Does Size Matter? The Politics of Hybrid Breeds: Part 1 - Chicken Egg Size



Trust me when I say SIZE MATTERS! Especially if you are in the business of selling eggs. Everybody wants that Jumbo, Dark Brown Egg with a Double Yolk. Who would have thought the word MEDIUM could ever be equated to profanity. Well you go try selling someone a Medium Sized egg and you can watch them wrinkle their nose in disdain first hand. Whatever you do, do not even dare mention the word Small! If you do not believe me, do me a favour and go find me an egg labelled as Medium on a Supermarket shelf… You will not! Because they all are sold either as ‘Mixed Eggs’ or Liquid Eggs.

South African Egg Classification

Egg Size

Egg Weight

Small

33g-43g

Medium

43g-51g

Large

51g-59g

Extra Large

59g-66g

Jumbo

66g-72g


Anything less than a Large Egg today is just not acceptable anymore and even then, Extra Large is really what people want. The modern consumer has become so conditioned and disconnected from the source of the egg that they expect this as the norm. But in the words of that wise man Joel Salatin:

FOLKS, THIS AIN’T NORMAL!

The Physiology behind a Chicken Egg Size is simple; they start with a Small and as the Hen ages they get bigger, in a very few breeds peaking at Jumbo. However, the correlation between age and size is not the only influencing factor. It also depends on the genetic potential of the chicken, some chickens just have it in their DNA to lay a bigger egg and Egg Size is something we can select for and breed. And boy are we humans good at doing that!

A very simplified commercial equation for an Egg Laying Operation could be described as follows:

The most amount of output (Eggs) for the least amount of input (Feed) 

And to achieve this we have bred Chickens that would make the Ping Pong Lady from Priscilla Queen of the Desert blush! Humans have in the mere span of 100 years bred by means of selective linebreeding and hybrid crossbreeding a chicken that:

  • Begins laying at 16-18 weeks of age
  • Peaks their production at 24-28 weeks of age
  • Carries on laying for 75-80 weeks before molting for the first time
  • Still lays at 75% of Peak at Molt
  • Which Equates to an average production of 310-320 eggs per year
  • Predominantly Lays an XL egg (Starting at a Medium and rapidly migrating to Jumbo as they get older)
  • And in return only Eats 115g per day

We have managed to breed a modern marvel that is the Hybrid Egg Layer, which many of you would know by names such as Lohmann Brown, Hy-Line and Amber Link.

You might be saying by now, so what? Where is the problem? Surely this is a good thing and something to be celebrated! Well seeing as in the Current Era of bigger is better, where we venerate Efficiency and have an Accounts Ledger that does not reflect issues and costs such as Biodiversity, Genetic Erosion, Food Security, Environmental Adaption, Physiological Functionality and Animal Health, you might well argue that it is.

Especially if the above animal is raised and farmed in an Environmentally Sound and Animal Welfare Friendly setting. After all most of the preeminent Alternative Agriculture Practitioners of our time are using these modern breeds in their Egg Operations. Among them Richard Perkins (Ridgedale Permaculture) and closer to home Angus McIntosh (Farmer Angus) and Eddie Ferreira (Eddie’s Eggs), to name but a few.

All of them do this because it would make it more difficult to balance the books and run a profitable business otherwise. After all here you have an animal that gives you that Jumbo, Dark Brown Egg that the consumer has come to expect at a rate of 300+ a year. They argue there are far bigger issues at play today then worrying about using a Hybrid Breed. Because the system is so broke that they would rather focus on how they farm the animal than what breed they use. In essence saying: Pick your battles.

At this point you are definitely saying:

WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM? WHAT HAS ALL THIS GOT TO DO WITH EGG SIZE?!

Well it’s this. These breeds have been bred to meet the needs of the Industrial Agriculture Establishment. By putting all the focus on egg production and feed conversion we have sacrificed Physiological Functionality & Animal Health, Local Food Security, Biodiversity & Genetics, Environmental Adaption and yes even Ethics. Ethics?! O Lordy, he’s proper ranting now….Well then let me unpack all these claims.


  • Physiological Functionality & Animal Health

This breed specialization has come at a price. We now have a Super Athlete that lays a phenomenal amount of huge eggs, but like any thoroughbred, is temperamental and prone to breakdown. In fact, the animal’s performance is so phenomenal that it burns itself out after only 1.5 to 2 years (Of a potential 7+ years lifespan) and normally gets culled at this point. The animal has been pushed to such a physiological extreme and imbalance that very few even make it past year 4 if not culled. And trust me we have tried!

We have lost countless hens in their second laying cycle to being either egg-bound or prolapsed. The simple reason being that these animals are not bred to be kept for longer than one egg laying cycle, and if you do, the correlation between size and age kicks in. Now when she is already laying an Extra Large or Jumbo as the norm in her 1st year, there isn’t much room left for expansion. The end result is heart breaking and gruesome. You can search for images of the above two conditions on the internet if you like. Horrific on your computer screen and heart breaking in real life. And if it was not for our infatuation with the notion that Bigger is Better, totally avoidable.

Next you have the issue of molting and refeathering. Again with the body putting all its energy into egg laying and the animal not being bred to last past its first molt, very little energy is available to regrow feathers. Ours must be the most dishevelled, scruffy and half-feathered flock of free range chickens you will see in the whole of the Langeberg. All the top producing birds run around naked to the point of embarrassment. Because of this one has to constantly explain to visitors that your chickens are perfectly healthy and you are not abusing them.

Lastly longevity just did not come into the equation when their ancestors were selected, so quite a few have passed on from natural causes such as heart attacks and such. Currently 3 years and 2 laying cycles later we only have 60% of the original flock left. That is 80 out of 200 Lohmann Hens dead!

The Solution: Heritage Chicken Breeds that start laying a bit later (22-24 weeks), lay a bit less (220-240) and lay smaller eggs (Medium to Extra Large). The trade-off though they have physiologically balanced bodies less prone to breakdown, egg production tapers off much slower and they are more likely to live to a ripe old age meaning one can get at least 3 productive laying cycles out of them.


  • Local Food Security

So after reading the above you might be thinking, then why don’t they just breed their own, raise new birds and replace the flock every 80 weeks? Why try and keep them for longer? Well the notion sounds much easier than it is, and yes it is very narrowly tied to the issue of Local Food Security and economics.

The genetics for the Hybrid Breeds in all cases are trademarked and owned by a handful of Industrial Corporations. These Companies hold all the Pure Linebred Parent Stock in nucleus breeding flocks. They then supply commercial hatcheries that have been vetted, signed exhaustive intellectual property rights contracts and paid their royalties with the 1st generation Hybrid Stock. These will then be used as parent stock for further crossbreeding to produce the 2nd generation Hybrid Birds, which you as the end user will be able to buy. In most cases you will not be able to get Male birds from these hatcheries (See under ethics), but even if you were able to you won’t be able to breed from these birds. It’s a simple exercise in genetics, they won’t breed true, you’ll just end up with a bunch of Barnyard Special Mongrels and none of them will be the same as the original parent stock. Very conveniently leaving the holder of the Nucleus Breeding Flock with a Genetic Monopoly. And again we tried… Reasoning that they would at least be Above Average Mongrels, not so!

This then forces a producer to be dependent on these companies for replacement stock into perpetuity. You keep on shovelling money to these companies for birds you could have bred and hatched yourself. And the layout for buying annual replacements can erode a big chunk of a small producers profit. One of the major tenets of Local Food Security is to be in control of all levels and levers of the production phase. Being able to breed and replace your own animals is one of those.

The Solution: You guessed it! Heritage Chicken Breeds that breed true to type, the offspring is identical to the parents. You can hatch eggs from your own flock to replace older hens. If you want you can even get into the business of raising Exceptional Breeding Stock (Stud) for other breeders and producers. These animals in turn can be widely bought and sold on the free market by their new owners if these so wish.


  • Biodiversity Loss & Genetic Erosion

To explain this one I am going to use Dairy Cattle as an example, referencing an article in Scientific America, hyperlinked because my claims will definitely make you want to fact check what I am about to say.

Due to the centralization of genetics and a prolonged period of linebreeding, 99% of America’s 9 Million Dairy Cows can trace back their ancestry to one of two bulls born sometime in the 1960’s! Furthermore the amount of inbreeding is of such an extent that the effective population size is the equivalent of only 50 animals… If they were a species living in the wild we would have Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund going ballistic. They would be listed by CITES as Critically Endangred!

And Hybrid Chicken Breeds are no different, the whole industry is a pyramid scheme built on the back of a handful Pure Linebred birds sitting at its peak. With such a level of inbreeding you also face a higher risk of genetic disorders and negate the ability of a population to respond or evolve in response to a new challenge, such as Climate Change or a Novel Disease. Which is why one has to put on more layers of equipment than an astronaut and be disinfected repetitively before you are allowed inside a Commercial Poultry Facility. That is if you are even allowed in to start with. This so called Biosecurity is not to protect you, but to protect the chickens from any outside disease because it will run through that flock like wild fire. Again, been there got the T-shirt! 

The Solution: Heritage Breeds off course! Bred in a decentralized system with no trademarking of genes and genetics. Even your subsistence farmer could be the owner of the Grand Champion Rooster or Hen at the yearly Agricultural Show. These breeds represent a long, rich cultural and genetic history which with proper breeding aimed at production outcomes, can be made economically viable. Maybe not lucrative to the extent of Hybrid Breeds but viable.


  • Environmental Adaption

As I have stated before have been bred and tailored to meet the needs of the Industrial Agriculture Establishment. And in these kinds of operations the animals live in climate controlled environments with high levels of Bio-Security and are routinely fed Antibiotics. Thus then to squeeze every last drop of production out of these animal. Off course there is a term with a positive connotation for this, it’s called ‘Achieving their full Genetic Potential’.

To be clear I’m not saying you can’t take them out of the above production environment as others have very successfully proven. But when that next new strain of Avian Flu comes around or wild birds introduce MG (Mycoplasma Gallasepticum) to your flock or a new aggressive fungal spore contaminates your feed or the thermometer hits 40C, as it sometimes does here at the height of summer, or some winter snow falls, Hold on to your hat! Those Hybrids don’t do so good… 

The Solution: Yes Heritage Breeds, what else was I going to say? By using a breed that has been bred and adapted over time for your local climate you don’t need specialized production facilities and these birds stand up to most curve balls mother nature throws at them.


  • Ethics

Last but not least. My claim as to our Ethics being forsaken at the altar of expediency, when using Hybrid Breeds from Commercial Hatcheries in Alternative Agriculture. For every hen that is hatched at the commercial hatchery, from where you can purchase your Hybrid Breed, there is also a rooster hatched. Law of averages and genetics, the old XY chromosome. However in egg laying breeds these birds are useless and currently hold no commercial value. Yet again because of the extreme specialization and breeding aimed at egg production, these roosters are all lean mean road runners that don’t put any meat on their frame. So good luck making those economics work without some value adding having been done to the meat. You will end up with the most expensive smallest chicken breasts in the district that nobody will buy for any other reason than a sympathy vote.

So what to do then? Easy they kill them shortly after hatching at day old, in some cases simply putting them through the meat grinder while still alive, cheaper and more efficient that way you see. But wait that little tit-bit I just shared with you, if you didn’t already know it, has now horrified you to the point of not wanting to buy eggs ever again. No problem! The latest solution… We just edit and splice the egg genes so that we hatch Hens only! A little playing God and voila, no more unwanted Public Relations disasters (aka Roosters)!

This means the breeding and distribution of these animals are under exactly the conditions that the whole Alternative Agriculture Movement is against! And we are wilfully and a lot of cases knowingly partaking in it!! All the Organic, Biodynamic and Regenerative Certification Schemes currently in existence allows this, because after all, we will be raising and farming them correctly regardless of their origin… Now there is a cop out if I ever saw one. 

The Solution: For a change of pace I’m going to lay this one squarely at the feet of the consumer. Either the consumer must be prepared to pay more for eggs or be willing to use products such as Small and Medium eggs. Additionally some innovative and creative use of the male birds can be attempted, think sausage, stock/broth or soup. But to do so there must be an incentive for it. Meat from these male Hybrid Breed birds will not be able to compete in the Prime Table Bird category. 

 It all comes back to consumer expectations and a disconnect with where our food comes from. Support farmers willing to try and work with Heritage Breeds, do not equate this to accepting mediocrity though. At all times be critical and insist on a quality product. But do so informed and within the frame work of what is doable and achievable.


PARTING SALVO

That then is why this farmer for one will be working with Heritage Dual-Purpose Breeds as an alternative solution going forward. And is why I am on my soapbox yet again imploring and chastising you in equal measure to please stop thinking of Medium Eggs as inferior after all they are only 8g lighter (15%) than an Large Egg. Once on your plate, you will be very hard pressed to spot the difference, if at all. Unfortunately they are part and parcel of working with Heritage Breeds, at any given time up to a third of our production will be in that bracket as the new 1st year hens come on line and work through their 1st of 3 production cycles.

And last but not least, we’ve cognitively tried to meet our clients halfway by giving them an incentive to buy Medium Eggs. Rather than hide them under labels such as Mixed Eggs or Liquid Eggs we priced them according to their size. Medium Eggs are cheaper than Large or Extra Large Eggs and present serious good value for money! Our attempt at rebutting that old claim that nutritious, healthy and sustainable produce is elitist and out of reach to the average person. What utter nonsense!


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