Friday, March 1, 2019

Why the Instagram Egg deserves 53 million likes


The Instagram Egg

Have you seen the news?

"An Egg, Just a Regular Egg, Is Instagram's Most-Liked Post Ever"

This was the headline in the Food section (?) of the New York Times about two months ago. The news was that a photo of an egg - the universal symbol of the mundane and the ordinary - inexplicably got more Instagram likes than Kylie Jenner's birth announcement.

The Instagram Egg has 3 times more likes than Kylie Jenner' thumb and baby hand.

The egg is now Instagram's most-liked post ever
Kylie Jenner's baby post is second. 

Headlines from other news outlets:

"An egg has overtaken Kylie Jenner as most-liked Instagram post ever"  (CNBC)

"How an egg beat Kylie Jenner at her own Instagram game" (The Guardian)

(In the CNBC and The Guardian, the egg news was in the Technology section)

As of February 23, 2019, the Instagram egg had 53 million likes.

But WHY?

I can see your eyes rolling: "But why are you sharing this non-news here?"

Well, because I found this non-news mildly irritating. Not the news itself, but its tone. 

The tone was: There is nothing special about the egg. It's the most banal object in the universe. How the hell could it get so many likes?

The New York Times article nailed it:

"Is the egg encrusted in diamonds? Does the egg have a popular YouTube channel you’ve never heard of? Is a sexy celebrity holding the egg?
Nope. None of the above. Just an egg."

Just an egg??? 

Our hens (and a rooster) would not agree.   

If chickens could read a newspaper, the New York Times (and other papers) would be flooded with protest email messages. 

But our chickens don't read newspapers and are busy enjoying their retirement, so they appointed me their spokesperson to write an angry response for them.

Now I have the grave responsibility of translating Chickenspeak to English and list some of  the reasons why eggs deserve billions and trillions of likes.

The short answer is, because of the eggs' sheer number and importance in our lives.


Why an egg deserves 53 million likes

1. The world is flooded with eggs

About 1,953,493,339,000 eggs were produced on planet Earth in 2017. (According to FAO. [Footnote 1])

This is more than 1,900 billion eggs. One thousand nine hundred billion eggs. In just one year. 
This is in fact 1.9 trillion eggs. 

In other words, we produce almost two trillion eggs every year to sustain the population of 7.8 billion humans.

Isn't that a mind-blowing number.

2. We eat eggs a lot

Eggs are not just sunny-side-ups and omelets. Eggs are used in a lot of foods: in many types of bread, pasta and nan; in baked foods, cakes, pies, cookies, puddings, pancakes, ice-cream, marshmallows, waffles, candy bars; in mayonnaise, salad dressings, tartar sauce and other sauces, soups, batter-fried foods, meatballs, meat loafs, tempura and okonomiyaki (the last two are mostly relevant in Japan)... and the list goes on. 

In other words, we eat a lot of eggs. But we often don't know it. This of course doesn't change the fact that we eat them, and that there must be someone somewhere raising a lot of chickens that will lay those eggs for us - for that ice-cream or the pasta. 

Some of us maybe thinking "I'm not a big egg eater anyway." Well, unless you're a vegan or egg-allergic, you're probably a bigger egg-eater than you think. 

To sum it up, we use eggs in so many foods (and non-food products as well), that if eggs suddenly disappeared from the world, we would be in a lot of trouble. 

We would certainly be in more trouble than if Kylie Jenner disappeared, from Instagram or from the world. (Of course I don't wish her that. I'm sure her family would miss her.)

Which, our hens (and a rooster) insist, is a good enough reason to agree that the Instagram Egg, as one of the 1.9 trillion eggs we use every year (laid by some 6.5 billion hens [Footnote2]), deserve a modest 53 million likes.


The Instagram Egg story does not end here though. The sequel was published in The New York Times on February 3 (this time in Style section). 

"Meet the Creator of the Egg That Broke Instagram"

Spoiler 1: The egg's creator was finally revealed. 
Spoiler 2: The egg has a name, Eugene (although it's supposed to be gender-free).

Long story cut short, the creator and his complices decided that they want to use Eugen the egg's newfound fame to do something good for the world. They have recently taken up a cause: mental health. 

This is wonderful news!

Mental health is super important topic. Most people, including me, are probably not 100 % mentally healthy. Many of us have 1% or 5% or 83% mental issues. We struggle with stress and lack of sleep and lack of time to update blogs and to reply to friends and to travel and read books and climb mountains and study second partial derivatives. 
I'm truly happy that Eugene the egg is now going to help us find help. 

Now here's our chickens' proposal (translated for this article from Chickenspeak): 

Eugene the egg should promote mental health of chickens too!

Most of the hens who lay those 1.9 trillion eggs in fact suffer from poor mental health. There is no direct statistics about this, but it's pretty clear the hens are mentally struggling. The ones that struggle are those who spend their lifetime in a tiny wire cage where they can't do anything but stand or sit, which is a majority of the world's 6.5 billion population of egg-laying hens. It's 24/7 of physical discomfort and utter boredom. There's no doubt their physical and mental health suffer. 

To be clear, chickens surely like to stand or sit. Standing and sitting are wonderful activities. But chickens also like to walk, run, jump, fly, perch, peck and scratch the ground in hunt for anything edible, groom and dust bath (the last two are major social activities), and they like to lay eggs in the privacy of a nest. This is what being a chicken means. If they can't do any of these activities, they can't be a chicken, and that's stressful. Just imagine you were born a human but then couldn't do anything a human needs to do to feel like a human - sleep in comfort and safety, take a shower, go out for a walk, write a blog, reply to friends, travel and read books and climb mountains and study second partial derivatives....
If you couldn't do any of this, never, your mental health would suffer. Chickens are the same. 

So, what if Eugen the egg also campaigned for the promotion of mental health of egg-laying hens? 
The best start would be to let chickens do things they need to do to feel more chickeny.

That's the proposal of our chickens who, by the way, enjoy great mental health (as far as I can tell) and they wish the billions of their fellow chickens around the world could enjoy the same. 

Our chickens feeling chickeny.


Footnote 1

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations gathers data on food production from all over the world. You can search their database, FAOSTAT, for virtually any agricultural item, including eggs. 

So how do you arrive at the number quoted in this article: "1,953,493,339,000 eggs produced on planet Earth in 2017"?

1. Go to this FAOSTAT link (FAOSTAT Livestock Primary)
2. Choose the following in the four Select windows:
Click "Select All" in Countries
Select "Production Quantity" in Element
Select "Eggs, hen, in shell (number)" in Items
Select "2017" in Years
3. Click "Download Data"
4. Open the Excel file that you just downloaded. 
5. Add up all numbers in Column L (Number of eggs produced in each country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.) (Needless to say, use Excel SUM function for quick calculation.)
6. Multiply by thousand (because the unit of the column L is "1000" as specified in the column K.)
7. You should arrive at the number 1,953,493,339,000.
※The number 1.95 trillion includes only eggs laid by domestic chicken. Other birds - geese, duck, quail - are not included.

Footnote 2

The number of hens - 6.5 billion - is an estimate calculated by dividing the number of eggs (1,953,493,339,000) by 300, which is the average number of eggs that a normal hen of modern 'industrial' breed lays per year.
The actual number of hens on the world's egg farms is larger for several reasons, the biggest being the fact that the egg production cycle necessarily includes pullets - young hens before they start laying eggs. These are not included in the 6.5 billion estimate.
Also, the number 6.5 billion includes only domestic chicken (egg-laying hens), no other birds (no geese, ducks, quail).

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Yoga on the farm


There are many things you can do on a farm, and one of them is, obviously, yoga. We had our first yoga class on the farm last Saturday. 

The great thing about solar sharing is that you can do just about anything under the panels. Yoga class sounded like a fun event.

Because goats participated as well, we'd like to call it Goat Yoga.

Yoga on the farm

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Why chickens don't fly out (even though they can)


At first I thought it was strange. 

Our chickens can fly quite well. They can easily fly 2 meters high if they want. 

The fence at its lowest part is only 1 meter high. This means that any of the chickens can effortlessly escape from the run any time.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Our chickens' pecking order and the hero at the bottom

Finally a new post after unbelievable four-month-long break. 
The blog might have looked dead but the farm is alive and well: Chickens and goats are thriving and solar panels seem to be mostly okay too (what a relief).

Having more work than before, I have less time to spend with our chickens and goats (and to write about it). This is a pity because it's always exciting to secretly spy on them while they think they are spying on me (and then share the details with our anonymous online audience).

Today I want to write about our chickens' social order, or as hoomans call it, pecking order. For those who think this is a boring topic: You'd be surprised how similar chicken society is to human society (that is, before humans invented "equality" and "human rights" for themselves). I will especially talk about Ashiko, the chicken at the social bottom of our flock. 


Being at the social bottom is usually a bad thing, but on our farm, this means that Ashiko is our favorite hen and gets special benefits. This is because of our farm's philosophy "No chicken left behind." (If our farm was a country, it would be a more notorious welfare state than Finland)

Click on picture to see it clearly.

As there are now only nine chickens (and six goats) on the farm, it's easy to see the social structure quite clearly. 

Of the nine chickens, eight are hens and one is rooster. The rooster, Justin, has a unique place in the flock, as roosters usually have, so the social order I'm going to describe will be mostly about the eight hens. 

(Regarding the rooster's position, it's hard to say whether it's low or high. This is because Justin is inconsistent and seems unable to decide whether he wants to be the leader or not. He likes to keep low profile and blend with the hens, except for the occasional half-hearted attacks on enemies like small children, Nobuo, and me.)

Justin the Rooster (center) trying to blend in.

So, the eight hens.

The top hen in our flock is Maruko.

(Please ignore the photobombers.)

Not that it would matter, but Maruko is the prettiest hen in our flock. She has beautiful feather coat, which I guess is both a reason and a consequence of her high status. During meal time, she can choose whatever feed tray she wants and no one will challenge her. She is never pecked at by any other hen. This means she gets the best nutrition as well as zero external damage (and she just seems to never molt), so her beautiful coat is not a coincidence. Btw the chicken on the title photograph of this blog is also Maruko.

Front: Maruko the Chicken. Back: Tobi-chan the Goat.
Poker smile 

When I do some digging or weeding in the chickens' run, Maruko is the one who comes close to "help" and gets all the bugs and worms that come out of the soil. These are delicacies and all hens crave for them, but Maruko somehow has the privilege to come first and get the best bugs. Other hens wait nearby for their chance. 

Despite of (or because of) Maruko being the most dominant hen, I can hardly recall seeing her being aggressive, like attacking other hens for no reason. From which I assume Maruko is a born leader with natural authority.

Below Maruko, there are the upper class hens, then the lower class hens, and then there's Ashiko. 

Social stairs (ladder was too difficult to draw)

Ashiko is at the very bottom. In most social groups this is unfortunate position, but on our farm, any hen (or goat) that falls into the lowest position immediately gets V.I.P. protected status.  This wasn't always the case. Before, our philosophy was to give chickens autonomy and let them solve their disputes on their own. But Ashiko taught us that we can do better. 

Ashiko's bullying started some six months ago. The trigger was her getting sick and limping on one leg as a result.  
This made her different enough from other chickens to become a target of bullying. Chickens hate diversity, you know. (Just as many goats, dogs and humans do.) If chickens wanted to inscribe a motto on the wall, it would be: "Either you are like us, or you are an enemy." 

We noticed that Ashiko's was being chased away during meal times (but a hen can go back to feed when other chickens finish eating) and generally picked on for no reason. It wasn't so bad, however. So we didn't step in - who would want that kind of micromanagement. Our chickens' run is big, I thought, so even if a hen turns out to be unpopular, she can always hide away from her bullies, I reasoned. I was convinced that the terrible cases of group aggression (pecking a hen to death) only happen on other farms with stressed-out chickens crammed in cages or in a barn.

That's what I believed until one day I found Ashiko sleeping outside, not in the coop with other hens but alone, with dark blood marks on her crest  and one of her eyes closed as if she had an injury. She looked miserable.
Ashiko the day after attack (already in her private room.)

You can see that one eye is closed.

This was a shock and a wake-up lesson. This has been the only case of such bullying on our farm, but it proves that even stress-free environment and a big outdoor run cannot always guarantee well-being of all chickens in the flock.

The moment we found Ashiko like that, we changed our philosophy from "leave it to the chickens" to "early intervention." For Ashiko the intervention came a bit late, but not too late. Ashiko immediately qualified for protected status. She got a private room, where she would get all her meals separately from other hens and she would also sleep there. She got a special run separated from other chickens. 

This arrangement lasted for several months. Ashiko completely recovered, including her eye, which at first we thought was permanently damaged. Luckily it wasn't. 

Now Ashiko is back with the flock, and although she is still at the bottom of the hierarchy, she's now same-enough to be tolerated by other hens. 

Ashiko socializing with other chickens.
(Preening is important group activity. Standing
this close to other hens is an achievement for
a previously bullied chicken)

On the weekends she sometimes still gets her meals separately and gets a special time in her own run. This is more because Ashiko now expects these privileges than because she needs them :D 

Right now there are just nine chickens and six goats, so it's easy to make sure every single one of them is happy. But imagine we had 30 or 50 or 100 chickens, and we still would want to run the farm by the "No chicken left behind" philosophy. So the big question is, how to make this work on a bigger scale. Meanwhile, we're happy to see Ashiko integrated back in the flock and living her carefree chicken life. 

The hero at the bottom :)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Third-graders at the farm


Third-graders from Tsukuba International School (TIS) came this year again
 to learn about renewable energy and solar sharing.

20 students and 7 teachers and parents on February 6, 2018

This was already third time that TIS students visited our farm.

This time, baby goats and chickens took all the spotlight, but that's just fine. As far as I remember, the purpose of school excursions was always (1) to have fun, (2) maybe to learn something. But the times may have changed since my school years, because the TIS children were (despite the baby goat distraction) curious and inquisitive, as they've always been on their visits to our farm, so we most probably managed to learn something together.

We talked about how the energy from sun turns into electricity when sunlight hits the panel surface, and how that electricity moves through the cables to inverters, then to the distribution box and finally up the utility pole to the public grid, so people can use the electricity in their homes. 

As all the things mentioned - the panels, the inverters, the utility pole - were right there on the farm in front of us, I hope the abstract concept of electricity became a little more concrete. 

We also checked out how much the electricity production changes when I change the tilt of the panels. (In February, the optimum angle in our area is 50 degrees. When we moved the tilt to the July position of about 4 degrees, electricity generation dropped by about 30%, which is a lot.) 
*We can check power generation status of the farm in the real time thanks to Solar monitor.

This year we didn't have much time to talk about the chickens (why we have chickens at the farm), but that's fine too. As long as the students had fun and remember the chickens, the goats, and the solar panels as they saw them on the farm, mission is completed. I can sleep well at night.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Goat baby boom


As we already announced on our Japanese blog, Natchan the Queen gave birth to four healthy baby goats on January 19, 2018, or about a week ago.

Natchan and her day-old babies (2018/1/20)

It's three girls and a boy! (2018/1/20)

If Natchan's delivery is already old news, the new news is that five days later, on January 24th, another goat, Momochan, delivered too! She gave birth to a healthy girl.

Momochan and her baby girl (2018/1/25)

Momochan currently doesn't live on our farm. She has a private room in the home of Mrs. Yagishita, our Chief Goat Officer who lives a short walk from the farm. This is because Momochan has an inborn problem with front legs and is easily bullied if kept with other goats. Instead of walking straight, she prefers to walk with her front knees bent. Otherwise she's a healthy, mild tempered, sweet goat, but she's not exactly super-strong and we never expected her to get pregnant. However, now she's a good mum and her leg issue is clearly not a problem in fulfilling here mum duties.

Momochan in her preferred standing position.
(She can stand or walk straight if she wants.)

Moreover, the current situation brought about an additional benefit: the opportunity for "mum sharing". 

"Mum sharing"

Mum sharing means that babies share their mums.
Natchan gave birth to four babies, which is a little too many to support without human assistance. Goats have only two teats, so four babies have to compete who gets most milk.  

That's why Mrs. Yagishita would have to do some bottle feeding to make sure all four babies grow fine.

See the milk bottles?
But Momochan's new mum status created an opportunity for a better solution: We took the smallest of Natchan's four babies to Momochan to see if she would accept her. And Momochan said, okay, why not? She snuffed the new baby's bottom, it smelled good, so she let her suck. 
Momochan's baby girl now has a playmate!

As a result, Natchan is feeding three babies and Momochan is feeding two. 
In the meantime Yagishita san is busy procuring enough food both Natchan and Momochan. This is not easy in winter.

If you are worried that Natchan or the baby might have suffered emotional damage from being separated, I can assure you that this is not the case. Natchan hardly noticed one baby is missing, and the baby was happy to be with her new mum as soon as she was allowed to suck. (It's easy to identify a goat in distress. There was none this time.)

Natchan and three babies (2018/1/27)

We will keep you posted about new developments.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Our farm introduced in The Japan Agricultural News

Chickens' Playground was introduced in The Japan Agricultural News (日本農業新聞)on January 18, 2018.

Click to enlarge

For my commentary (and corrections to the article), please read this blog entry in Japanese.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Happy New Year! ...and what next. (About the future of the farm)

"Happy New Year!" chickens and goats must have said, but we missed it because our Chickenspeak and Goatspeak are still poor.

Happy New Year from a Chicken

Happy New Year from a Goat

It's a Year of Dog.

Happy Dog Year, Japanese New Year Cards
Here are some of the New Year postcards we got!

Because it's a Year of Dog, our chickens quickly decided to forget that Chinese Zodiac ever existed. (They liked Chinese Zodiac last year. It was a Year of Rooster.)

Chickens' Playground, Power Plant Oo, Tsukuba, Japan

Chicken and New Dog Year postcards

Chickens and New Dog Year postcards

Now some important updates about the farm.

There are now 11 chickens and 3 goats on the farm. The number of goats is pretty stable, but the number of chickens dropped to one third of the original flock. This is because we killed and ate them. We did our best to take their life quickly, and we didn't waste anything as we turned them into food.

Killing our chickens is never fun and I'm relieved we don't have to do it again for at least the next few months. With the last eleven chickens left, their "pet" status naturally grew stronger. To put it another way, their "farm animal" status has become a little untenable. We should have expected it: as there are fewer animals, their personalities stand out more and it's harder to subscribe to the pet-is-friend-but-farm-animal-is-machine doublethink. (That's why big industrial farms with tens of thousands of animals are the perfect design to make us numb.)

After selling eggs for more than two years, we stopped last autumn, or about two months ago.
Chickens still lay a few eggs a day, just enough for our personal consumption and sharing with neighbors.

The question is, what next.  

At first this may seem like the end of the Chickens' Playground, but we'd like to think of it as a creative break.

Here's the thing:
We really want to continue the farm. Of all the chicken farms I've visited in Japan, our chickens have by far the best living conditions and the highest degree of relative freedom where they can express all of their original behaviors including their foraging habits (unfortunately, large outdoor runs like ours are now extremely rare on commercial chicken farms in Japan. Reason: they require more space, more spending on fencing and more risk management tasks for the farmer, including unavoidable contact of chickens with wild birds = potential disease-carriers.) If I eat eggs, I want them to be from a farm like ours. But there is no other farm like ours. That's why we have to make our farm work.

But it's not that simple. There is a reason why there is no other farm like ours - because it is not economically sustainable.

Despite having a lot of loyal customers who paid three times the usual price for our hens' eggs and had to put up with the inconvenience of coming to pick them up to the farm, for which support we will love our customers forever, the farm was still relying on - mostly my - volunteer labor, which may work for a year or two, but it's not feasible in the long term. Especially now that I lost control over much of my time by switching from a freelancer to a regular 9-5 job, running the farm in the same way we did for the past two years is impossible.

We also can't rely on the income from the solar panels as much as we'd like to. Not only the equipment for chickens costs more than we had thought. Because we built the farm using our savings and a loan, using the income from electricity to subsidize the farm is like paying for the farm from our savings - you can't afford that unless you're a millionaire.

All in all, the scale of the farm - just 30+ chickens - is too small to make it pay for all the costs, including our time. This is an undeniable fact. But increasing the number of chickens is not the answer. It would only lead to the same compromises (both environmental and animal welfare) that we have seen on all the other farms.

But we believe there are ways how to fix this.  First of all, we need to improve the design of the farm to make things a little more efficient and a little less time-demanding. But we have to do it in a smart way that doesn't impact the chickens.

Personally, I'm a big fan of efficiency. If I can finish a boring or grueling task quickly or easily using a smart tool, I will. I can then use the saved time to read a book. But I'm not a fan of ill-defined "efficiency" in farming, where it often means more pesticides and chemical fertilizers in exchange for a little higher yield, while all the negative environmental costs (like destruction of ecosystems) are externalized.  In case of animal farming, more "efficiency" usually means less space and worse conditions for animals. Battery cage is undoubtedly the most "efficient" way of producing eggs, but that doesn't mean it is the right way. A practice that would be labeled animal abuse if it was done to a companion animal,  should not be applied to farm animals either.

So there's real efficiency and pseudo efficiency, and it's important to see the difference. On our farm, we're pursuing the former - there are still many things to improve that have nothing to do with environmental costs or animal welfare. However, these improvements require either time (to figure out what works best through trial-and-error) or money (to buy or build the better designed thing) or, usually, both.

Example: We have a huge problem with sparrows who come in crowds to eat chickens' feed and to sh*t everywhere. They sh*t into chickens' drinking water and on the solar panels. I'm not overstating: the future of our farm depends on solving the sparrow curse.
The easiest solution would be shutting the chickens inside the coop, thus cutting sparrows' access to the feed. Eventually they would realize that there are no free meals any more and would stop coming altogether. However, shutting chickens in the coop means denying them access to the outdoor run, so it's not exactly a chicken-friendly solution. We asked the chickens and they (obviously) said they didn't like the idea, so we have to figure out something smarter. The solution is out there, we just have to find it. For example, building a smart feeder that only chickens could open, but not sparrows. Chickens would have free access to their meals and to their run, but there would be no free food for the sparrows. This would save us a lot of time and money.
Something like this (the video below is not from our farm):

This was just one example how better design could help us solve many of the issues that we ran into in the past two years. In that sense, the past two years were an important Stage 1 of this long term project: a learning phase that allowed us to notice what practical problems there are. Now we can start ironing them out.

That's why we'd like to call this a Phase 2: Creative break!

My genius idea is just about to pop up.
"My genius idea is just about to pop up."

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Why a fence for chickens won't work for goats (and vice versa)?

For the sake of our beloved chickens and goats, we are repairing the fence. We're still half-way, but here's a report anyway.

Drilling holes for new wood posts...

... hammering posts into the ground ...
... attaching wire mesh to the posts...
... and finally attaching wood planks over the mesh.

 Repeat on the next part of the fence.

The goal is to make the old fence both chicken and goat proof.

Chicken proof and goat proof are two very different things, as we learned after two years of experience with chicken & goat cohabitation.
Now we know what a perfect fence for both should look like.

Chicken proof and goat proof fence.
(That duck in the middle, that's wild.)

So why a fence for chickens won't work for goats and vice versa?

Because chickens are little flying birds while goats are big mammals with hoofs and horns.
Neither chickens nor goats have any respect for human-set boundaries (why should they?), but their ways of crossing the boundaries are completely different.

Fence and Chickens

With our old fence being just 1 meter high, smarter chickens easily flew over it. It wasn't okay, but somewhere deep inside we thought it was freespirited, funny and cute. Until some of the rice farmers around started spraying chemical weed killers on the slopes of their rice fields (where the runaway chickens liked to play). And - that was the final straw - until one chicken was hit by a car (she died instantly). The driver didn't even attempt to slow down. Clearly, not everyone thinks a free ranging chicken is funny or cute.

For a fence to really protect chickens from outside enemies like this, it should be more than 2 meters high, so part of the current repair process is making the fence higher. We're making it about 1.8 meters high, which is less than the ideal 2 meters, but still a substantial and hopefully sufficient upgrade of chickens' safety.

By the way, our chickens' run, to which they have unrestricted access all the time, has an area of about 580 square meters, which I'm confident is big enough to keep them happy, without the need to fly out and play on the road.

Fence and Goats

The old fence - made of simple wire mesh attached to a few wooden posts - was bound to give in to the goats.
In defense of goats, their intent was never destructive, it's just that they like doing all things anti-fence:
1. rubbing their backs against wire mesh. This clearly give goats great pleasure. Unsurprisingly, after a while posts start to lean and mesh to tear.
2. fiddling with the fence with their horns. This must be so fun! It's also the best way how to tear up the mesh, making holes in it (through which then chickens can escape).
3. using the mesh as a step to reach for things over the fence. Like this:

Natchan reaching for her favorite shrub over the fence.

The same scene from the opposite side.
You can see her hoof on the mesh.

In order to make the fence goat proof, it's necessary to
1. use more and thicker posts to support the fence.
2. attach wood planks over the mesh so it can withstand goat pressure.
These two things are now a part of the repair process.

This is how we've been spending many of our no-rain weekends and some weekdays for the past one and a half months. I wrote this blog today only because it's raining.

God bless chickens and goats for keeping us busy.
(In fact chickens think I'm the god.) (Goats are atheists.)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What is a "quality" egg

Our chickens are now two years and three months old and this affects both the quantity and the quality of the eggs they lay.
Chicken in clover: So what.
Exactly. (But some people seem bothered.)
In this post I'll explain one specific "quality" issue related to hens' age - something that most people don't know about.

When we talk eggs, we usually have in mind several indicators to tell us how fresh and/or how good quality an egg is. We look whether  the shell is strong and hard to break, whether the yolk is firm and has the 'right' color (whatever that means) and whether the white is thick and upstanding.

These may look like pretty commonsense rules, but at least that part about egg white - that's only half of the story. The other half is worth knowing too, especially  if you buy eggs from a small farm where chickens might live longer than commercial layers on large, industrial style farms.

Egg white

We usually consider it an indicator of freshness.

Last Judgment, egg version

That's what egg industry tells us and what we, consumers, believe. And in general it's true - a firm, thick egg white is usually a sign of fresh egg.

Except, it’s not always true.

That’s what I learned from our chickens, who are now far beyond the working age of laying hens in the "modern" egg industry, where hens are normally disposed of at 17-18 months of age. Ours are 27 months old and about to announce their retirement, but at the moment they still lay eggs, which we still sell, although only to the last few most understanding customers who care about the chickens as much as about the eggs.

So here's the thing about the egg white, the fancy word for which is albumen.

Egg albumen introducing himself with a big smile. Yolk does nothing.
There are two types of albumen in every egg: thick and thin
In this article we're talking about thick albumen.

Albumen is typically thick and upstanding when the egg is freshly laid, but becomes thinner as days pass, especially if you store eggs in a warm and humid place, or in a place where temperature frequently changes.

Albumen height

Albumen height is considered such an important indicator that in the egg industry and egg science, it is measured with a tripod micrometer and used as a basis for calculating Haugh unit - a ubiquitous measure of egg freshness since it was invented in 1937.

Less known is the fact that as hens grow older, their eggs' albumen height naturally decreases. It is a normal change - a result of hens' reproduction organs aging.

In case of our flock, the differences are also quite individual – some hens still lay eggs with firm egg whites, others not so. All hens are exactly the same age, live in the same environment, eat the same diet and are all healthy – so the difference can only be attributed to individual genetic makeup.
Also, our hens are not really "old" yet. With a natural life span of 8-10 years, a two-years-and-three-months-old hen (our flock) is not that much older than a one-and-a-half-year-old hen (slaughter age of laying hens).
As for those eggs with lower albumen height, everything else is just fine - the egg looks fine, the shell is strong and the yolk is firm. It’s just the egg white getting flatter. Despite it being a natural consequence of the hen's age and genes, this egg, even though it's fresh, would be considered by ordinary consumer as old and of lower quality.

if a healthy hen lays a pretty, perfectly edible egg whose only fault is thinner egg whiteis that really a quality issue, or is it just a man-made fussiness? 
I wondered.

If it is a real quality issue, low albumen height surely must be a sign of some other profound defect. It can't be just the fact that the egg spreads too much on a frying pan for your sunny side up, right? Two hypothesis come to mind. 

Hypothesis 1: Maybe low albumen height is a sign of fewer nutrients. Like, less vitamins or minerals in the egg?
I checked it out and the answer is: Nope, it seems that albumen height has nothing to do with nutritional content. This conclusion is based (besides common sense) on the fact that I simply could not find any evidence - no data, no scientific studies, no observations or even a discussion - about the relationship between albumen height (or Haugh unit) and nutritional value of eggs. Given how much and how thoroughly eggs have been studied and tested and researched around the world for decades, the fact that there is no information at all on this topic seems like a reliable proof that there is no such relationship. The closest I could find was this study of partridge eggs, which found that "[t]here is no effect of the storage time on the mineral content of the egg." [1] 

Hypothesis 2: Maybe low albumen height means that you can’t whip it into good foam? That would be real functional deficiency for both processing industry and individual consumers who like baking.
So I checked it out and the answer is: Nope, lower albumen height does not cause lower whipping volume. In fact, it causes higher whipping volume, as practical experience and this study shows. So you get more whipping foam out of less firm albumen. [2]
In other words, we have two egg quality criteria - albumen height and whipping volume - that contradict each other. SO SMART.

So now we know that low albumen height is not a sign of some deeper quality problem. It's rather a human-invented aesthetic function of fried eggs with about as much substance to it as saying that a big apple is of higher quality than a small apple, because ... because.


But at least it is an indicator of freshness, right?

Well, no. I already mentioned that albumen height decreases with hens' age, and that there are individual differences between hens. This is not just personal observation, it's what research, such as the study mentioned above, shows: although it is true that albumen height decreases with storage, it is also a heritable trait and is biased by the age and strain of hen, therefore it is not a reliable indicator of freshness. By the way, a better indicator of freshness would be albumen pH, which "is determined almost entirely by storage time and may be more useful than albumen height for measuring egg quality." [2]

To sum it up, when an egg has thin egg white, it can be either because the egg is old, or because the hen is "old" or because the hen inherited the trait from her parents.

Most people don't know this because they don't keep backyard flocks anymore and the egg industry has only been telling us the first part of the story - that albumen height decreases with storage.

What does it mean for hens?

For hens it means that they are killed too soon.

Of course, both quality and quantity of eggs goes down by the time hens are 17-months old. By then, a flock of 100 hens would lay about 65 - 70 eggs a day, as compared to more than 90 eggs/day during peak lay period. That's the quantity part. As for quality, the major issue with older hens is thinner egg white explained above.

Whether you interpret the 65-70 eggs as too many or too few as a threshold for culling the whole flock - that's a matter of opinion. Speaking for myself, killing the entire flock of healthy hens when they could still produce every day 65 - 70 perfectly okay eggs, whose only fault would be slightly thinner egg white, sounds like a terrible disregard for animal life. You certainly wouldn't kill all chickens at that point if they were your own backyard flock.

The problem with "modern" farming is that the value of an animal is inversely proportionate to the number of animals, in other words, the more animals you have, the less important an individual animal is. Large farms with tens of thousands of chickens simply get them on the truck and send them to the slaughter house. This is much different on our "farm" with less than two dozens of chickens.  We marvel every day how cute they are (although the rooster can be an as*hole) and then we kill them ourselves. I know it's unavoidable, but frankly, killing a chicken is not exactly a pleasant thing to do, especially not for the chicken. We want to reduce the frequency of slaughter sessions to minimum and so far we were able to do exactly that thanks to our customers who stayed with us and kept buying the eggs despite chickens' age.
Of course, our customers are special and I know I can't expect the same compassion and generosity from everyone.

But I still imagine how nice it would be if more people in the world were able to, both metaphorically and literally, see the hen behind the egg, as our customers can, and decide what is more important to them - a thick egg white that only young hens can produce, or a hen that had happy and (relatively) long life that she deserves, even if, towards the end, the egg white is not quite as thick as the egg industry has been telling us it should be.

Wanna know my opinion?
Oh, and I almost forgot. I guess you'd like to see what our hens' eggs actually look like. Here are four randomly chosen eggs from today morning. These eggs were laid by 2-years-and-3-months-old hens.

Actually, they look quite okay, don't they?

External links
Günhan S., Kirikçi K. 2017 Effects of different storage time on hatching results and some egg quality characteristics of rock partridge (A. graeca) (management and production). [Abstract]
Silversides F. G., Budgell K. 2004 The Relationships Among Measures of Egg Albumen Height, pH, and Whipping Volume. [Full text]