It was bound to happen. I got this question from one of my main egg customers recently. Does your chicken feed contain soy? I have been anticipating it for a while, because soy has been getting bad press lately; so naturally people start to think, if soy might be bad for me, it might also be bad for chickens, and then maybe that would make their eggs bad for me. Or maybe “bad soy stuff” will somehow make it into the eggs. 

Eager capitalists have pounced upon this consumer fear by marketing new animal feeds which are soy- and/or corn-free (corn is another evil, according to some). I have watched with interest the growing success of this local feed company, Scratch And Peck, which caters to this very I-want-the-best-for-my-backyard-hens market. Brilliantly marketed, this feed has an adorable logo of a pastel chicken and little crooked hearts; a hard-to-argue byline of you are what your animals eat, and an ingredient list that makes me want to cook it on the stove for my own breakfast. I was surprised and amused to see it turn up in my local farm co-op store, in a large end-cap display, complete with charming clear plastic eggs filled with the different whole-grain mixes, all lined up in an egg carton. Genius.

ScratchAndPeckFeedsBut, oh, not only could my hens possibly benefit from all those probiotics and quaint whole grains, I could benefit from those beautiful marketing materials. I could say, my chickens eat Scratch And Peck. And people would love that. And they would pay more for the eggs. Except… it is nearly twice the price of Purina’s run-of-the-mill (literally) layer crumble. Twice! Fifty-seven cents a pound instead of thirty-one cents. Suddenly four dollar eggs become eight.

And that seems a little crazy. Part of how the company minimizes notice of the price hike is by selling the feed in forty pound bags, instead of fifty. Clever indeed. It’s an effective strategy, as one of the farm store employees and I had a debate: he insisted it was only a little bit more expensive, and he couldn’t buy my assertion that it’s nearly double. For people who have a few chickens in their backyard and aren’t paying any attention to how much it’s costing them to get those tasty eggs, it’s an invisible household cost. But once they are buying them from someone else’s backyard chickens, all of a sudden, there is sticker shock.

Soy Bad

One of the concerns people seem to have with soy is that it has phytoestrogens, or plant-based pseudo-estrogens that can fool our bodies and make them react as if they have more of this hormone than is normal. Studies of the impact of this phenomenon are conflicting, but some people are opting to avoid soy for these reasons. Interestingly, phytoestrogens in red clover are to blame for sheep having fertility problems when grazed on clover-laden pastures.

But does this concern over phytoestrogens transfer from the chickens eating soy to their eggs, or the chickens eaten as meat? This article implies no, that eggs and animal-based meat contain infinitesimal amounts of phytoestrogens compared to soy-based foods. Soy has more than a thousand times the concentration of phytoestrogens than eggs, chicken, pork, beef, fish, or milk products.

For people who are allergic to soy, do soy proteins turn up in the eggs of soy-fed chickens? I could find no reading to indicate that this is true.

Beyond the pseudo hormone effect and allergies, people are concerned that many soy crops are GMO and/or treated with pesticides. Here again, it’s hard to know, how much of this “bad stuff” impacts the bird’s health such that their eggs are measurably affected in a way that’s unhealthy for us to eat? And does it depend on how many eggs we eat? A weekender breakfast versus a lacto-ovo vegetarian who many be relying on eggs for protein in multiple meals each day?

So then maybe it comes down to ethical choices: if we oppose GMOs, then we should try not to buy them in any form, and that needs to go all the way back through the supply chain to the foods eaten by the chickens that lay the eggs we eat. Fair enough.

But ultimately, I have to wonder, is this just some crazed, not-based-on-any-facts-at-all consumer whim and peer pressure thing? Do stay-at-home moms shrink in embarrassment when their friends ask condescendingly, oh, you are still feeding your family eggs laid by soy-fed chickens? Will we someday know more, and be rueful of our soy feeding years? Or will this trend pass, just like the one that said margarine is way better for us than butter? Or the one that said that eggs are bad for us altogether? Winking smile

Soy Good?

The tough part is, soy is really, really high in protein. Take a look at some feeding options we have for livestock:

image

Compared to soy’s whopping 50% protein, oats, wheat and corn look pretty anemic. Fish meal is an option, but is sometimes thought to pass along a fishy taste in meat and eggs. And there are all the ethical complications of overfishing and questions about farmed fish that make fish meal no prize winner in the “natural and ethically pure” category either. Cottonseed and linseed meal don’t seem to appear as much in animal feeds; I’m not sure if they can be produced as cheaply as soy, and probably have all the same GMO and pesticide concerns that soy does anyway.

Egg-producing chickens need a high protein diet. The currently accepted convention is 16% protein. So oats and barely alone won’t cut it; we have to have a hotter feed mixed in there somewhere. Scratch And Peck is using camelina, a crop now popular for use in biofuels and which can be found growing near us in the Snohomish River valley. But not everyone loves camelina either, it has its own controversies in threatening local brassica crops due to potential cross-pollination.

This farmer’s small experiment on comparing soy to non-soy fed chickens raised for broilers indicates that their Cornish broilers did grow slightly faster on soy feed; but also had some hint that mortality may be higher as well (more data would be needed to tell for sure). It’s interesting that they mention that when using peas as a protein source, they have to be ground into the ration, because chickens don’t prefer to eat them and will avoid them if allowed to. I wonder why they have an aversion to peas?

The Catch-22

So, I posed to this customer that I’m willing to try switching to the fancier feed, if she is willing to pay $8 a dozen for eggs. And there’s the catch. She’s not. Though this anti-soy thing is important to her, it’s not thirty-three-cents-an-egg-important for a family that eats a lot of eggs. There are apparently some people willing to buy these eggs for $9.69 at my local grocer:

ExpensiveEggs

But not very many people, as the store only shelves a few of these compared to all the other eggs, the rest of which are priced around three or four dollars. These Pasture Verde eggs don’t even meet the soy-free criteria we’re talking about here. In this case, they are organic, and non-GMO-corn-fed; but the exorbitant price seems to be due to the partially-grass-fed diet of the hens (other organic eggs on the shelf don’t command nearly that price). My hens also have year-round access to green grass, so maybe I’m not charging enough for the grass in their diet and their freedom to roam! Winking smile

And this is the dilemma that seems to trap us all. Though we don’t like all that’s happening in our food systems, we also don’t like the idea of going back to the days where groceries consumed something like 30% of our income, rather than the 10% we currently enjoy. Ah, what to do?

I’m curious to hear from others who have cut soy from their farm animals’ diets, and how that has worked out for you from a cost and consumer demand standpoint? Has anybody else done the math or found a more affordable non-soy feed?

Advertisements