No other food is enjoyed in quite as much versatility as the simple egg.
Eggs can be prepared cooked through or with a soft yolk. Enjoyed in every meal from a hearty breakfast to a decadent dessert. Showcased in every major holiday in any way you can imagine - from deviled to whipped into a meringue.
And I've eaten my share - believe me...
We talk a lot about how versatile eggs are - but we don't talk much about their seasonality.
What do I mean by that?
Well, like fruits and vegetables, we've grown accustomed to enjoying eggs year round, but in reality, chickens don't lay eggs year round... Let's talk about the seasonality of egg laying - and to understand this - we need to think about the life cycle of the chicken (or birds in general).
You purchased a chicken last year. Now she's grown into a beautiful hen. Springtime is marked by longer days, and you're so excited when you get your first egg - You savor it for breakfast!
And the next day? Another.... and the next, another.... and the next day... another! She's laying ALL the time! You can barely keep up!
But that's okay because they're also DELICIOUS. The yolks are rich, deep orange in color. They add instant color to anything you add the eggs to.
Where did all these eggs come from? Why is she laying so many?
Every species on this planet is evolved to reproduce at a time when conditions are most favorable for rearing our offspring. Chickens are no different - they're literally genetically coded to require about 14-16 hours of sunlight per day or they don't lay eggs (more on this later).
And when the days are getting warmer, the grass is green, and flowers are blooming, insects and bugs become active again - their food sources are abundant - making raising chicks easier for both domesticated and wild birds.
Spring rate of lay (# of eggs collected by number of laying birds): 70-85%
It's HOT - like really hot - yesterday it was 102 degrees outside, and chickens can't sweat!
Would you want to have a baby every blessed day? I didn't think so.
Chickens will slow down their egg laying over the summer, as their bodies dedicate more energy to panting to keep cool.
Summertime is also a time when predators are at their maximum. For the same reason that hens hatch their chicks in the spring, predatory animals like hawks, owls, coyotes, and raccoons also have their young in the spring. These young are getting bigger, and learning to hunt on their own - and well, everything likes chicken.
Chickens have to "sit" on their eggs for 21 days in order for them to hatch - so logically you would think, it's probably not a great idea to engage in this activity if you're at risk of being eaten.
Summer rate of lay: 60-70%
It's pretty impeccable the timing - the annual summer heat wave is due to break any day.
The birds somehow instinctively know this, and overnight, it's like a pillow fight happened in our coop - there are feathers EVERYWHERE. Fall on the farm is about getting ready for winter, and the birds are always the first to start this process.
Each year, chickens go through a process called "molting" where they lose all of their old, beat up feathers, and grow a plush new set to keep warm with. Like hair, feathers are made from protein, and do you know what else is made from protein?
While chickens are molting, their protein and energy is diverted to growing feathers - they don't have enough energy to lay eggs like gangbusters like they did back in April. Fall is about business.
Then for a few final weeks, we'll see one last spike in increased egg production as the birds complete their molting cycle and have the benefit of the cooler weather, so they're not spending a bunch of energy panting to keeping their bodies cool.
Fall rate of lay: 25-60%
Remember when I said more on chickens being biologically hard-wired to need a certain number of hours per day to lay eggs?
Chicken egg laying is stimulated by the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is stimulated by sunlight. It's not exactly a sunrise to sunset situation, but as long as there's "enough" light to stimulate them, they will lay eggs.
Winter doesn't 100% coincide with the actual season as much as the time of year in which the days are shorter. Here in northeast Texas, those dates run from approximately October 15 to March 1.
Winter rate of lay: 0-25%
So now, I'm sure you have some questions... like
What makes the egg yolks a different color throughout the year?
Great question! The color of an egg yolk varies with the hen's diet. In the spring there is an abundance of lush green plant matter - and at our farm, we plant a good deal of crimson clover as well. This makes the yolk a deep rich orange color. In the summer, the grass browns, and the birds turn to insects like grasshoppers for a large portion of their diet. Since grasshoppers are pale green to tan in color, the color of the egg yolks becomes very pale, and in some cases almost white.
Are the dark yolks better for you?
Nope. They're just different. In recent years consumers have pushed for darker yolks, because there of a perception that the darker yolks are higher quality, so commercial egg laying operations have marigold extract added to the feed rations. The reality is that a free range hen will generally have a much higher quality membrane around the yolk, and that is the real indicator of a healthy egg, not the color.
How many years will a chicken lay eggs anyway?
A hen will lay the most she will ever lay in the first laying season after she reaches maturity. For most chicken breeds, this is 20-24 weeks of age. Larger breeds mature later than smaller breeds. Each year after that, she will lay approximately 20% fewer eggs than she did the year before.
How many eggs will each hen lay in her first year?
This depends on the breed. Some older heritage type breeds lay around 100-150 eggs per year, and others as a result of selective breeding, lay 200-250 eggs. White leghorns, the chicken breed kept in most commercial egg laying operations can lay as many as 250-300 eggs that first year.
What kind of chickens do you keep?
We rotate breeds every couple of years, and choose larger breed birds that lay in the 200-250 range. Currently we have a breed called barred rocks. Before that we had delawares. And before that, we had golden comets. Changing breeds each time helps us make sure we actually sell the right birds and keep the right birds.
So how do grocery stores keep eggs year round?
Commercial hen houses use year round artificial light to stimulate egg laying year round. This can be done in backyard and pasture raised flocks as well with a simple light bulb and holiday light timer. We use this trick to extend our laying season into the holidays, but throughout "true winter", we allow the birds to rest.
What happens when a chicken stops laying?
Hens that are past their prime laying age are called "spent" hens. We sell our spent hens to keepers of backyard flocks at a discounted price. While they might not lay enough eggs to be economic for a farm like ours, but the birds are capable of producing plenty of top quality eggs for a private family flock for several more years.
How do I get one of your spent hens?
You can get on our waiting list by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have more questions? Drop them in the comments below!
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