HENS

EGGS

When allowed to roam free, forage on insects and eat kitchen scraps in addition to a daily diet of organic feed, each hen lays about 250 eggs per year. Flavor is concentrated in the egg’s yolk and directly correlates to diet and the time of year. Organic hens allowed to roam about most certainly do produce the tastiest eggs.

Yolks from backyard flocks change color with the season. In the summer and fall, the yolks are brilliant orange and do not resemble in the least the sad pale yolks sitting on most supermarket shelves. In the winter and spring when the hens spend more time indoors and there are fewer than ten hours of sunlight each day, the yolk turns a lemon chess pie yellow.

 The color of the shell has no effect whatsoever on the taste of the egg. Until I began researching which hens could survive the 100 degree temperature changes of New England seasons, I had no idea that Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham” story describes one of natures most beautiful gifts. Blue and green colored eggs come from Aracuana chickens, also known as Easter egg hens—one of the friendliest and hardiest backyard breeds.

 

SIZE

 Egg size depends on the breed of chicken:

  • Medium eggs weigh 1 ½ ounces or 40 grams

  • Large eggs weigh 1 ¾ ounces or 50 grams

  • Extra-Large eggs weigh 2 ¼ ounces or 70 grams

NUTRITION

Eggs are more nutritious than cow’s milk, soy milk and beef. One large egg has about 70 calories, 7 grams of protein, a healthy daily dose of B vitamins and is one of the few foods with a natural supply of vitamin D.

STORING

I always leave eggs sitting on the kitchen counter and I have adopted a European attitude regarding storing them: Why take refrigeration space if the eggs will be eaten within a couple of days of being laid? Also, many recipes call for room temperature eggs. When I want to poach or soft boil eggs and need to peel the shells after cooking, I try to use the oldest eggs I have as the shell pulls away from the white more easily and with less pitting

 If buying eggs from a farmer’s market—the next best place besides your own backyard to get fresh eggs—ask when the eggs were laid, but do refrigerate. One day at room temperature is the same as four days in the refrigerator.

 However, do not take my approach with store bought eggs—who knows how long the eggs have been sitting on the shelves and how long it took to get them to the market. An egg has a 30-day shelf life, more or less, depending on how the egg is stored. The sooner the egg is eaten, the better it tastes. Buy eggs in the quantity that will be used within a week. The pennies saved from buying a dozen eggs instead of a half dozen, do not out weigh the loss in taste and freshness. 


MAINTENANCE

It takes less than five minutes a day to collect the eggs, water and feed my feathered friends. Once a week—yes I am fastidious—I spend ten minutes raking the dirty pellets in the coop and scraping up waste that I throw directly on to the compost pile. Once every two months, it is time to visit an agricultural supply store for grit (mostly ground up oyster shells), organic feed and compostable bedding pellets.

 In the winter, I add two bales of hay to toss inside the pen to ensure the hens don’t get frostbite on their toes when they wander outside. I add organic corn supplement to their feed because they can’t forage for insects when the ground is frozen. The corn also keeps the hens plump when temperatures drop so that the eggs remain large.

When we travel, I leave the hens up to a week at a time safe inside their pen and coop while we journey far and away. I’ll ask a neighbor to check their food and water levels every couple of days—usually in exchange for the eggs the hens lay.

 


BACKYARD FLOCKS

My approach to choosing hens remains balanced. To be fair to my feathered friends, I insist on hens that are happy and healthy in our varied climate of cold frosty winters and hot humid summers. Other than that, I pick the hens mostly by whim. I am lucky to have the space to keep a couple dozen hens. Sometimes I order chicks for egg-laying color, sometimes for the way the mature hen looks, and sometimes just to add variety to my flock.

 I purchase all eggs for incubation and chicks through McMurray Hatchery. Internet research and trips to local agricultural supply stores convinced me to find a reliable source and to stick with it. People at the supply stores often know little about where the chicks came from and whether or not they were treated with antibiotics. An added benefit of ordering from a well-known supplier is that the practices are clearly identified on the site and access to a live person who cares and knows what they are talking about are readily available to answer questions.

Observations:

New Hampshire Red and Rhode Island Red Hens lay the largest and most brown eggs per year. These ladies think they have an open invitation to enter our house when the screen door is open.

Top Hat chickens are fun to look at and great conversation starters during backyard bbq’s, albeit with feathers in their eyes, are the most prone to being carried off by a hawk. Not the brightest in the flock, but darling characters. Eggs on smaller side, but perfect for topping risotto or salad when the egg is not the main ingredient but rather a flavor builder.

White leghorns are gorgeous but skittish. Lay large white eggs. These hens do not like to be picked up and carried around.

 Araucuna hens are not the prettiest hens, however they lay the most gorgeous blue and green large eggs.