I first learned about a new egg from Wisconsin producer M&M Organic Farms thanks to an article by Alex Risch in the Willy Street Co-op newsletter. Risch, assistant grocery manager at the Co-op’s original east-side location, wanted to see if they could work with one of their suppliers to fill a market niche by meeting two different product specifications, i.e., an egg that was completely soy-free and produced as humanely as possible in a commercially viable setting.
As Risch writes, “My interest in chickens and eggs stems purely from an animal welfare standpoint. I’m vegan, but because my family isn’t, I decided to raise backyard chickens so they could eat eggs laid by happy hens. This is also why I brought backyard chicken supplies into the Co-op. It was my way of advocating for the backyard chicken movement, which in my opinion is the most humane way to consume eggs. That’s all fine and dandy, but truth is, raising backyard chickens isn’t an option for everyone.”
As Risch continues,
Chickens are happiest when they can recognize every bird in their flock. This is how they maintain pecking order, the social system that governs their day-to-day activities and ensures harmony within the group. Ideally, flocks wouldn’t grow larger than about 12 birds. Any more than this and chickens can’t identify their place in the pecking order, leading to fighting, death, and even cannibalism. For this reason, it’s actually more humane to trim beaks in large production flocks which often contain thousands of birds.
However, research shows that beak-trimming can cause chronic pain and inhibit a chicken’s instinctive need to scratch and peck at the ground. It was clear that the most humane flock was one small enough for the birds’ beaks to remain intact.
With this in mind, I contacted Michael Miller from M&M Organic Farms. Aside from being a great vendor to work with, I knew him to be up for trying new things. I asked him about the possibility of raising a small flock of hens with intact beaks, fed organic soy-free feed. He was open to the idea, and we spent the better part of the following year meeting with livestock nutritionists and other experts to determine the feasibility of such an undertaking.
While I knew from the beginning that 12 birds wasn’t a practical size for a production flock, the trick was figuring out exactly how small we could go. The flock had to be small enough that the birds wouldn’t require beak-trimming, but large enough to turn a profit. Michael calculated that the magic number was 300. With enough space, 300 birds can break off into smaller social groups, achieving something close to the 12-bird ideal.
The other point we agreed on was access to the outdoors—not just by the loose standards of organic certification, but meaningful time on pasture for the entire flock.
This was a huge risk for Michael to take. There was no guarantee that our experiment would succeed, because there was no data on soy-free production. He was truly breaking new ground with this type of flock management.
The entire article makes a great read, so I encourage you to check out the full story here at the Co-op’s website.
These have become the eggs of choice at our house; we’ve found them both at the Co-op and at Metcalfe’s Sentry. They’re more expensive than other local eggs, and certainly more than those from large-scale conventional producers, but I’m grateful that—for a few extra bucks—I can rest assured that the eggs I’m buying were produced in an extremely humane way. Congrats to Risch and especially Michael Miller (previously recognized for his quality organic eggs) for their efforts!