Eggs, Eggs, and More Eggs…

Who would have thought that I would be awash in eggs.  Just a few short months ago, people were calling for our farm fresh eggs, and I had to tell them that our hens were in a “drought” situation.  We hoarded each egg they produced and kept only the very smallest eggs (virgin eggs we call them) for ourselves. It was the holiday months and everyone had guests and wanted to serve up some truly free-range pastured eggs.  My newest hens, mostly, had not kicked into laying yet… a few were starting to lay but not reliably.

Large, regular, & "virgin" eggs

The first time I had brand new hens start laying… I thought I had made a mistake and gotten the wrong kind of hens.  I was getting MICRO eggs! I was so relieved when someone told me that they often start out with tiny eggs, but they should get larger. And sure enough, they did! We started calling those eggs, “virgin eggs”.

Laying Hens

A hen starts laying around 5 months old. Daily (or almost daily) egg laying is triggered by the amount of daylight hours… so in the winter months hens typically stop laying, or greatly reduce their production.  On top of that, they are using their food energy for staying warm with the colder, wetter weather.  We do provide a balanced layer feed because if a hen’s on forage & don’t get enough of the essentials, they stop laying.  But besides access to extra food, to keep our hens laying, we have a light and timer in the barn that serves two functions.

One, it provides a light that the hens are attracted to, so that at night they head to the barn where their protected coop is located.  We have had predators come through an avail themselves of the “Heritage Farm” buffet. UGGGH. We got away with letting them roam completely free and then nest in the rafters of the barn, for quite a while, but then paid the price.  I lost most of my hens… and had to BUY store-bought eggs.

An Egg SNOB

OMG, that was an education.  Organic ,free-range, cage-free eggs, hmmm. Nada. I was really surprised at what a snob I had become.  First off, all the labels say “vegetarian feed”… sorry, chickens are not, I repeat, NOT, by nature, vegetarians. Eggs from hens fed that kind of diet are, to me, bland & blah.  We were fairly new to the neighborhood, so in desperation, I had to hunt out someone who had real live free-range pastured eggs… and the difference was total. I was back to the rich tasting nutrient dense eggs I was used to. But my hens, now have a light they are attracted to at night, and they go into LOCKDOWN until morning.

Second, the light encourages egg laying during the winter months. Still not as prolific as the rest of the year, as they are using extra energy for their own needs. A hen needs roughly 14 hours of light to produce eggs. She will produce the most eggs her first laying season, molt (shed feathers) & take a break, before picking up again. Each year thereafter she will produce fewer eggs. Most hens are no longer “used” for laying after two years.

Darker yellow legs

Pale leg color

Interestingly you can tell who has laid a lot of eggs by the color of their legs!! Hens, of the same breed, have  legs of a certain color yellow. The hens with the lightest shade of that yellow will have laid the most eggs. The yellow (beta carotene) gets pulled from the chicken to go into her eggs.

EGG Production

All the eggs the hen will lay, are already there at birth. Just not developed but the germ cell is there. A chicken will have several eggs developing at various stages at once, like a production line. We’ve had a couple of new hens who haven’t gotten the process quite worked out… out pops an egg WITHOUT the shell (just the tough membrane encasing the egg), or all white with no yolk, or double yolks inside one shell. From start to finish, 25 1/2 hrs to produce an egg:  It takes about 20 hours for an egg-shell to form around the yolk/membrane, and only 1 minute to actually lay the egg.

I have been told that pastured eggs always have deep, deep orange/yellow yolks.  Since all our hens have the same diet, I know that this is NOT true.  It depends on the breed of the chicken… they will have varying shades of yellow to deep orange.  I do know that veggie fed hens have very pale, tasteless, almost watery egg yolks!

Rhode Island Red hen, laying champ!

Historically hens would lay up to a 100 eggs a year.  Some of the breeds today will lay up to 300-350 eggs; almost an egg a day.  These hens have NOT been genetically modified via some scientific voodoo magic; just simple selection for a specific trait. The best bred to the best producers… some traits are left by the wayside.  Going broody is definitely a trait NOT bred for.

Some hens will “go broody” meaning they will lay a clutch of eggs and after collecting up to a dozen, will then “sit” (i.e. incubate them for 21 days). She’ll hatch out her chicks and then spend the next two months raising them. But for this three-month period, she is not laying any eggs. You can see why in the commercial industry this mothering behavior is not useful. Me, I WANT the mom to do all the work, because she is MUCH better at it.

Most turkeys cannot breed on their own or raise their own chicks, due to the intensive breeding used to  produce big breasted turkeys. They physically cannot do the “deed”.   We raise heritage chickens and heritage turkeys to encourage specific traits; breeding and raising their own chicks.

Another stunning egg producer, A Golden Wyandotte

Heritage chickens are fairly easy to get that will go broody and raise a clutch successfully.  We’ve had a warm winter and I had TWO hens who marched out from the barn with a clutch of chicks… that I did not even know were nesting. We put a green bracelet on a hen that does this, so I know who I want to keep for eggs production.  Some hens will start but not finish, or can’t seem to figure out what to do with the chicks after they are born (sad).  I’ll put a yellow band on her so I know she should be discouraged from going broody, and that I do NOT want to incubate any of her eggs.

Turkeys are a basket case

We raise heritage turkeys so they can at least bred and produce fertile eggs. But those eggs we set aside and incubate.  I have one turkey hen who is interested in setting so we’ll see if she can manage a clutch this spring.

Right now we have three different breeds of heritage turkeys: midget white, heritage bronze, and what looks like to be a variation on the Royal Palm (white, with some black markings). We have them separated so that we can prevent cross-breeding.

I have had one Heritage Bronze, when we were on the ranch with lots of acreage, that went broody, disappeared , and came back with a clutch of turkey chicks.  We were so excited to see this, but the downside of her “disappearing” is that she & her chicks became coyote food. Circle of life, I remind myself! But here on the farm we can have more control.

I’m keeping breeding pairs to encourage egg production… but had to separate the males because they began to fight among themselves.  Only the dominate male will mate… with all the available hens. Whoops, not in my plan…. so we had to separate the breeds. Now I just need to get more females of each breed… but that’s a plan for this spring.  We have a couple of dozen turkey eggs incubating right now, so we’ll see what we come up with.  The extra toms will be on someone’s dinner menu.

Eggs Galore

But now that we’ve past spring equinox… I have eggs galore!  Seems like I somehow (I have no idea how.. well, wait.. there were some broody hens last fall…) ended up with close to 40 hens.  Rhode Island Reds, Golden Wyandottes, and Dark Cornish who are all great layers, it turns out… and mothers, as well!

Eggs, eggs, and more eggs!

It’s time for me to learn how to make mayonnaise! All you need is egg yolks, oil (canola oil, olive oil, etc), and some seasonings (salt, mustard) & a bit of lemon/vinegar with water. And deviled eggs, Quiche’s, egg-cheese casseroles…

Anyone need a few laying hens? I’ve got some to sell!

Fresh Eggs, European style

In La Jolla, San Diego (yuppie-ville to the MAX), at the hugely popular farmer’s market, I made the mistake of asking the gentleman who was selling farm eggs, if they had been refrigerated.

Several Hens use the same nest

He lit into me,“You crazy americans, why do you want to refrigerate your eggs! We NEVER do.”

After a minute or so of this tirade he wound down, and I said to him, “I just wanted to make sure they had NOT been chilled”.  His feathers no longer ruffled, we exchanged dollars for eggs and I went on my way… amused that he was so fanatical about the issue, but understanding totally where he was coming from.

It’s amazing that all of Europe is not dead or dying considering they consume raw milk and eat eggs that have NOT been refrigerated. And eat fresh veggies and meat that don’t have a USDA approved stamp on them. OMG, don’t they understand how dangerous they are living.. .

uh, wait… I think,.. yes, didn’t I just hear… now… they live longer… and healthier than us americans. With much lower obesity rates, heart disease, or diabetes. What are they doing different? How can that possibly be?

But back to the eggs…

Obviously 100 years ago they did not put eggs in the fridge.  What changed? Why were eggs suddenly going “bad” if they were not retrieved twice a day and immediately washed and put in the fridge?

A little biology… eggs stay fresh enough kept at room temperature (warmer and cooler than that actually) for a minimum of two weeks and probably longer than that.  At least fresh enough for a broody hen to collect her eggs (i.e. lay them) over a two-week period, and THEN start to “set” on them.

Chicks hatching over two days

They are fresh enough to develop into quite healthy little chicks. I’ve actually seen them do that! Just amazing.

After two whole weeks, without being washed or put in the fridge!

When an egg is laid it has a coating called “the bloom” which is anti-bacterial in nature, and helps protect the future embryo.

When we collect the egg and wash it, we actually remove that protective layer.

Eggs are then placed, in the industrial industry, in a fridge because now the egg DOES need to be protected…  and chilling it prevents bacterial growth.

Eggs are an excellent media for bacterial growth… they use them to grow vaccines, etc., in the medical world.  If eggs are washed they are at risk of being infected with bacteria. Hot water, opens the pores the of egg… and each egg has 3-6,000 pores that enable a chick to exchange O2 & CO2 while it is developing. Those pores now become “freeway systems”.

And what does putting the eggs in the fridge do, washed or not washed? The egg is chilled and when taken out of the fridge moisture condenses on the shell (basic physics here). That moisture can conduct bacteria.

Salmonella bacteria endemic in the commercial populations

Commercial eggs, even so-called free-range, cage-free, pastured (those descriptions have been

Cage-Free Hens, commercial style

pretty much co-opted by the egg industry) are raised in huge numbers (up to 20,000 hens in a laying house). They are collected, washed, packed, and chilled to go to market. Commercial eggs are fighting an ongoing battle with Salmonella while getting their eggs to market.  Markets that can be hundreds of miles away… and if the trucks were NOT refrigerated, the temps in the summer could get very, very high. High enough, long enough, to trigger the deterioration of the egg itself, or incubate bacterial growth.

I can’t imagine the industrial costs to do all this… a refrigerated truck? But they MUST do it, because the risks are so high.

Farms that have 50,000 thousand laying hens (yes, 50,000 or MORE) must follow specific rules to decrease the risk of Salmonella bacteria, in their eggs. Some 600 hundred farms were to be inspected in 2010-11 . Salmonella is endemic in the commercial egg production population. Egg products (yolk, white, etc), with the shell removed, must be pasteurized. Some large  egg producers are fighting the salmonella problem by pasteurizing ALL their eggs (shell & all).

You should NEVER eat commercial eggs unless they have been well cooked, to protect your family. My mother would get sick even if the eggs were cooked… G.I. upset every time.  We finally figured out she could eat real farm eggs without any problems.  Every time she came to my house, she could eat the eggs, without later running to the ladies’ room.

Down on the Farm

What do I do if I get an egg with “stuff on the shell”? I wipe it off gently.

If it’s totally yucky I wipe if off with a damp room temperature dishcloth, and use it ASAP. If I’m really short on eggs (think winter)… those eggs I might put in the fridge and use them immediately, when I take them out.  I would NOT take a whole carton of eggs out, put them on the counter for a while, and then put them BACK into the fridge. Not if that protective bloom has been removed.

Actually, in my setup for the most part, the eggs would go into the pig bucket because they are extremely high in nutrition and are prized for the food value they give our pigs.

 At our house, we keep things pretty basic.  Eggs are collected, kept at room temp, dusted off but generally NOT washed. Any suspect eggs (very dirty or cracked) go to our pigs. NO WASTE, I just love it!

Teaching the chicks, finding food!

Our hens also get their real diet…. i.e. NOT vegetarian.  They run around freely, for the most part (to the dismay of a neighbor occasionally) and eat bugs, worms, etc. as well as a layer feed. They choose. We do protect garden areas, or a neighbor, by putting up an electric net that encourages them to go elsewhere.  They could jump the fence if they wanted to, but for the most part choose to meander where it’s easy to go.

Backyard Chickens are the way to go!

I encourage everyone, raise your own hens! They are great waste disposals; eat just about everything, give you fertilizer and eggs. You don’t have to have a rooster (hens still lay, just the eggs won’t hatch!). Put down a bed of straw to absorb any odors. It makes a great garden amendment when it breaks down, along with the fertilizer  mixed in, from the hens.

If a hen goes broody, let her set on her infertile eggs and after a couple of weeks trade them out. At night, slip some chicks from the local feed store, under her and let her raise them up. GREAT entertainment and fun for kids, dads, moms, & neighbors.

It’s incredible how good fresh eggs are… commercial eggs are  a bland watery substitute for real food. Can’t raise your own… seek out a local farmer who is and support them.  You will get much more for your food dollars, I assure you!

Surrogate mother for my turkey’s eggs

pastued midget white turkeys

Our Midget White Turkeys

Our Midget White Turkey hens have started laying.  Never-mind the fact that this is the middle of winter (well, maybe that is the confusion, this winter has been so warm) and they are confused.  Coming in with the chicken eggs, we’re finding large speckled turkey eggs. Over a few days we’ve collected 4 of these eggs.  In just a few more days we should have at least 6-7.

Midget White Turkey Egg

Turkey egg on the left, Chicken egg on the right

While our midget is laying consistently, it’s unlikely that she will sit on her eggs, especially as this is off-season.

Turkey eggs take 28 days to hatch… and I have a broody hen.  A hen that is insisting on incubating some eggs. So we will play the switcheroo game.  When we have collected enough turkey eggs, I’ll remove the hen’s own eggs and put them in the incubator to complete their 21 day incubation.  I’ll replace her eggs with a new batch of  turkey eggs.

Lucky for me the hen will keep sitting until those eggs hatch, even though turkey eggs take longer.  If we get really fancy, we’ll take some of my prime chicken eggs, and 7 days after the turkey eggs are started, we’ll put the chicken eggs under her, as well. They should all hatch within 48 hrs of each other.

Now why would anyone in their right mind do this dance?

Because turkey chicks are notoriously difficult to raise. AND are VERY expensive to order from the hatchery.  Roughly $10 a chick, and a 50% survival rate is the norm.  That makes it $20 cost base for each surviving turkey. If we can find a way to raise our own chicks, we are way ahead of the game.

While I can incubate the eggs to get them to hatch, it’s raising them up that is the problem… but mother hens do it without missing a beat.  They will raise their chicks, turkey chicks, guinea chicks, just about anybody’s chicks I think, and not lose a one! It’s awesome to watch.  She’ll even raise a combo… chicken & turkey chicks at the same time.

We’ve had a momma hen hatch out 2 little chicks, and I’ll give her another dozen (slip them under at night, just after her chicks have hatched).  She rises up in the morning and the baby chicks just keep streaming out from under her. Good thing for me hen’s can’t count! She does the job without a hitch.  And we have the fun of watching the mom teach the babies to scratch and hunt for food.

Broody hen with new hatch

Broody hen with surrogate chicks

If everything goes according to schedule, my broody hen should hatch out at least 6 turkey chicks… without me having to do too much work,  while letting her do the work she does best. By the time she is ready to leave her little flock, the turkeys will be able to hold their own.

It’s a variation on sustainable but as the “broodiness” has been bred out of turkeys it is difficult to get the to sit on their own eggs, or get them to raise their own chicks. Kinda sad really.   Commercial turkey’s breast are too large to allow mating, so they must be A.I.ed (artificial insemination). But at least OUR turkeys can breed on their own! At least we’re getting a bit back to the historical norms… not all the way, but at least, some of the way.

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