Most people get into chicken keeping lured in by the promise of fresh eggs (then they discover there is more to love than just eggs)! Egg quality largely depends on the diet of the chicken, so it makes sense that backyard hens would have superior eggs. With their access to bugs, grass, and a variety of veggies, corn fed commercial hen’s eggs can’t touch backyard eggs. How can you ensure you make the most of your backyard eggs?
The quality of your farm fresh eggs is directly related to the care & feeding you put into your flock. Your backyard eggs don’t taste better just because they are days old vs weeks or months old. Freshness definitely helps – a fresh egg has a nice firm yolk and firm whites, both contribute to a great texture. But even a factory farm egg, if you could get one within days of it being laid, will exhibit these characteristics.
Where your backyard eggs can really stand out is in flavor. Factory farm hens eat a diet entirely made up of commercial feed – usually a mix of corn, soybeans, and other low cost grains. Some factory farms will even tout that their hens eat a “wholesome, all vegetarian diet”. That sounds great, right? No! Chickens are not meant to be vegetarians. Yes they can survive like that, but they are meant to be foragers. They are omnivores who enjoy grains, grass, fruits, vegetables and lots of insects (and maybe even the occasionally frog or mouse). The old adage “you are what you eat” holds up here. Your chicken’s eggs are directly effected by what they eat.
Chickens that eat “wholesome, all vegetarian diets” have pale yellow or even greyish yolks with a bland, flavorless taste. Chickens that eat a natural, varied diet have vibrant orange yolks with a delicious flavor. Allowed to free range, chickens will happily spend the day exploring the yard, eating every bug they come across, and sampling all sorts of weeds, grass and greens. Backyard hens that are not able to free range, but are offered a varied diet with table & garden scraps, herbs and treats of meal worms will have flavor that is heads and tails above factory farms.
What to feed your hens for the best eggs you have ever tasted
What does a balanced, varied diet look like?
High Quality Feed: Grain feed certainly plays a part. Some chicken owners opt to make their own chicken feed because finding feed not made with GMO sourced grains can be difficult. If you make your own feed, you need to make sure it has the proper balance of proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins, & minerals to keep your hens healthy. If making your own feed is impractical for your family, buy the best quality feed you can afford. Purina has a new line of organic, non GMO chicken feed – last check a 35 pound bag is about $28 (0.80 cents per pound). When compared to a middle of the road feed, which is about $16 for a 50 pound bag (0.32 cents per pound), it is definitely pricey. While pricey, your family will be rewarded with healthy, GMO free eggs. Even if you can’t afford organic feed (I know it’s not in the cards for us right now), you can still get good nutrition for your flock from many of the mid range feeds.
Unlimited, Fresh, Clean Water: Did you know nearly 50% of an egg’s volume is water? Not only does your chicken need fresh water to keep her body healthy, but having access to clean water at all times is vital to egg making. This means keeping water unfrozen in the winter and providing extra water in the hot summer months.
Time for Foraging: Left to their own devices, chickens will forage all day long – picking out the things that they instinctively know will keep them healthy. A healthy chicken lays healthy eggs. The protein they get from hunting bugs all day is key to great tasting eggs. Weeds, flowers, & leafy greens high in xanthophylls (a natural yellow pigment) make for gorgeous dark orange yolks. Chickens that are allowed to free range not only have tastier eggs, but there is evidence they are actually healthier eggs! 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene!
Free ranging isn’t always an option for some backyard hens due to predators or space, so what can you do if your birds can’t forage? Treat your hens daily to protein rich treats like dried mealworms, bugs & grubs from the garden – or even live crickets purchased from the pet store. Wheat grass is also a great, easy source of protein. Easy to grow on your kitchen counter, your birds will love this treat, especially in the winter when greens can be scarce. Click here to learn how to grow wheat grass! Give your girls leafy green veggie scraps like lettuce or carrot tops. Pick dandelion leaves & flowers for them. Grow calendula (a type of marigold) in your garden, the hens love them and the flower petals will make the yolks a beautiful orange. Don’t go overboard on treats like scratch, which is basically just junk food for chickens. Scratch is great for winter when your girls could use some more weight on their bones and the extra carbs for energy to keep them warm. Keep in mind your chicken’s main diet should be coming from their feed.
Natural Herbs for Health: Factory farm hens are packed by the thousands into small barns and then feed a diet heavily laced with antibiotics and given drugs to treat them for the illnesses and respiratory diseases they contract from such close living quarters. We are told the amount of medicine that makes it into the eggs is “harmless” and at “acceptable levels”, but is that ok with you?
Beyond great taste, another benefit of backyard eggs lies in what they don’t have in them. I’m not saying you should not medicate your birds if they need it, but a healthy, natural diet can go a long way to keep your flock healthy. Garlic has antibiotic properties, you can put a clove or two in their water, or crush it and mix it into their feed. Herbs like oregano, sage, mint and thyme are not only loved by chickens, but can help keep them healthy! Grow a small herb garden for you and your chickens to share 🙂 Click here to read more about gardening for your pets
Calcium for Strong Shells: Egg shells might seem solid, but they are actually porous with thousands of tiny holes that allow growing chicks inside to breathe. Strong shells are important for keeping bacteria out and keeping the good stuff in. Calcium deficiency can result in thin shelled eggs (or sometimes strange no shell eggs). Oyster shells are a popular supplement you can find at most feed stores to offer your chickens. Another option is to feed the chickens their own egg shells, crushed up. Collect egg shells in a little plastic storage container with a lid. When you have a few dozen, pop them in the oven (heated to 350 degrees) for 5-10 minutes to kill any bacteria on them. Then crush the shells up, either with your hands or put them in the food processor. Sprinkle the crushed shells in their feed, or offer in a bowl free choice.
General Care is also important
Feeding your chickens a varied diet is the most important factor in taste, but general care is a close second. When chickens are stressed, egg production either slows way down or totally stops. When they are cold and wet, they are spending their reserve energy staying alive rather than making eggs. If they are sick or infested with parasites, egg production will suffer. So good animal husbandry is the final piece of getting some top notch eggs
Which color egg tastes the best?
Egg color makes absolutely no difference in taste or texture. Egg color is determined purely by breed. Some people swear certain breed chickens produce better tasting eggs. That might be true, but it has nothing to do with egg color. Chickens that are great natural foragers will naturally have better tasting eggs. Heritage breed chickens are all great foragers. Click here to learn more about heritage breed chickens. Chickens that are at the top of the pecking order tend to get more treats so their eggs might also taste a little better.
When I was a kid there was a commercial slogan that was everywhere – “brown eggs are local eggs and local eggs are fresh”. Obviously brown eggs aren’t any fresher than other eggs, I just grew up in New England where it’s cold and most cold hardy birds lay brown eggs. So yes, the brown eggs in grocery stores were likely fairly local and the white ones were probably shipped in from outside the area. But for years I thought that was the mark of fresh eggs!
Storing all those fresh eggs
You’ve got happy, well fed chickens that are producing tons of tasty eggs – now what?
There is no better feeling than going to the nest box and finding a beautiful clutch of clean, fresh eggs. If the eggs are clean, there is no need to wash them. God has provided an invisible, protective layer called the bloom. It covers the egg and keeps out bacteria.
Unfortunately, runs get muddy and chickens sometimes poop in nest boxes. If there is a small bit of mud or debris on the egg, try to wipe it off with a dry towel. If that doesn’t work, wash the egg in warm running water and refrigerate. Do not soak eggs in a pail of water, as the dirty water can seep into the pores of the shells contaminating the egg. Dirty eggs happen to everyone, but to minimize dirty eggs, collect eggs at least once a day, clean the nest boxes often, and avoid nest box crowding by providing at least one box for every four hens.
Store eggs small side down, with the fat end facing up. Inside every egg is an air pocket. When you store an egg fat side up, the air pocket will rise to the top where it will have more room. You want the air pocket to stay away from the yolk to keep the egg fresh longest.
Store eggs in cartons or containers with the date collected written on it so you can be sure you are using up the oldest eggs first.
Eggs that have been cleaned & refrigerated will last up to 6 months and still be safe to eat. “Safe” to eat is not the same as “good” to eat. Obviously the sooner you can eat them the better the taste and texture.
If you prefer to not refrigerate your eggs, you want to keep the bloom intact to keep bacteria out, so no washing them until it’s time to use them! I personally think the texture and taste is better when they have been stored on the counter vs in the refrigerator. If storing your eggs on the counter, they will be good for about a month. Once an egg has been washed it must be refrigerated. And once eggs have been refrigerated, they must stay there.