Eggs and Chicken: Surprising Facts from the Farm

It’s Always Girls’ Day Out at Big Paddock Farm

These ladies are liberated. All 50,000 of them. They spend the morning dining, strolling and dust bathing, which is like a body scrub at a day spa. They prefer to do this communally so they can chat.

At Whangaripo valley near Matakana, we food writers walked Big Paddock Farm as their free range hens followed with friendly interest. They were happy to be held and stroked, when not pecking at our worm-like shoelaces. Nearby cattle help scare off predatory hawks and feral cats.

Owners Mathew and Jill Quested were our hosts. Matthew gave us a tour while correcting common assumptions. Related birds in the wild are used to being in flocks of tens of thousands. Free range hens do not have the strictly controlled diet of caged cousins, so egg sizes vary and are a nuisance to grade. Small eggs tend to be from younger hens and might be more nutritious. Ideally eggs should be eaten within 4-5 days of laying, but in the supermarket are probably 35 days old. Deep orange yolks are usually due to synthetically coloured feed. Even if organic feed is used there is no guarantee it is non-GMO. Free range meat chickens need to be reared indoors for the first 22 days. Surprisingly, they are then able to move outside for only about an additional 10 days before slaughter. How does this warrant the free range name badge and price?

Philosophy Creates Practices
Big Paddock Farm sells its eggs under that name locally and in supermarkets under Otaika Valley Eggs. Sometimes I have bought a different brand of free range eggs. I was horrified to discover that this is but a sneaky sub-brand from an inhumane cage-egg producer. But hey, the carton had a nice photo of a family on the farm!

It is suspicious when a major cage egg producer also offers free range. There is often something missing when the motive is purely profit without the originating philosophy. The premise is the same with big bread companies that start making gluten-free versions. The loaf will be without gluten, but often contains numerous artificial additives, cane sugar, highly refined milk powder, fractionated soy, cheap oils and more. Such companies are not motivated by the holistic perspective and so don’t factor in its principles.

Meat Chickens
In New Zealand nearly all farmers breed Cobb or Ross chickens for eggs or meat. These have been selectively bred over many generations to put on weight very quickly. Matthew’s statement checked out on the poultry industry page of a government website. At only 34 to 42 days old, broilers (chickens reared for meat) reach the desired weight of about 2kg and are then slaughtered. Chickens would normally take six months to fully mature.

Four main standard producers of broilers dominate the market. The largest is Tegel, owned by a Hong Kong private equity firm; then Ingham’s, owned by Australian investors. Next is Brinks, 50 per cent owned by Van der Brink family and 50 per cent by the VDB investment group. Turks is a smaller family-owned producer in Taranaki.

There is no legislated definition for “organic” or “free range”, so independent certification is required. Only a handful of farms offer organic broilers. Organic standards require chickens to be reared for at least 52 days. Companies such as Bostock (available at supermarkets and butchers) wait for 8 to 10 weeks. Bostock also manages every aspect of rearing, growing their own organic feed, doing their own slaughtering and packaging to ensure complete oversight.

Back to the Farm
Eggs are an excellent source of easy to digest and highly utilisable protein. A great choice for babies, children, the ill and the elderly  – and just about everyone else. Wonderfully little on the farm is wasted. Older eggs are wanted by bakers for making the best meringue. Eggs found in the paddock are given to pigs. Old birds are used for stewing (prized for flavour by savvy Chinese customers) or later yet for pet food. Excrement from the roost is used as fertiliser by farmers who then need less chemicals.

Light triggers laying. If you could look inside a hen there would be about 35 eggs in different stages of development. As one reaches maturity a hard calcium shell is created. We were shown one which had been expelled without a calcium exterior. It could be squeezed like a bouncy ball.

After our tour came brunch: scrambled eggs with chives, two types of local smoked salmon with leafy greens, warm artisan bread and homemade cinnamon brioche. Jill produced all this with relaxed competence in the cosy farm staff kitchen while a proprietary hen walked in to visit.