Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 January 2010
In the US farmers often market pastured poultry eggs for a premium price, claiming animal and human health benefits. We examined how moving pastured hens to forage legumes or mixed grasses influenced hen (Gallus gallus L.) egg omega-3 fatty acids and concentrations of vitamins A and E. We also compared the eggs of the pastured hens to those of hens fed a commercial diet in cages. We used a cross-over design to compare pasture species: 75 sister hens were assigned to one of three pasture treatment groups: (1) alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.), (2) red and white clover (Trifolium pretense L. and Trifolium repens L.) or (3) mixed cool season grasses. Groups were rotated to all three pasture treatments, each for 2 weeks and supplemented with 70 g commercial hen mash bird−1 day−1. Pasture botanical composition, forage mass, leaf to total ratio and plant fatty acid composition were compared among pasture treatments. Eggs of the pastured hens were compared to eggs of 50 sister hens that were fed only commercial hen mash in cages for the entire 6 weeks. Forage parameters varied somewhat, but did not explain plant linolenic acid variation. Seventeen of the 18 quantified egg fatty acids, and vitamin A concentrations did not (P<0.05) differ among the three pasture treatment groups. Eggs of the hens that foraged grasses had 23% more (P<0.0001) vitamin E than eggs of hens that foraged clover. Compared to eggs of the caged hens, pastured hens' eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, 2.5-fold more total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids (P<0.0001). Vitamin A concentration was 38% higher (P<0.05) in the pastured hens' eggs than in the caged hens' eggs, but total vitamin A per egg did not differ. At the end of the experiment, pastured hens weighed 14% less and averaged 15% lower hen-day egg production than caged birds (P<0.0001). Results suggest that grass pastures may enhance vitamin E in eggs of pastured hens more than clover, and pastured hens supplemented with commercial mash will produce eggs with significantly more vitamin E and total omega-3 fatty acids compared to eggs from caged hens fed only commercial hen mash. Pastured hens may have lower body weight and egg production than caged hens, unless they are supplemented adequately to meet their dietary energy and crude protein needs.