Crikey, it’s incredibly dark this Winter Solstice morning. We are relatively new to hen-keeping; it’s our first winter of having them, and we’ve had to educate ourselves a little. This shortest day of the year finds us almost eggless.
The humble egg has impressive health credentials. Everyone knows about their nutritional value, that they are a very good source of inexpensive, high quality protein. More than half the protein of an egg is found in the egg white along with vitamin B2 and lower amounts of fat and cholesterol than the yolk. The whites are rich sources of selenium, vitamin D, B6, B12 and minerals such as zinc, iron and copper. Egg yolks contain more calories and fat. They are the source of cholesterol, fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and lecithin – the compound that enables emulsification in recipes such as hollandaise or mayonnaise.
In particular, the health benefits of free-range eggs was the prompt for us to have our own chickens in the first place. Compared to eggs from caged birds, free range eggs provide:
Twice as much omega-3 fatty acids.
Three times more vitamin E.
Seven times more pro-vitamin A beta-carotene.
A quarter less saturated fat.
A third less cholesterol.
Other tests have demonstrated that pastured eggs have up to six times more essential vitamin D than regular supermarket eggs. They have also been shown to have significantly more B vitamins than a factory produced egg.
Egg yolks are also a known source of lutein and zeaxanthin, two important antioxidants for the health of your eyes. They help to protect the delicate macula region of your eye from damaging UV and high-intensity blue light. To protect your vision as well as improve your overall health, look for the deep yellow / orange yolks you’ll find in real free range eggs.
However, hens are sensitive to day length and in particular to the direction in which the daylight hours are changing. As hens require around 14 hours of daylight to maintain optimum egg production, once the natural daylight falls below 12 hours, production naturally tails off and will possibly cease altogether during the winter months. Currently we are lucky if we get one egg each day. We’ve noticed also that our hens are eating more layers pellets than usual – this is normal apparently and they do this to bulk up a bit and give themselves some insulation against the winter cold.
Laying can continue through the use of artificial lighting to extend the natural daylight hours and commercial farms will use artificial lighting in order to produce eggs during the winter as well as summer months. We will not be doing that with our chickens. The whole point of our having hens in the first place was so that they could lead a happy, natural scratching way of life. And they do. Their eggs are fantastic. We will happily take care of our hens through the dark unproductive days of winter and be grateful for the few eggs we do get.
Meantime I may have to actually buy some free-range eggs to supplement our own. Where to begin though? We are so used to our lovely rich orange yolks, that all shop-bought eggs pale into insignificance in comparison. Roll on Spring I say.