Perhaps the best place to begin a discussion about the egg business would be with the egg itself. There is just a nine-ounce difference in weight between a dozen medium and a dozen jumbo eggs. A dozen large eggs, the standard in the retail marketplace, weighs 24 ounces. A dozen medium eggs, commonly used in the food service sector, weighs 21 ounces, just three ounces less. Those slight differences can become big factors when calculating costs to produce a dozen eggs.
Egg grades — AA, A and B — have nothing to do with egg size or shell color. Rather they are used to rate shell cleanliness and uniformity and the condition of the egg’s interior. Under examination and candling an AA egg will have a clean, unbroken shell with even shape and shell surface. The air cell will be 1/18th-inch or less in depth and regular in shape. The white will appear clean and firm and the yolk will be centered and free of defects.
An A quality egg will also have a clean and unbroken shell. The air cell will be a quarter-inch or less in depth and fairly uniform. The white should be clear although not quite as firm as in the AA egg. The yolk should be fairly centered, have a more defined outline and should also be free of defects such as meat or blood spots.
The AA and A grades have been referred to as “table eggs” and the fancy, more naturally produced table egg is at the core of the modern rise in poultry keeping. For many it has been encapsulated in the large and extra large, brown-shelled egg. However, that egg is not always the most economical to produce and neither size nor shell color are mandated in the production of heritage, cage-free, organic or any other value-adding production measure.
Egg Business: Improving Performance
“Brown-shelled egg” is a descriptive term moving on to a par with “two-door sedan” or “generic peanut butter.”
An emerging market opening appears to be eggs that are regionally or breed specifically produced. My Amish caller is on to a good thing, but the challenge is to find the needed breed genetics and then breed them up to levels of performance that will make his market niche truly profitable. He called with a question about poor egg production and the solution that we arrived at was that he had to become a breeder and develop better performing Ameraucana chickens; a green and blue egg producing true breed with the genetic predictability on which he can build.
The root to success with a laying flock, regardless of the breed chosen, is to make the long-term commitment to a plan of careful breeding and performance upgrading. There have been a lot of fad breeds in poultry keeping of late and many of those breeds of the moment never were high performers in the laying house. For others it has been many decades since they were held to any type of performance standard or were bred to maintain, let alone, improve performance.
Fortunately, there are a great many pure breeds with practical roots from which to select, and within those breeds there are often a great many color and pattern varietals. The Plymouth Rock breed, for example, has name recognition on par with Chevrolet or Black Angus beef. The White and Barred varietals are the most commonplace, but perhaps a bit too commonplace for some modern niche marketers.
There are, however, Buff, Silver Penciled, Partridge, Columbian and Blue varieties of the Plymouth Rock. All but the Blue have been recognized by the American Poultry Association for over 100 years. The Buff and the Partridge varieties have not just the look, but the history that makes them and their production highly marketable.
The American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection lists 16 Leghorn varietals and the Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities has documented several more including Duckwing varieties and the Exchequer Leghorn.
If we are to follow the historical example, the next step up from selection and breed preservation activity should be the propagation of those breed specific flocks for improving economic performance. The market for richly colored eggs will be only a market of the moment if it cannot go on to be profitable to the producer served.
A short burst of popularity alone is not enough on which to launch a business venture such as a laying flock. Novelty will get you a look-see, but only by consistently delivering the goods is a business built. The Exchequer Leghorn, the ‘Scottish Leghorn,’ had such a recent flowering of interest. It is held to be one of the largest of the Leghorn varietals with a distinctive white with black hatching color pattern. It had an appealing image, but there were only rather small populations here to be drawn from and early on in this flurry of interest many encountered problems with color pattern, leg color, mature size and questions of genetic purity.
It was not the immediate, uber-Leghorn for range production and certainly suffered from too much early demand. A lot of chickens got shipped that shouldn’t have been hatched, but it is a worthy bird still. It is, however, a breed best for those willing to take the time to learn its history and then get serious about making it an economically important breed again.
Many of these same points could be made about the much more commonly seen Light Brown Leghorn. Within my lifetime interest has been way up and down in this breed. When I was younger many hatcheries still boasted of their strains of Danish Brown Leghorns and filled many catalog pages with their accomplishments.
There are roughly 50 to 60 years for the Light Brown Leghorn and most other heritage breeds to overcome before they are restored to anywhere near their former levels of productivity.
It will be time well spent and in buying those ‘special’ eggs consumers can and will reward producers for their good efforts and again make the farm fresh local egg a good resource to be relied upon.
Egg Shell Color & Productivity
Large brown eggs generally are produced by larger, less productive chicken breeds. They require more feed per dozen, more housing space and annual per-hen output is often much less than with some of the white egg laying breeds. The large white egg is the traditional egg for many U.S. consumers and the economic temper of the times could eventually point to a growing number of heritage bred, white egg flocks profiting from the production of heirloom and natural large and even medium white eggs.
The bargain hunters and the price-driven consumers are going to shop the retail outlets where factory farmed eggs are still treated as loss leaders and the occasional 99-cent egg may still be seen. In these market outlets, eggs are sold at a loss to get people into the store and this is not the market venue for independent egg producers adding value to their eggs through their farming processes.
We are still in a somewhat flagging economy and while the case can be made for a $4 dozen of extra large, brown organic eggs, fewer and fewer have room in the budget for that upscale item. Consumers know that there are differences in eggs, the nightly news tells them that often enough, but not all of the good and freshness is wrapped up in just the big and bigger brown-shelled eggs.
The small flock producer knows just how much individualized spin he or she can put on an egg and still market it profitably in optimal numbers. The transition from hen numbers in the tens to hen numbers in the hundreds is one very big step upward and outward, because the producer will have to reach well beyond the farm gate to get those numbers sold.
Genetics with dependable productivity must be acquired, steady buyers found and cultivated and a plan of operation from breeding to marketing formed. I recently fielded a call from an Amish farmer that had found a niche in the $2 to $2.50 per dozen range for green-hued eggs.
He had invested in 500 “Easter Egger” pullets and was encountering problems with per bird productivity. The Easter Eggers too often skate along on the novelty of producing some green and a few blue eggs. There is a demand for such colored eggs, but the birds that produce them have never been taken in hand and bred for increasing productivity. A six-pound hen that lays two or three eggs per week will eat as much as one that lays five or six. Profitability comes with eggs produced per bird and paring costs to produce those eggs.
With that latter point said, it needs to be added that you can’t starve a profit out of a bird. The benefit to ranging layers is not a big pull down in feed costs, but rather the benefits of exercise, exposure to sunlight and the access to additions to the diet from insects, seeds and a bit of greenery.
Birds on range should be left on full feed and ranging activities and weather stress may reduce or even increase food consumption. Either way, the birds need regular access to a well-formulated ration offered as a full feed. Chickens are not grazers. They are omnivores with a strong reliance upon seeds and even some animal protein, and too much greenery can bind crops.
A neighbor feeds the same base ration as I, a plant-based feed formula, and promotes his eggs as being produced on a vegetable diet. His birds also freely range and freely and eagerly consume any number of animal protein forms (worms, insects and the odd baby mouse or small lizard). Thus his birds are as bloody of beak and talon as any of the hunting raptors that soar above.
It is up to the individual producer to set the spin and find the niche that will enable him or her to profit optimally from an egg venture. Organic is going to remain one of the most pricey methods to produce and cage-free eggs are becoming ever more commonplace.
Due to the local and artisinal movements in foods and farming, what adds substantial value now and for the foreseeable future is the presence of the producer’s hand on the egg carton until it reaches the consumer. To express that most simply the producer has to take a “my hens/my eggs” stance from farm to fork.
The best way for a consumer to know that an egg is farm fresh is to buy it from the farmer. And the farmer has to establish that level of presence through the market and over the consumer’s threshold. This can begin with a farm name, production data and contact information on the label atop each carton of eggs.
It does no good to make an egg special if you fail to inform the buyer of the why and how you made them special. Until the shell is cracked it is only what the producer says that gives an egg value.
By Kelly Klober. This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.
Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Beyond the Chicken and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, available from Acres U.S.A.