Do you need to have a rooster in order for hens to lay eggs?
No. The hens will lay eggs without the rooster, but you do need the rooster present and busy if you want fertile eggs for hatching.
What is the difference between “Free Range”, “Naturally Nested”, “Cage Free” and “Organic” eggs?
There are very few regulations governing the labeling of eggs in the commercial marketplace. Basically, all these terms really mean is that the hens are not in cages. In typical “egg factories”, the hens are kept in batteries of cages, four or six (or more) to a cage, so that they have very little room to move around. The hens have part of their beaks removed so that they can’t peck each other to death, at least not as quickly. They spend their whole lives in these cages, only leaving when they die or are ready to be butchered.
“Cage Free”, “Naturally Nested”, and “Free Range” just mean that the hens are out of a cage. There are no rules giving them access to the outdoors and sunlight or governing what they eat. They can (and usually are) kept confined to a crowded building under 24-hour lighting, and given antibiotics to keep diseases under control and productivity up.
“Certified Organic” is the only label that differs. The hens may not be given any synthetic chemicals, including antibiotics, and must have access to fresh air, but even “organic” hens are not required to be given access to the outdoors and sunlight. Picture a somewhat crowded building with a screen on one side and a little door on the far end of the building with a fenced dusty yard. This can qualify as “organic” chicken housing. Generally the hens are fed vegetarian feed, which we disapprove of because chickens are omnivores and need some animal protein in their diet, like insects or worms. They also thrive on fresh green vegetation, which they may or may not be given in a “factory organic” farm.
None of these terms tell you the freshness or quality of the eggs. The best way to know how your eggs are produced is to visit the farm that produces them. Ask the farmer how the hens are fed and housed and see for yourself. Don’t just go by a printed label.
What makes egg yolks dark yellow, compared to the pale grocery store egg yolks?
Beta carotene, or xanthophyll—both are natural plant pigments. When hens are able to eat green plant material or yellow corn (factory farm hens are sometimes fed yellow dye to color the yolks), the beta carotene concentrates in the yolk making it dark, sometimes even orange. Eating red peppers makes yolks red, and some plants can make the yolks green or even black.
Eggs from your farm have darker yolks than I am used to. Does a dark colored yolk mean the egg is rotten?
Quite the contrary. Fresh eggs have darker colored yolks and whites than old eggs. The bright color of the egg yolk fades as the egg ages. A pale yellow yolk and watery white mean that the egg has been sitting in storage for several weeks, or months.
What determines an egg’s shape and size?
Egg size is determined by the hen’s stature, and her age. A young, small hen typically lays pee-wee to small-sized eggs, but as she matures, her eggs are more frequently in the medium to large range. Jumbo eggs are usually laid by hens over one year old. Egg shape is hereditary, so hens from the same family will lay similarly-shaped eggs. They can range from nearly round (ping pong balls) to long and thin (we call these torpedoes). There are also lumpy or wrinkled shapes that are a little more unusual, and typically come from very young hens who are still mastering their technique, or old hens who are losing their finesse.
Why do some chickens lay brown eggs, and some white, and some blue?
There are two major lines of breeding in the chicken family tree: the Asian breeds, and the European breeds. The Asian chicken breeds are typically of a heavier build, calmer temperament, and have red earlobes—and they lay brown-shelled eggs. The European breeds are typically lighter in frame, have a flighty or nervous temperament, and have white earlobes—and lay white-shelled eggs. Auracanas are special—they are a breed from the Andes region in South America. In addition to having red earlobes, fluffy muffs of feathers on their cheeks, and being heavy-set, their eggs have blue/green shells. (My personal theory about Auracanas is that they are closely related to pheasants, which also have green eggs. Meat from an Auracana is also gamey and dark, like pheasant meat.)
What makes eggs have thin, brittle shells?
Hens lay eggs with thinner shells in warm weather, but they also lay thinner-shelled eggs as they get older and lay larger eggs. Thin shells can also be nutritional, caused by a calcium/phosphorous imbalance.
Sometimes when I crack an egg, the white is really thick and cloudy. Does that mean it’s too old to eat?
The white, or albumen, of a very fresh egg is pretty dense. As the egg ages, the white grows thinner and watery. The albumen of a fresh egg contains carbon dioxide, which makes it look cloudy. The gas escapes as the egg ages and the white turns more transparent. A yellowish or greenish hue to the albumen of a fresh egg indicates the presence of the B vitamin riboflavin. (If you’re separating eggs, a very fresh egg will be very difficult to separate because the white is dense and holds onto the yolk.)
Inside the egg there are cords at the ends. Does that mean that it’s fertilized? Are they the umbilical cords of a developing chick?
These two cords are actually a type of albumen, or egg white, called the chalazae. They anchor the yolk and keep it centered within the white. As the egg is formed, the yolk and albumen rotate as they travel through the oviduct, and the chalazae become twisted. They are not the beginning of a chick—even an unfertilized egg contains the chalazae.
I’ve heard that you can float eggs in water to see how fresh they are.
This is true. Floating an egg in plain (not salted) water will let you gauge the size of the air-cell at the large end of the egg, which indicates the egg’s age. A fresh egg will settle to the bottom of the container and rest horizontally because the air cell is still small. The larger air cell of a 1-week old egg will cause the large end of the egg to rise up slightly. An egg that’s 2-3 weeks old will settle to the bottom of the container vertically, large end up. A very old egg will just plain float on the surface. (We don’t recommend eating any eggs that float.)
Is it possible to have an egg without a yolk?
Yes, but it’s rare. Yolk-less eggs are called wind eggs and are usually laid by a young pullet. In a mature hen, a wind egg can occur if a bit of reproductive tissue breaks away, stimulating the egg-producing glands to treat it like a yolk and wrap it in albumen, membranes, and shell, just like a normal egg. In the old days, no-yolkers were called cock eggs and were believed to have been laid by roosters since they wouldn’t hatch.
Sometimes I’ve had eggs with two yolks inside. Is that normal?
Double-yolkers occur when ovulation happens too rapidly, or when a yolk gets lost and is joined by the next one in line. They’re most often laid by pullets just beginning to synchronize their laying pattern, and some heavy-breed hens carry this tendency as an inherited trait. Rarely, an egg contains more than two yolks—the world record is nine yolks in one egg.
I cracked an egg in my frying pan and there was some blood in it. It was disgusting and I threw it away because I thought it was a chick growing inside.
Blood spots occur when blood or a bit of tissue is released along with a yolk. Occasionally a blood vessel can break during yolk formation, so that a little bit of blood is wrapped up in the albumen. As an egg ages, the blood spots become paler—a bright red spot is an indication of freshness. Blood spots occur in less than one percent of all eggs laid, and may appear in a pullet’s first eggs, but are more likely to occur in aging hens.
Meat spots are less common than blood spots, and occur when a piece of reproductive tissue gets caught in the egg. Meat spots may be tan, brown, gray, or white. Eggs containing meat spots are perfectly edible.
If a chick is developing in the egg, you will see a network of blood vessels, not just a spot—this is the beginning of the chick’s circulatory system. In order for the egg to get to this stage of development it has to be incubated for several days. Our eggs are gathered every day and refrigerated, so it is nearly impossible for us to sell an incubated egg by mistake.