The Cheapest Way to Produce the Best Egg: Comparing how Different Supplemental Feeds Affect the Cost and Nutrient Density of Eggs from Heritage and Hybrid Pastured Hens

Final Report for FNC12-844

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Holly and John Arbuckle
Singing Prairie farm, DBA Singing Pastures
Expand All

Project Information


I grew up on a small diverse conventional family farm in Illinois. I studied Ecology followed by sustainable agriculture in college and went on to work at about a dozen organic farms after college. I kept notes during all that time on what the “dream farm” would be. Now 10 years later I have it and I hope that preparation is at work today. Our farm is 50 acres: timber, pasture, 2 creeks, 2 livestock ponds and some gardens and orchards surround our house. Our home is non-electric and originally Amish. We practice multi-species grazing patterns using beef cows, pigs, turkeys, fryer chickens and laying hens. We grow most of our vegetables. We operate the only NON-GMO feed co-op in our area. Our feed co-op serves 12 small farms, families and a couple health food stores. We home process our poultry for on-farm sales and participate in community barter of homegrown food and labor. Lastly we celebrate the seasons, life and our challenges with a vibrant homestead community of about 8 families. That is what makes life in the country and farming sweet.

Previous sustainable practices
1. Rotational management intensive grazing.
2. Transitional organic/non-GMO feed.
3. Local direct marketing.
4. Community labor parties.

Goal: There was one central goal to this project. It was to find out if laying hens would be able to make up for the under supply of nutrition lacking in sprouted wheat by foraging for insects in a rotationally grazed cow pasture environment. The reasons for that one goal were myriad. IF hens can lay competitvly well while consuming sprouted wheat and pasture (pasture as defined here as anything they eat while on pasture. Worms and insect life will be included in that.) THEN: There is no need to buy a complete, balanced ration in the summer months. This would:

1. Save money. NON-GMO bagged feed is $20 for a 50-pound bag right now. I can get Certified Organic wheat for $10 a bushel (60 pounds). More than a 50 percent savings.
2. Reduce our Carbon footprint by reducing shipping. Our feed source is in Ohio. Wheat is grown locally.
3. Reduce our Carbon footprint by reducing processing. We sprout out wheat instead of mechanically grinding it. Many ingredients in the vitamin pack concentrate are heavily processed. For example, synthetic methionine (an amino acid) is a byproduct of natural gas extraction! One would hope sustainable agriculture could find a less industrial source of methionine. Grasshoppers for example.
4. Reduce packaging. We get our wheat in reusable barrels instead of single use bags.
5. Enrichment of rural communities. When you buy grain from a farmer more of your money stays in your community. Economists call this “sticky money”. Neighbors buying from neighbors makes for a richer countryside.
6. Participate in the circle of life. All of our efforts to avoid depending on the industrial method to meet our needs bring us closer to the earth. I feel enormous satisfaction in tinkering with this possibility!

Our process is described in a very readable way in the presentation we gave at the mother earth news conference in Pennsylvania. It is included in our report.

We had the privilege of working with many people and organizations that are excited about agriculture and were eager to lend a hand. Among them were:
1. Sue Duvick of the University of Iowa. 3503 Agronomy hall. Iowa st. Ames, Iowa.
2. The Alternative Agricultural Library located in Beltsville, Maryland (Alternative Farming Systems Information Center or AFSIC: or 301-504-6559).
3. Mother Earth News. Particularly Robin Mather. robin@motherearthnews.
4. Jon Gering. Dean of Math and Science for Truman State University.
5. Michael Siepel. Chairman, Department of Agriculture, Truman State University.
6. University of Missouri Department of Entomology.
7. Jeff Mattocks, Fertrell company, Pennsylvania.
8. Katlyn Niederecker, Research Assistant.

As you see from looking at our graphs, all hens laid well when day time temperature highs were below 85 degrees F. And we were receiving 1 inch or more of rain per week. They compensated for a while after the rain stopped and after the day time highs spiked over 90 degrees F. When those conditions were reached we noted a nearly immediate downward trend starting in populations B, C, and D. For clarity A was a light bodied hybrid consuming .25 pounds (the recommended quantity) of balanced feed per hen. They experienced no grave consequences in egg production or body weight during the experiment. Also they did not give a bad “general impression” upon seeing them. Population B was a light bodied hybrid of the exact same variety as A. They were feed .25 pound of wheat (as measured in dry weight) per hen per day. This wheat was sprouted. Their egg production declined greatly in the heat. Population C was a heavy bodied Rhode Island Red. They received .33 pounds (the recommended quantity) of balanced ration per hen. Their egg production declined greatly during the heat. Population D was the same variety as C. They received .33 pounds dry weight of wheat. They entirely stopped laying eggs in the heat. When the heat remitted in September populations B, C and D all experienced an upswing in production. Population A was unimpressed by pleasant weather and continued to lay fairly well as it had been doing all along. At the top of this small spike in egg production we started getting frosts. This seems to have caused the retreat of the worms and insects AND increased the calorie needs of the hens. Here we notice a downward trend resuming. Please note our scatter and line graphs to tell the complete story. Also please note our dated Egg Production Bar Graphs and the cost effectiveness of each population’s egg production table in the slide show.

So what does all this tell me? It offers me another chance to make a guess based on the data and based on my general impression of the hens’ behavior and known nutrition needs. The guess I make is this: Light bodied modern hens are more efficient converters of feed to eggs. That in itself is not new information. What does seem to be new is that when weather patterns are right, that is day time high of 85 degrees or less and precipitation of 1 inch or more a week that all populations were able to lay acceptably well. During that time purchasing a balanced ration is not necessary. During that time we found out that our type of rolling cow pasture was capable of producing enough of what the wheat was lacking to allow competitive egg production.

Furthermore we found that the hens were all equipped to find it and the light bodied hybrids were equally aggressive foragers as the Rhode Island Reds. Also we found in the nutrient density study that there is not a significant difference in the nutrition of the eggs no matter which population they came from. All this leads me to believe that a cottage industry style egg producer in a Midwestern ecosystem can save money at certain times of the year by feeding sprouted wheat but that he should be prepared to supplement his wheat with a balanced ration if: it gets hot and dry enough and the insect life the hens are depending on retreat. OR it frosts. OR the farmer for whatever reason doesn’t have time to move the hens as often as they need. On our farm we experienced the first two. We happily always had time to care for these hen by rotating them twice a week. Several more lessons learned are in our “presentation report”.

Much of what was learned is answered in the RESULTS.

I will say that I continue to look for successful ways of maximizing on-farm biological resources for many species of animal. Pigs, Turkeys, Chickens included. It is very exciting to me for some unknown reason to work with these monogastric animals to create a living system where a high percentage of their food comes from our farm in the form of perennial rather than annual crops. I love to wonder about systems like that and call obscure people with PhDs and ask them things like “how might unsellable pecans factor into a balanced feeding program for hogs?” Or “do you have a protein profile for forage turnips?” or in reference to sprouted field peas “is particle size of the feed so important to rate of gain that the sprouted pea must be ground or did the sprouting process increase the bioavailability of the nutrients to a point where grinding is not necessary?” My favorite question so far has been “is it possible to build a synthetic rumen so that the cellulose of alfalfa can be broken down and fed to monogastric animals?” I love to ask questions and the biggest effect this study has had on our farm is to lend more excitement and curiosity to making my dreams a reality. It’s possible. Today is part of the 40 year plan. Make progress.

This project had interesting economic and environmental impacts and to a lesser extent, what I call social impacts. In terms of economic impacts we tried to find out if a more cost effective feeding ration was possible for the purpose of making laying hen operations more possible.

When you make a budgetary pie graph for pasture based NON-GMO egg production, you quickly notice that the expensive all natural feed takes a fairly fat slice. Anything done to limit spending of feed that doesn’t negatively effect production will have a very positive effect on income. We found that during certain weather conditions sprouted wheat and pasture were more cost effective than a balanced NON-GMO ration. Please see our cost effectiveness graph in the slide show. During that time our goals, previously discussed, were met. Adversely we found that stubbornly continuing to feed sprouted wheat when there are no insects for the chickens to find will not yield a viable cottage industry. The farmer must be ready to feed a balanced ration if nature is not yielding its abundance to your management plan. The impact of continuing to feed wheat would have negative environmental consequences as resources would still be being consumed and eggs are not being laid. The social impacts are the hardest for me to measure in this project. I can say all the people we talked to about it were excited. Our egg customers thought it was great that their farmer was doing on-farm research. And our quality of life on the farm, while already high, got a little higher. I’ll address some more of the social impact in the outreach section.

Our most common way of delivering was through public speaking. To me outreach is a way for my excitement to nurture the excitement of others. Within that priority specific techniques and specific management practices will be expressed. I feel that it is very important to let my heart talk to the audience’s heart. The reason is we are striving to create transformation and transformation doesn’t happen in our heads in an analytical way. It happens first in our hearts and then moves to our head and then to our hands. We talk to the audience’s heart by being totally honest. This is what I’m excited about. This is what I am nervous about. We also talk to the audience’s heart by demonstrating the beauty of what we are striving for in a creative, imaginative way and then outlining a realistic step-by-step path to it. We can encourage them to pursue their dreams and interests in a well researched way and with a detailed budget.

And in doing all this we hold the knowledge that not everyone is a courageous visionary. If everyone was there would be no traditions to build upon and every element of culture would be in a state of uproar. Followership is no less important than leadership so long as the balance is appropriate.

We presented this study three times.
1. At the Mother Earth News conference in Pennsylvania to a crowd of about 300.
2. At the Truman University local foods dinner in Kirksville, MO to a crowd of about 300.
3. At the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia, MO in November 2012 to a crowd of about 50. A video of this presentation can be viewed online through NCR-SARE's YouTube channel at:

We led 4 farm tours of interested local people showing the management plan and talking about the goals of the experiment.

Mother Earth News said they were interested in publishing these findings.

It is worth considering that our Research Assistant, Katlyn Neiderecker was a recipient of our outreach. She was a junior in college studying Agriculture. Who knows how this experience will shape her work with agriculture in the future.

Outreach is like education. We want to present it in a way that allows for the most probability that someone will “catch the spirit”, to feel empowered that they are able to take responsibility for what the future looks like. And to make whatever changes they feel called to make.

I’m a big fan of feedback. After requesting the “Notes” on my project I decided to attend the Small Farm Conference in an effort to beef up my outreach. I think everyone needs feedback. Especially small farmers who don’t do research for a living. A few pointers may increase the effectiveness of the project if only the farmer is open…


Participation Summary

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.