livestock is that they provide eggs. Eggs have formed part of human diets for thousands of years and continue to be a popular foodstuff. Many people don’t have the space or inclination to keep their own chickens, so purchase eggs from the supermarket.
But all eggs are not created equally. The consumer has a choice between eggs that have been produced in different ways. The four primary types available on the market are organic, free-range, barn and cage.
Organic eggs are the eggs most produced like those on a permaculture plot. The chickens are allowed to roam outside and are not treated with any antibiotics and no inorganic substances are added to their food. Free-range hens also have access to outside space, but they may have been given antibiotics. Barn hens are kept in large container sheds, but have some space to more around and sometimes bales of straw on which to perch.
Cage eggs are part of a system that is referred to as factory farming. It gets this name from its propensity to see livestock as functions or units, rather than individual conscious entities, and to place them in industrial conditions that are entirely focused on maximizing cost-saving, with little concern for the needs of the animal – as opposed to permaculture which tries to meet all the natural needs of livestock. Here are some of the reasons why, if possible, you should avoid cage eggs.
Space
As the name suggests, chickens that produce cage eggs are kept in cages. Of course, farms always confine livestock to some extent (a field if fenced after all) but it is the size of the cages and the stocking density that makes cage egg production such a concern. The average chicken in a cage egg system has no more space to stand than an A4 piece of paper, and must live in close confinement with many other individuals.
Unnatural
The environment of the cages prevents the chickens from expressing any of their natural instincts. Beyond inhibiting the simple act of spreading and flapping their wings, the chickens stand on the wire with no material in which to root and scratch. There is no means for them to perch, no way for them to exhibit nesting, to hide or have a dust bath. Indeed, a cage hen cannot even walk anywhere. These conditions cause both mental and physical distress for the birds. Feather loss, foot problems and brittle bones are common, while the stocking densities mean that aggression and pecking other individuals is typical, and can even lead to cannibalism.
Debeaking
One way that cage egg producers seek to prevent damage to birds in confined environments is to cut the sharp end of their beaks off when they are chicks. The birds will still display aggression but, without the front part of their beak, will not injure or kill other individuals. The chicks have their beaks cut or burnt off at just a few days old.
Male Chicks
Some chicks do not even get to the age at which their beaks are cut off. All chickens in cage systems are female, but not all chickens are born female. When a brood of chicks hatches they are sexed when they are a day old. All the male chicks, because they have no economic value in a system devoted to egg production, are immediately euthanized. They are not raised for meat, as the breeds used in egg production do not produce chicks with the requisite breast and leg development. The male chicks are either gassed or thrown alive into a grinder.
Food
While many of the chickens’ natural needs are not met in a cage system, on that has to be in order to get the product that the system is set up to produce, is food. However, the food caged hens are given is a far cry form that which they would consume on a permaculture plot. On a permaculture site, chickens would usually be fed fruit, vegetables and meat scraps from the kitchen, insects and bugs they scratch up in the garden, along with plants cuttings, weeds and perhaps fallen fruit in an orchard. Because cage hens have no access to any of these things, they are fed manufactured inorganic food. And because this cannot meet their health needs, it is laced with antibiotics and anti-bacterial agents to prevent disease. These materials thus enter the food chain.
Feces
It is not just through their eggs that antibiotics given to cage hens enter the food chain. Because they cannot metabolize all the antibiotics, some ends up in their feces. These droppings are then used as fertilizer for agricultural crops, from where they may leach into waterways as well. Furthermore, the feces from the chickens typically drop through the bottom of the birds’ cages. It can fall on chickens kept in cages below and cause burning due to the ammonia contained within it.
Less Healthy Produce
Not only is the cage egg system unhealthy for the birds, the products from it that we consume are less healthy thancage eggs the alternatives. Because the hens cannot eat a range of foods, the resultant eggs have fewer nutrients than free-range or organic eggs, including lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E.
It is true that cage eggs are generally cheaper than the organic and free-range alternatives. But this lower price is only achieved at the cost of the animals’ welfare. And if more and more people choose the less-cruel alternatives, producers will have to change their practices to reflect the demand and then prices for free-range and organic eggs will fall. Of course, economics may prevent some individuals from purchasing the higher cost eggs, but for those who can afford the difference, there really is a moral choice to be made. What price is a chicken’s welfare?

120 Responses

  1. As someone I know put it..”Store eggs are sad eggs. The chickens are sad, and it passes into the eggs, so when you eat them, you get sad.” The more I thought about what she said, the more sense it made to me.

  2. CA can use the term CAGE FREE even though the hens are still in cages – they may have more square feet than other chickens but are still caged. It’s how marketing words are used within the legal definitions of the law. Look up your state laws. Buy local and from someone who’s place you can see – then you have no worries.

  3. My eating habits have changed, for the better, over the past 5 years. Learning more and more about Organics and now I have my own egg layers; 3 beautiful Lohmann Browns. These ladies are the best pets and will soon be giving me gifts of gold brown eggs. What can be better?

  4. I’m thinking of getting chickens since I now have a couple of acres in the back of my mom’s house. I know NOTHING about raising them. I kn ow I need a coop for them to lay and keep warm. I’m in Southern Michigan and would like to know what the best time of year would be to get them. Also, how many should I start with? There’s a barn in the back (steel) with protection (actually, a fiberglass roof at each side), but no entrance into the structure. If anyone can help me, I’d be very happy. Thank you. Sandy

  5. @ Sandy: Hi Sandy, we just started out on our chicken adventure as well and found this to be a great resource for natural chicken raising: http://www.fresh-eggs-daily.com/
    Lisa ( the chicken lady) is also on FB under the same title and answers all questions. There is also http://www.backyardchickens.com/ and between the two of them you should find everything you need.
    I personally found it too be somewhat important to choose a good breed. We have 4 buff orpingtons and absolutely LOVE them. We choose them because they are a heritage breed, dual purpose, great foragers, pretty predator savvy, great momma’s, winter-layers and very, very friendly with wonderful personalities. The latter is to the detriment in a mixed breed flock as they a easily getting picked on by more aggressive breeds. Orpingtons come in all kinds of colours and we love our buffs; so that was a non-issues for us. We closed off one of our stalls and made it predator safe. I line the stall with tarp which I fastened about 1- 1 1/2 foot off the ground on the walls, for easier clean out in spring. We use the deep litter method with shavings and straw. Provided room to play with perches and straw bales to sit on. We live in canada and winters get cold. I don’t heat the coop, but make sure it is drafts free and well ventilated. Also plenty of day-light. Bought a cat litter box from the dollar store and filled it with sandbox-grade sand ( mixed a few spoons of food-grade diatomaceous earth in for pest control) for them to have access to a dust bath. I mix their own feed as I do only feed organic, corn-free and not medicated. THere are you tube videos for “mix own organic GMO free chicken feed”. I mix some food-grade diatomaceous earth in the feed to get rid of internal parasites- works great. THey don’t eat much as they are happy outside most of the day looking for grubs. Hope this has helped a bit. Just one word of caution: chickens are addictive 🙂 Good luck!

  6. I have my own hens but they are old and lay very few eggs so they have pretty much just become pets. That being said, I have a coworker that lives on a farm and I buy my eggs from her. It’s well worth the $3.00 per dozen that I pay.

  7. I just heard that “free range” does not mean chickens are out running around…that all it means is that they are in a bigger cage where they can move a longer distance, but that they are still crammed in just as tight as they are in a cage. I heard that “pasture” is the only description that actually means the animal is outside. Have your heard this?

  8. There are more types than these “4” because some are combo…organic, free range/ organic barn, organic cage etc…. chickens that have a chance to forage on GOOD land do better and have healthier eggs and chics because of it. they need the grain and the bugs etc…. all eggs are not created equal unless your looking for cholesterol content

  9. Its a helluva scam…they just implemented the new law in caca land yesterday…eggs are expected to rise in price by a minimum of .70cents…you get what you ask for…higher prices…thanks morons…oh jumbo eggs already $3.75 a doz here and you cannot but 18 lots anymore…

  10. THANK YOU FOR YOU’RE POST. AS A MASTER GARDENER AND ORGANIC PRODUCER FOWL ARE A MUST. NOT JUST CHICKENS BUT ALSO GUINIA HENS AND DUCKS. CHICKEN TRACTOR IS MOST NECESSARY

  11. I guess “barn” equals “cage-free?” We have friends who started out with an organic cage-free chicken farm, but lost their buyer. The chickens are still cage-free, but no longer certified organic. I’ve had a backyard flock as pets, and so I went and watched the chickens — and they do OK. I know the signs of stress and these birds don’t have them. There are a lot of them, and they are all crowded into a barn, but not so crowded they can’t move around, bunch where they want to, separate a bit where they want to. In good weather, they can hop up and look outside, get a breeze, feel the sunshine (side openings are closed in winter to keep out the cold). They have lots of roosts, plus covered nesting boxes. They can feed and drink when they want and not when they don’t want. It’s not the ideal life for a chicken, but it certainly doesn’t seem abusive. And they produce HUGE eggs, some too big to fit even in Jumbo boxes, brown, and most with double yolks. So — I think they are pretty healthy!

  12. And for those who do not see the wrong in the caging practices of the egg industry: the flavor of fresh, cage free eggs is so much better. I’m lucky to live in an urban area where these good eggs are widely available.

  13. Does the free range mean that they don’t get their beaks cut off and the males trashed? I don’t want caged either but I don’t want the first two either.

  14. My corner pharmacy/convenience store has eggs from Stamp Farms. They say they are free-range. Possibly the chickens are ranging in the big red barn I drove by. But anyway, it’s a small farm and local, like many in Rhode Island, so I make a point to buy my eggs there. Whole Paycheck is not the only source of fresh and local.

  15. Have not bought cage eggs for at least the past 5 years. Either get mine from a friend or buy genuine free range. I emphasize “genuine” because of the ridiculously lax egg labelling laws allowing major producers to fob off cage or barn eggs as free range. Pet peeve of mine, as you may tell. 🙂

  16. if they are housed on floors its allowed to be called cage free,if they are in cages like most states EXCEPT california they passed a new law, then they are classified as the worst kind caged eggs barely room to move.Now these caged eggs are allowed to be called local and people think they are getting eggs from a bucolic farm.YOU are not, they are simply raised like commercial eggs wether there is 100 hen or1000 hens. So do your homework google your egg source and know if they say we have 65000 hens in our barns they are in cages unless its stated on their label cage free which isnt a whole lot better but at least they can move around more, best bet is to source out local eggs and make SURE they are raised humanely like chickens should be

  17. This is so awful. I also saw once on television how they throw away thousands of baby chicks I can’t remember why but I mean it was a crazy dumpster full thousands of baby chicks that they just throw in there, let them die, and then just throw them away. Little yellow baby chicks. 🙁

  18. Kirstyn: I researched like crazy and only trust Family Homestead. If you look at the free range certification stamp, it’s very specific. Other brands, mostly the major egg producers like Sunny Queen and Pace, have a totally different stamp on the box which purports to be free range but isn’t. They also refuse to respond to my enquiries about where their free range farms are located. You can use Google Earth to view chook farm locations and can tell by the type of building whether they are barn only locations.

  19. 7 reasons not to eat cage eggs – 1 we own a free range egg farm. 2 we own a free range egg farm. 3 we own a free range egg farm. 4 we own a free range egg farm. 5 we own a free range egg farm. 6 we own a free range egg farm. 7 we own a free range egg farm. Shut up!!!

  20. not sure what this means exactly. does this mean any egg layed in a cage? if so, that would mean every chicken egg in exsistance since you wouldn’t have any eggs that are layed outside of their cage. IF an egg were ever layed outside of the hens cage or house if you prefer to call it, they’d be lost forever. this is how easter egg hunts came to be. speaking from 25 years experience raising chickens for food, 10 of which were off the grid and totally self sufficient. all our animals are free range (we don’t feed them anything, not even table scraps).

  21. Unfortunately cage-free eggs are two to five times as expensive as cage eggs. Poor people cannot afford them. I do think the wealthy should support organics, but the price of healthy food has to come down before the poor can eat healthier.

  22. Most free range chickens are not truly free range as the words imply. They are really reduced range chickens. My neighbor has a small back yard and a hen house with nesting boxes. The chickens have destroyed his whole back yard and some have died from eating landscape plants and Hawks, raccoons, and coyotes have eaten his chickens. He keeps their wings clipped so they will not fly over his fence. His egg production per chicken is the same as my reduced range chickens. I built a portable A-frame coup that is open in the bottom. The bottom space is about 5 feet wide and 10 feet long for 4 hens with 4 nest boxes. All the hens like to use the same box to lay eggs. And they roost on the bar built for roosting or in the other nest boxes. I move the coup around, rake the dirt flat and sew rye grass. They love to scratch for grubs and insects and provide fertilizer for the yard. The enclosure is wood frame with hardware cloth. We found a bobcat sitting next to the cage one day licking his chops but could not get in. Bottom line is that for chickens in an urban area the correct term is reduced range chickens.

  23. Cage eggs shpuld really be called battery eggs, as thats what the hens are in.its called a battery, notv a cage, but odds are some idiots would say did not know chickens used batteries to lay eggs. Batteries are small wire cages with 3 or so.hens in each one with about one and a half sq. Feet of space per bird to live in. A coupe raised bird has lots more room. Free range birds are expensive to maintain and predation is pretty high.

  24. Bull. Cage eggs are no different than any other eggs especially the false claims of “free range” eggs. The eggs are the product of the chicken’s body which is a product of the feed the chicken eats and the genetics of the chicken. Doesn’t matter to the egg where is is laid. And as far as “cruelty” to chickens, another fallacy. Sick, stressed, unhappy chickens don’t lay eggs so it is in the producers best interest to keep the animals in the best conditions to insure their maximum production. People have problems with caged animals, animals raised in cages don’t have problems with being caged as it is the only life they know. They live a few months producing eggs and then are slaughtered to be sold for meat. Please stop anthropomorphizing the lives of less sentient creatures. They are here to produce food and to become food for us and our pets. They are not capable of bemoaning the conditions of their short lives. Unless you want to go back to raising chickens in every backyard (which I would love). And if you want cheap meat and eggs, which are the product of eons of selective breeding and strong agricultural practice, realize that your foolish ideas are only furthering the destruction of the american farm be it large farms or small family holdings. Look at what is happening in Michigan to small farmers. These are the ideas that fuel such legislation.

  25. My husband and I are very lucky our friends that raises cage free chickens have been keeping us in eggs for almost two years now…LOVE THEM and the eggs are GREAT.

  26. “Eggs have been part of the human diet for thousands of years”
    When you cite custom as justification for a practice you then have to explain why other customary things are no longer acceptable, please tell me about your slaves and how they are so important for the Permaculture movement our else stop relying on custom for justification for your barbarity.
    Just because you can ignore your exploitation and killing of sentient chickens because it suits your selfish pleasures does not offer any MORAL justification for doing so.
    There is plenty of scientific evidence that eggs are actually bad for health, and chicken flesh too, certainly it’s impossible to defend any notion that it Is good for chickens to be exploited and killed by you.
    Why don’t you stop abusing innocent birds and slowly making yourself sick, and go vegan.

  27. ALL eggs in the Egg Industry involve the killing of male chicks, who are ground up alive at one day old.
    ALL eggs in the Egg Industry involve the slaughter of hens at approximately 18months of age when their egg production declines.
    Free range, organic, barn laid, cage: all involve these practices. A more appropriate article would read “7 reasons to avoid ALL eggs”
    More info at http://www.eggsexposed.com.au

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