The age-old question is… Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It sort of depends on whether you want to eat a nice juicy chicken breast, or if you want some tasty scrambled eggs for breakfast! Let’s take a look at the difference between chickens that are raised for meat, and chickens that are raised to lay eggs.
Chickens that are raised for meat are called broiler chickens. Any type of chicken that you eat is from a broiler chicken – chicken breasts, whole chickens, even ground chicken or chicken sausage.
Broiler chickens are sort of like the beef cattle of the chicken world. They have been bred to grow large muscles relatively quickly. Most broiler chickens are based on the Cornish White, New Hampshire, or White Plymouth Rock breeds. Depending on the breed of chicken, broiler chickens will reach their target weight sometime between 4-8 weeks old. Broilers are usually raised in large open-concept chicken houses, not in cages. Most broiler houses look something like the turkey houses in these posts.
Chickens are never given hormones or steroids to help them grow. Or for any other reason. Ever. It’s illegal in the United States, period, end of story. The reason that chickens grow so quickly now – compared to how they used to grow 50 years ago – is due to their genetics. And a good dose of optimal nutrition and good husbandry.
A farmer who is raising broiler chickens will typically have both male (roosters) and female (hens) chickens. Chickens will reach their skeleton and muscle maturity well before they reach sexual maturity, so there is no risk of “accidental” chicken mating and eggs being laid. (Hens aren’t able to lay eggs until they are around 18 weeks old.)
Broiler chickens don’t make great eggs. Their eggs tend to have a little softer shells, so they aren’t very good for transport and sitting on grocery store shelves. The eggs that you find in your grocery store come from different breeds of chickens.
Laying hens are sort of like the dairy cow of the chicken world. Where dairy cows have been bred to be able to make a lot of milk, laying hens have been bred to be able to make more eggs. Most laying hens are based on the White Leghorn or Rhode Island Red breeds. Laying hens can be kept in a few different types of houses. Traditionally, laying hens are kept in small groups in large cages, although some farmers are moving towards enriched cages, cage free housing, or even free range housing.
Different breeds of chickens lay different colored eggs. Some other birds lay different colored eggs, too. Have you ever wondered why they call it robin’s egg blue? Because robin’s eggs are blue! Some chickens even lay blue eggs! Other than the color of the shell, there are no differences between white and brown (or blue) eggs.
Because only the female chickens (hens) lay eggs, a farmer who raises laying hens will not have any roosters. Hens do not need roosters around to lay eggs, but they do need roosters around to lay fertilized eggs. With no roosters, there is no risk of a fertilized egg accidentally finding its way to the grocery store.
Hens don’t have a big attachment to their eggs, unless they are fertilized. They don’t mind not having that egg to sit on. If there are roosters around, just their presence can stimulate hens to be “broody” and want to sit on their eggs, even if they are not fertilized. So keeping roosters out of the hen house means the hens are overall happier with their egg situation.
What do you think? Did anything surprise you? What’s your favorite way to use chicken – or eggs – when you’re cooking?