If you have purchased eggs from a retailer recently, then you know that the most expensive eggs for sale are the ones known as “cage-free” or “free-range.” Why should these eggs have a higher value than the average commercial eggs?
Part of the reason for this higher value is because these eggs cost more money to produce; however, they are better, healthier eggs all the way around. They have a higher nutritional value and the hens themselves are healthier than the caged birds kept under artificial light and fed a steady commercial diet.
True free-range chickens are those that range outdoors on pasture. Meaning they do what all chickens do naturally: eat bugs, greens, and whatever leftovers they can scrounge or scratch up. The challenge for the homesteader, however, comes in the form of keeping and managing a flock of free-range chickens in order to reap the benefit of their eggs.
The nutritional value of free-range eggs makes this challenge a worthwhile endeavor for the homesteader wanting to produce higher quality eggs for a healthier diet. Recently, Mother Earth News did an egg study comparing free-range eggs to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs. The findings showed that free-range chicken eggs produced the following results:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta-carotene
Besides the obvious nutritional benefits, free-range eggs simply taste better! The most likely cause of the differences between free-range eggs and those from caged, commercial-production hens is the diet the hens consume every day. Basically, you are what you eat. After all, the free-range chicken’s diet is all natural and varied, while the caged hen eats only what is placed in front of her.
Free-range hens are also usually healthier than their cousins kept in crowded cages in commercial poultry houses. The feeds given to commercial hens are the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy, and/or cottonseed meals, with many types of additives mixed in. These additives often include growth hormones, meat and bone meals, as well as antibiotics and chemicals, like arsenic, to keep the chickens awake longer and producing more.
The commercial chicken has a much shorter lifespan due to stress, illness and general disease than does a free-range hen – unless, of course, the free-range hen falls prey to a natural predator.
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