By Kelly Klober
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 between a dozen medium and a dozen jumbo eggs. A dozen large eggs, the standard in the retail marketplace, weighs twenty-four ounces. A dozen medium eggs, commonly used in the food service sector, weighs twenty-one ounces—just three ounces less. These slight differences can become big factors when calculating what it 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 1/4-inch or less in depth and fairly uniform. The white should be clear, although not quite as firm as that of 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 are referred to as “table eggs.” 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. These brown eggs are not always the most economical to produce, though, 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 that is becoming as commonplace and unexciting as “two-door sedan” or “generic peanut butter.”
Eggs from specific regional breeds appear to be an emerging market. An Amish client called with a question about poor egg production, and the solution we arrived at was to develop better performing Ameraucana chickens. The challenge was to find the necessary genetics and then to breed them up to levels of performance that will make his market niche truly profitable. We agreed that he would develop a green-and-blue egg true breed.
The root to success with a laying flock, regardless of the breed, is to make the long-term commitment to careful breeding and performance upgrading. There have been a lot of fad breeds in poultry keeping of late, and many are not high performers in the laying house. Others have not been held to any performance standard for many decades or were not bred to maintain, let alone improve, performance.
Fortunately, there are a great many pure breeds with practical roots from which to select, and within these there are often a great many color and pattern varietals. The Plymouth Rock, for example, has name recognition on par with Chevrolet or Black Angus beef. The White and Barred varietals are the most generally recognized breeds, but are 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 a hundred years. The Buff and the Partridge varieties have the look and also the history to be highly marketable. The American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection lists sixteen 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 after selection and breed preservation should be the propagation of those breed-specific flocks for improving economic performance. Richly-colored eggs will be only a market of the moment if they cannot go on to be profitable.
A short burst of popularity is not enough on which to launch an egg business. 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 one of the largest of the Leghorn varietals, with a distinctive white and black hatched pattern. It has an appealing image, but there were only small populations, and early on in the flurry of interest many farmers encountered problems with its color pattern, leg color, mature size, and genetic purity.
It was not the 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. It is still a worthy bird, though, 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 common Light Brown Leghorn. Even within my lifetime, interest has fluctuated way up and down for this breed. When I was younger many hatcheries boasted about their strains of Danish Brown Leghorns and filled many catalog pages with their accomplishments.
It will take roughly fifty or sixty years before the Light Brown Leghorn and most other heritage breeds are restored to anywhere near their former levels of productivity. Consumers who buy these “special” eggs will reward producers for their good efforts and will again make the farm-fresh local egg a valuable resource.
Egg Shell Color & Productivity
Large brown eggs are generally produced by larger, less productive chicken breeds. They require more feed per dozen and housing space, and annual per-hen output is often much lower 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. In these market outlets, eggs are sold at a loss to get people into the store; this is not the market venue for independent egg producers with their heritage breeds.
We are still in a somewhat flagging economy, and while the case can be made to price a dozen extra-large, brown, organic eggs at $4, fewer and fewer people have room in their budgets for this upscale item. Consumers know that there are differences in eggs—the nightly news tells them that often enough—but not all the goodness and freshness is wrapped up in 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. Farmers must acquire genetics with dependable productivity, find steady buyers, and devise a plan of operation from breeding to marketing.
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 five hundred “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.
That said, I should add that you can’t starve a profit out of a bird. The benefit of putting layers on pasture is not that it drastically decreases feed costs, but rather that it allows birds exercise, exposure to sunlight, and access to additions to their diet in the form of insects, seeds, and greens.
Birds on range should be left on full feed. 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; too much greenery can bind their crops.
A neighbor feeds the same base ration I do—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). In other words, 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 from an egg venture. Organic is going to remain one of the priciest production methods, and cage-free eggs are becoming ever more commonplace.
Due to the local and artisanal 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. 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 a strong relationship with his or her customers. 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 why and how you made them special. Until the shell is cracked, the only thing that gives an egg business value is what the farmer says.
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, all of which are available from Acres U.S.A.