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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans
  • Animals: poultry


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, feed formulation, free-range, feed rations, grazing management, manure management, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, youth education
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management, agricultural finance, market study
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    This study will compare four sample groups of pastured laying hens (hybrid with formulated organic grain (OG), hybrid with sprouted wheat ration, heritage with formulated OG, heritage with sprouted wheat ration) to determine which eggs are the most cost-effective and nutrient dense. Singing Prairie Farm, owned by John and Holly Arbuckle, is on 50 acres in Northeast Missouri. This past summer we raised 16 beef cows, 3 free range pigs, 60 Thanksgiving turkeys, 100 fryer chickens and 400 laying hens. We are not certified organic, but offer the animals organic and/or non-GMO feed and follow organic standards. We practice a multi-species grazing regime in which pasture is utilized in succession by several different species. We sell our meat on farm using direct marketing to consumers. We wholesale our eggs to Hyvee grocery stores in Kirksville and Columbia, MO, as well as various health food stores and restaurants. John is the primary farmer in the family. He continues in the tradition of his parents and ancestors in the model of a small, diverse family farm, with the addition of a decision to adopt organic standards in this generation. He received a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Sustainable Agriculture from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He participated in farming conventional row crops and livestock all through childhood on his family’s farm in Illinois. Singing Prairie has been in operation for two years. Previous to this farm John worked for three years at Colchester Farm, an organic CSA in Maryland. He also started his own small pasture based poultry operation (selling eggs, Thanksgiving turkeys and broilers) in Maryland and ran it alongside of working at the CSA prior to moving to Missouri. Holly works outside the farm and helps on the farm where needed. We are a farming family. Our two small children are the 8th generation born on a small family farm in America. PROBLEM/SOLUTION There is a growing demand for pastured eggs. A big part of that demand is a result of the publicity from egg testing studies done by Mother Earth News showing pastured eggs are more nutrient dense than conventional eggs. In the movement to recognize that pastured eggs are superior to conventional, many consumers believe that all the chickens eat is grass, weeds and insects. This is simply not true for most pastured egg farmers who are trying to produce to meet a market demand. Their diet is supplemented, quite heavily, with either conventional or organic formulated rations. That ties the farmer to the volatile prices of the commodity market and puts him/her at financial risk as organic corn and soy prices rise and the margin of profit becomes razor thin. The challenge for the pastured egg producer is how can he decrease the cost of supplemental feed without sacrificing production or high nutritional standards? The easiest way to cut the cost of supplemental feed is to use conventional rations, however, that leaves the farmer in a quandary about using a genetically modified foods as well as the suspect ingredient hexane that is in conventional feed. We (and many other farmers) would rather not use conventional corn and soy for our pastured hens, but the cost of organic feed may rise prohibitively high in the future, creating an egg that is more expensive than the public is willing to pay. We are proposing to conduct a study that will compare the cost effectiveness and nutrient density of formulated OG rations versus sprouted wheat rations for supplemental feed. There are a number of potential advantages for the farmer. First of all, it is cheaper. Currently, the cost of a 50lb bag of organic feed for layers is $16.50. The cost of a 50lb bag of conventional wheat is $6. That is a cost savings of 150%. Secondly, it is widely available and because there is no GMO wheat, (yet), the farmer can always be GMO free whether they choose to use organic or conventional wheat. Third, by using the sprouting process there is the possibility that the nutrient content could go up. (Although some famers predict it may go down.) According to the Food for Life website, sprouting wheat increases the protein content as well as releasing vital nutrients and beneficial enzymes. Even though wheat may only be feasible to sprout for chickens in the warmer months, it would still reduce overall yearly feed costs. Whether or not using sprouted wheat is cost-effective appears to be unknown. Not many farmers are trying this method. If the birds’ rate of lay is greatly diminished it would not be cost effective. If the nutrient density of the eggs on spouted wheat rations is greatly diminished it would create an inferior product. From our preliminary searching and personal experiment with feeding our pastured hens sprouted wheat rations as a supplement, it appears to be a plausible substitute under the correct conditions. In addition, modern hybrid chickens tend to be used for production. We have questioned if heritage varieties may be more successful with sprouted wheat rations. There is also a question as to whether an egg from a heritage chicken is more nutrient dense than a hybrid chicken. If it is, it would justify an increase in the cost of the egg, so that even if production is somewhat diminished, it could be as cost-effective. We are proposing to do a straight-forward wrap around study to look at all of these factors. We will have four sample groups. There will be 50 chickens per group. They will all be in portable pens on pasture in the same area. The first group will be hybrid hens, supplemented with formulated OG rations (16% protein), the second will be hybrid hens supplemented with the sprouted wheat rations, the third group will be heritage hens with formulated OG rations, the fourth group will be heritage hens with the sprouted wheat rations. The wheat is sprouted the same way every time. The wheat is put into a five gallon bucket and water is added. After it has soaked for 24 hours, it is rinsed and put in another bucket with holes in it. It sits for two days. On the fourth morning there are usually small white spouts and roots beginning to form. The sprouted wheat will be fed on the fourth morning. The chickens fed OG formulated rations will receive the same amount of feed which will be purchased from Brad Whitaker, a local farmer in our area. All birds will receive a calcium supplement in a separate feeder in their pen. The experiment will start on May 1st and run for four months. During that time, John will be assisted by a college intern to help with chicken related chores and to keep track daily of the rate of lay in each group. At the end of each month, there will be a random sampling of the hen weight in each group, and the weight of the eggs in each group. This will help us determine how well the birds are doing on the supplemental rations they are receiving. Pens are moved twice a week, so the chickens will be moving to fresh pasture frequently. At the end of the four months, samples from each group will be sent to Covance Laboratories in Madison, Wisconsin. Each group will be tested for protein, fatty acid profile (including omega 3’s and monounsaturated fats), vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin D, iron, zinc, phosphorus, beta carotene and the percentage of water. This will inform us about which sample group was able to produce the egg with the best quality. In addition, we will analyze which group was able to produce the greatest quantity of eggs. The cost-effectiveness of each group will be analyzed by a statistician (the Dean of the School of Science and Mathematics at Truman University or one of his staff). All of this information will be shared with Mother Earth News to add to their growing body of research. RESEARCH The best source for information on nutrient density of eggs that we have found is Mother Earth News. Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farm has said “Your egg testing is real culture-changing stuff, and I applaud Mother Earth News in courageously moving forward with it.” Their Chicken and Egg page has a compilation of a variety of research including: 1998 Study in Animal Feed Science and Technology found that pastured eggs were higher in Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin E than caged birds. 1999 Study by Barb Gorshi with Penn State University that found pastured birds had 10% less fat, 34% less cholesterol, 40% more Vitamin A, and four times more Omega 3’s compared to the USDA standard. 2005 Study at Mother Earth News of four heritage-breed pastured flocks in Kansas found pastured (heritage) eggs have ½ the cholesterol, 50% more Vitamin E, and 3 times more beta-carotene than USDA conventional egg. 2007 study by Mother Earth News tested eggs from 14 different pastured producers and compared the results the USDA standard for conventional eggs. They found that pastured eggs had 4-6x more vitamin D, 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2-3x more omega fatty acids, 3x more vitamin E, 4 to 6 x more Vitamin D and 7x more beta carotene. (Of particular interest is the great range of nutrients between farms. While all appeared to be higher than the USDA standard in more of the “good stuff” and less of the “bad stuff”, no one farm appeared to have the “best” egg in all categories.) Mother Earth News is particularly interested if there is a difference between the nutritional value of eggs from heritage and hybrid hens. So far, it is widely held that there is no difference of the nutrient density of the eggs between breeds. We have been unable to locate any studies comparing sprouted wheat rations to formulated rations as supplemental feed for chickens.

    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.