Sunday, July 31, 2011

Cracking the code of egg carton labels, Part 1

I don't know about you, but before we got our egg dealer's license several years ago, I was frankly baffled by the various terminology of egg carton labeling. Although some of these labels are periodically re-defined , some things remain consistent; for example, egg sizes. What's so confusing about Large and Extra Large? Well, nothing, once you know what it means.

Egg sizes are determined by weight. The standard Large egg is 2 ounces. However, the difference between one egg size and the next is 1/4 ounce; thus, a Large egg is actually anywhere from 2 to 2-1/4 ounces, an Extra Large egg is between 2-1/4 and 2-1/2 ounces, and so on. Sometimes, because of the varying shapes of eggs, one egg might appear to be larger than another, when they are both the same weight. So when we are sorting our eggs by size, we weigh each egg to determine the size.

By the way, you cooks and bakers out there probably already know that most recipes calling for eggs specify the Large size egg. Now that you know a Large egg is 2 ounces, you'll know what to do when you want to use different size eggs: Measure the eggs by weight until you have the equivalent weight of the eggs called for in the recipe.

OK, on to egg grades. I had not the slightest idea what this meant. Simply, it is an indication of freshness, Grade AA being the freshest. How is this measured? It is determined by the size of the air space at the wide end of the egg; this is easiest to see when candling (shining a bright light through the wide end of the egg). Why? Because the egg shell is porous, and over time the contents gradually evaporate. So, the smaller the air space, the fresher the egg.

With commercial eggs, the catch is that this standard of freshness is applied when the eggs leave the place of production, not when they arrive at your grocery store. You can't tell just by looking at the eggs, right?

Let's go over one more label term this time: Free range. This term is unfortunately not as clear, definition-wise, as it might appear. Technically, for eggs to be labeled "free range," the hens must be allowed "access to the outdoors." What does that mean? (My husband David suggested that the hens are watching the Nature Channel while pumping out eggs.) In reality, it means very little. A commercial operation can comply with this requirement by simply installing one or two very small doors somewhere on an outside wall of their 20,000-hen facility, and making sure the door is open at least part of the day. Honestly, now, how many of those hens, in a place that huge, ever have a chance of even seeing the door? And even if they do go outside, who's to say there is grass out there?

The main problem with the term "free range" is that you can't know for sure. Your eggs might have come from birds who spent part of their day outdoors, but you simply have no way of knowing. It seems to me that without tighter definitions and oversight, "free range" isn't much more than an effective marketing tool. You'd expect to pay more for "free range" eggs, right? But what are you paying for?

Once again, it comes down to this: If you don't raise your own chickens, the best way to know that you're getting truly fresh eggs, from birds that have been treated humanely, is to visit the farm where the eggs are produced. Observe the operation. Talk to the farmer. You'll not only return home with eggs you can believe in, you'll establish a relationship that benefits you, the farmer, and your whole community.

In Part 2, I will talk about a few more egg carton labels, including one of my personal favorites (in a dubious sort of way): Vegetarian diet. Stay tuned, and please post your comments and questions.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Egg production slowing down; could the hens be molting already?

Well, this is interesting. We've noticed a slow but steady decrease in our chicken egg production recently. True, we did lose four young hens to bobcats earlier in July, but we don't believe this alone accounts for the slowdown. We've also had several hens who seem fairly persistently broody, and as you may know, when a hen goes broody she temporarily stops laying. We keep taking the hens off the nests, and don't let eggs pile up under them, hoping to get them out of mother-hen mode. I always feel a little guilty when I take eggs away from a broody hen; the poor things just want to hatch some babies. Then there's that pathetic sort of whimpering noise they make, which doesn't help a bit.

Still, our guess at this point as to why the chickens aren't laying quite up to par (the ducks are still laying quite well -- we get 8-10 eggs per day from our 10 laying ducks) is they may be going through an early molt. Certainly a number of chickens, as well as the adult turkeys, look as if they're molting. Generally our experience has been that the birds molt in mid- to late fall, say October or early November. I wonder if it has anything to do with the unusually cold, wet spring and summer we've had this year?

Those of you with chickens, what is your hens' egg production like this summer? Generally the longer days of late spring and early summer mean the highest production rate, although unusually hot weather can cause hens to slow down or stop laying briefly. I remember the egg laying dropped significantly last fall, following a series of bobcat attacks; stress can certainly be a factor. Anyone else notice signs of early molting?

Frankly, I hope we're wrong about the molt. We don't want our egg supply to drop too low during the summer; this is the busy season for the Alder Wood Bistro, and they buy nearly all our eggs. Our teenagers (the 10-week-old New Hampshire pullets) won't start laying till probably early November, so we'll just hope for the best. Thank goodness the ducks are still going strong.

Speaking of eggs, I have been getting more questions lately about what all the labels on egg cartons actually mean. In my next post, I will try to define these terms for you and clarify some (to me) confusing points.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Breaking news: Writer surfaces after a month away from her blog

...and the blogosphere breathes a collective sigh of relief. Seriously, though, I feel like it's been more like a year. This was not a planned sabbatical or vacation or even garden-variety procrastination. Actually, I cut my hand badly several weeks ago, and it is more or less immobilized in a bulky, truly uncomfortable splint. I'm supposed to keep it on at all times except to shower, until the end of the month; then I re-visit the orthopedist to find out whether the darn thing will require surgery.

By the  way, this happened 8 days before David was scheduled to be out of town for a week. I had been looking forward to a week to myself on the farm, knocking out query letters and other writing tasks in between bobcat patrol and collecting eggs. Several generous and kind family members spent part of the week up here, helping me out with things best done with two hands.

The good news is that I cut my left hand and I am right-handed; on the other hand (sorry), for the moment I can only type one-handed. The embarrassing thing is that I seem to type almost as fast with one hand as I used to do with two hands. This is frustrating, as I have recently been working hard on improving my typing speed. Oh, well! At least I am already in the habit of writing my drafts longhand. And now that David is back and handling most of the chores, I am throwing myself into my writing with a burst of pent-up energy.

Anyway, let's see, what else is new around here? It has been an unusual July weather-wise. Generally here in the Rain Shadow, July and August can be relied upon to be warm (sometimes hot) and dry. For the past 3 years we've had a week or so of 90-degree-plus temperatures in July; this year, we've had 2 (yes, TWO) days where it panted and groaned its way to around 80. We have had a few other mostly sunny days, but more days like today: cool, foggy, with rain showers at times. While it's allowing me to spend less time watering in the garden, it's not doing much for my beans and tomatoes.

I identified a new (to me) bird a few days ago, a Northern Goshawk. (Unfortunately, I observed it in the act of killing one of our 8-week-old New Hampshire chicks.) This brings to 64 the number of wild bird species we've identified on our property. With all the second-growth woods around us, and our two large ponds that attract lots of migratory waterfowl and other birds, it's like living in our own private nature preserve.

Thanks for hanging in there these past few weeks while I've been offline. I'm back now, and if not better than ever, at least I'm a more careful typist. Hope you all are having a great weekend!