Why Backyard Eggs Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up To Be
With over 10 million U.S. households raising backyard chickens as of 2018, and hatcheries unable to keep up with demand since the beginning of COVID-19, you could definitely say this is a craze. While chickens can be wonderful companions, and folks like the idea of a home-grown source of eggs, there is a darker side to the practice that people should look into before diving in.
As backyard hen enthusiasts know, chickens require a hen to lay eggs and a rooster to fertilize them. Where were the chickens in your backyard born? They were born in large, cramped, noisy, filthy warehouses to hens who spend their entire lives indoors. They are
painfully debeaked without anesthesia and suffer horrific injuries from overmounting from aggressive roosters. They are unable to perform any of their natural behaviors, like dust-bathing and roosting, and will never get to know their young. Those who survive the ordeal are typically slaughtered after one laying season and replaced with new birds who continue the cycle.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
Males born into the egg industry have no value because they can’t lay eggs. Within hours or days of hatching, chicks are roughly tossed onto conveyor belts and have their sex determined. The seven billion male chicks born into the egg industry each year are killed at this point. Methods include gassing, asphyxiation in plastic garbage bags, and–most commonly in the U.S.– maceration, being ground up alive.
So the Females Have It Better?
That’s arguable. The newly hatched females (“pullets”) are sent packing via the postal system, often for days at a time with no food, water, or temperature control. Extra chicks, called “packers,” are included for free because so many don’t survive the trip. Once they arrive, they will start laying eggs at about 18 weeks old. Wild jungle fowl, the predecessors of our modern chickens, produced one, possibly two clutches per year of 10-20 eggs total. In contrast, modern hens have been selectively bred to lay a staggering 250-300 eggs per year. The toll this takes on their bodies is devastating. This excessive laying leads to calcium depletion, creating weakened bone structures, osteoporosis, and broken or fractured bones.
Egg binding, from eggs that are broken inside a hen’s body, can lead to egg yolk peritonitis, prolapses, and ovarian cancer. Other common diseases include Mycoplasma gallisepticum (“bulgy eye”), Blackhead disease, Newcastle disease, Coccidiosis, Fowl Pox, Bronchitis, a host of parasitic diseases, and Marek’s disease, a herpes viral infection that causes paralysis, weight loss and vision impairment. Are backyard chicken owners able to diagnose these illnesses, let alone treat them? Owners report that it can be quite difficult to find veterinarians who treat chickens. This is unsurprising, as these birds are deemed disposable by the very industry that produces them.
Farmed Animals in My Yard? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Besides not knowing how to care for their backyard chickens, there are a host of other issues that backyard chicken owners report. There won’t be any financial savings on eggs, between the start-up and feed costs. Many folks underestimate how large a coop to build. What to do with the copious amount of poop is another issue. Certain breeds are aggressive and may bite or scratch. Bacteria like campylobacter, E. coli, and Salmonella are frequently passed from poultry to humans, and can be particularly harmful to children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
The most harrowing part of raising chickens is dealing with predators, namely hawks, raccoons, skunks, foxes, and opossums. Imagine the horror of walking out to your coop and finding the intelligent, curious, and personable chickens with whom you’ve bonded torn apart by a predator.
What about an exit strategy? By her fourth birthday, a hen’s production has dropped by 40%. Hens can live for several years after egg production ceases completely. Are caretakers willing to house and feed them after laying ceases? The backyard chicken fad has overwhelmed animal rescue organizations with requests to home chickens who are unwanted or abandoned. Simply giving them away leaves them vulnerable to slaughter, abuse, neglect, or use as bait for animal fighting or training.
Do You Really Want All Those Eggs in the First Place?
So you’ve made it this far, and your hens have begun laying like the modified egg factories they were bred to be. Do you really want to be eating all those eggs? The USDA forbids egg producers from labeling eggs as “healthy” or “nutritious.” For a food to be labeled “healthy” by the FDA, it must be low in saturated fat (eggs fail that criteria) and have less than 90 mg of cholesterol per serving (a single egg has twice that amount). Those who eat eggs have a higher risk of cardiovascular problems, significantly increased risk of diabetes, and higher rates of colon, rectal, and prostate cancers, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
With so many choices of egg replacement products in your supermarket–Just Egg, VeganEgg, and Vegg, to name a few–why not choose the humane, healthy way to enjoy “eggs” and leave the sweet hens out of the picture?