Is This Egg Good?

From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.

Free Postmortem Exams for Backyard Flocks in California

It’s too late for us now, but if I had another two chickens die in close succession, I’d consider rushing the bodies off to one of the California Animal Health and Food Safety’s labs run by the University of California Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine.

A Root Simple reader who is a veterinarian tipped us off to this service. You don’t need a veterinarian (though you might need one to help interpret the results) and the service is free to those with less than 1,000 birds. All you need to do is get the body, as soon as possible, to one of four labs in either Davis, Turlock, Tulare or San Bernardino.

The backyard flock submission form is available at: The addresses of the labs are on the form. I’m sure that many other states offer similar services. Call your local Extension Service for details and leave a comment if you know about your state’s testing programs.

How to start a chicken retirement community

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So–here’s the story of another mistake we made. When Erik and I first got chickens we didn’t lay out a plan for dealing with the chickens as they aged. That was the mistake. Simple as that. Make your plans, people!

We learned how to slaughter chickens–we knew we could do it if we needed to–but we never really sat down and decided what would happen to our ladies when they stopped laying. We’re very good at procrastinating that way.

What happened is sort of surprising, looking back.

I’ve not eaten chicken since high school (or other meat, except rarely, fish). My objections have never centered around the morality of killing animals for food, but rather a long-standing objection to how the animals were treated within the industrial farming system. I wanted the chickens so I could have constant access to guilt-free eggs.

Erik was a meat eater up until we got the hens. Then he fell in love with their funny ways, fell out of denial, and realized where his tasty chicken dinners really came from. He went veggie–more or less.

Somehow we did a polar flip. While keeping chickens made him a vegetarian, it made me less sentimental. It’s not that I dislike them. I love having them around. All I can say is that somehow my relationship to them was clarified through experience. I’d sit out by the coop and think, “Yep, I wouldn’t mind eating one of those–and sure as heck they wouldn’t mind eating me, either.”

Meanwhile, Erik went all Buddha on me. He developed relationships with our four hens and would not consider culling them.

That meant we had a chicken retirement home on our hands–and a distinct lack of eggs coming in–and no hope on the horizon, unless it came in the form of a convenient hawk.

But now that the bell has tolled for two of our hens (and no, I am not jigging when Erik is not looking) we’re making decisions on how to handle future flocks.

An aside:

There’s no right or wrong in this cull-no cull debate, though folks can disagree vehemently on the topic. I’ve always said that if you’re a meat eater, raising your own meat is the finest thing you can do. If you want to keep hens as pets, that’s also totally legit.

I have to say that in the city, where we have limited space and laws against roosters and backyard slaughter, our hen keeping operations are always, by necessity, somewhat unnatural. For the most part, backyard flocks are disconnected from the natural cycle of mating and birth, and so also seem to end up disconnected from the cycle of death. It’s no wonder lots of us end up thinking of our hens as pets. Heck, a lot of us buy them at pet stores!

The two paths:

For Erik and I there were two paths. Either we’d decide to embrace carnivorism and resolve to treat our layers in a more business-like fashion, meaning we would not name them and we would promise to make soup out of them when the time came. Or we’d decide–consciously— to support our old layers in their retirement.  To do this, we’d need to develop a system that would allow us to bring in new layers, but still have room for old layers. A plan sort of like this one:

The Staggered Chicken Plan:

Note: Our current flock has taught us that four hens laying at their peak gave the two of us far more eggs that we could eat the first year, and plenty of eggs the second year and into the third. That’s how we came up with these numbers. If you need more eggs, you’d need more hens.

We start with three fresh pullets. At age three, when they slow their laying, we’d introduce three more fresh pullets. We would then have six hens and plenty of eggs, even if we have some die-off from the oldsters in their 4th or 5th year. When the second batch turned three, we’d get three more young ones. The first trio would then be able to spend their sixth through ninth years playing canasta or watching the telenovelas or whatever, and we’d still have plenty of eggs coming in from the younger birds. This plan is based on an assumption that most hens won’t live past nine though some do, of course. Hopefully the numbers will even out.
The decision:

What it came down to for us was whether we’d be willing to invest the time and money into starting a retirement community. Not only would we have to build a new coop to hold nine hens–as per the Staggered Chicken Plan–but also we’d have to commit to feeding all those useless birds.

Alternatively, we could keep the set up we have right now (which holds 4, maybe 5 birds at the most) and resolve to cull the hens. New hens every three years.

I personally was fine either way. I could see the advantages of each approach. But Erik (the big softy!) decided he didn’t feel right about culling the hens. Putting his money where his mouth was, he  agreed to redesign and rebuild the coop to keep his ladies off the chopping block.

So I guess we’re changing our name to Sentimental Farms! Time to design that new coop…

Another Chicken Fatality

We lost another chicken last night meaning that we’ve got something infectious. I didn’t have the stomach to do a post-mortem exam, nor would I know what to look for anyways (chicken CSI would make a nice class if only there were someone to teach it). I thumbed through Gail Damerow’s Chicken Health Handbook, but I don’t have much evidence to go on.

I didn’t see any obvious symptoms other than a very small amount of listlessness just before both chickens died and a bit of what might be bloody diarrhea on the roost. Mrs. Homegrown disinfected the coop as best she could and I swept out the bedding. A heat wave last week may have weakened the flock and helped bring this on.

We are now down to two chickens, one of whom does not lay any eggs. Looks like we’ll be either not be eating eggs or we’ll have to buy them at the farmers market for the next few months.

Mrs. Homegrown here: 

I wanted to add that the remaining hens seem perfectly healthy.  If they drop over dead tomorrow, it’s going to be quite a headscratcher. They’re out happily roaming in our yard right now, all bright-eyed and perky. I’ve eyeballed them for signs of respiratory infection or diarrhea, and see nothing. All the poop under their roost looked fine.  It’s a mild day, as was yesterday–so I don’t know if heat was the culprit in either death. The possible bloody diarrhea that Erik mentions above consisted of a couple of  small dark stains on the roost. Hard to say what that was–if it was anything. All in all it’s quite a mystery.

It could be coincidence. Both of the deceased hens are of the same breed, from the same hatching, same store–maybe they were even sisters. They were very close. Maybe when one went the other followed, like devoted old couples sometimes do.

I say this just to keep hope that this isn’t some bacterial thing. It’s impossible to truly disinfect a wooden coop with a dirt floor. We’ll do our best, open it up to light and give it a good airing and hope for the best.

It looks like we might get a chance to start our flock fresh, and this time we’re going to do things differently. It looks like there are two paths we could follow–those paths, and the choice we make, will have to follow in the next post.