The ebb and flow of eggs, blue or otherwise

A question I get a lot this time of year is “Where’d all the blue eggs go?”
That’s a simple question with a surprisingly complex answer, so I figured I’d jot it all down here for posterity and the like.

We have a flock that’s comprised of 3-4 different breeds of chicken at any one time. We’ve taken to raising our hens from chicks in broods of 300 chicks of the same breed, keeping them until the end of their second laying cycle, and then replacing them.

For example, at the time I write this, our flock is comprised of:

Brood 1 – Ameraucana / Cuckoo Maran
Brood 2 – California White / Black Sex-Link
Brood 3 – Production Red
Brood 4 – Production Red / Brown Legorn

Each of these broods of chickens were raised at different times, and all are at a different point in their life cycle, they each lay a different color egg (or combination of colors) and they all have different color plumage.
So if we express all that in table form it might look something like this:

BroodBreedAgeLaying CycleEgg ColorEgg SizeEgg Production
1Ameraucana / Cuckoo Maran2 yearsProduction 2Blue, green, dark brownLarge - JumboLow, increasing
2California White / Black Sex-Link1 yearProduction 1Brown, whiteLarge - XLMedium, increasing
3Production Red3 monthsPulletBrownPee-wee - mediumnone
4Production Red / Brown Leghorn2+ yearsMoultBrown, whiteLarge - JumboVery Low

And what all of this would tell us is that none of the broods within our flock is doing the same thing at the same time. This helps us to smooth out the natural seasonal swings in egg production, with a particular emphasis on hitting full production from May-September (farmers market season).

Now, just in case you’re not intimately familiar with the life cycle of an outdoor laying hen, it typically goes something like this:

  • Pullet – begin laying after vernal equinox, small eggs gradually increase in size/frequency
  • Production 1 – Heavy production peaks around summer solstice, decreasing after autumnal equinox
  • Moult 1 – Production declines or stops while chickens shed old feathers and grow new plumage from autumnal equinox to winter solstice
  • Production 2 – Moderate production begins from vernal equinox, peaking around summer solstice, decreasing after autumnal equinox
  • Moult 2 – Production stops while chickens shed old feathers, brood is replaced and sold as spent or stewing hens

If you haven’t guessed it by now, with all the talk of equinoxes and solstices, that chickens are light sensitive. These small feathery dinosaurs got themselves all evolved to sync-up their egg laying to the seasonal cycles of the sun. They lay more eggs in the spring and summer when it’s warm, and slow it down in the fall and winter when it’s cold. In the wild that would give them a pretty good chance of passing on the ol’ genes to the next generation, but it’s a bit of a pain to plan around when you’re a farmer who would prefer to sell eggs all year-round.

Now this natural seasonal fluctuation in egg production used to cause all sorts of problems in the food market back in the day. Eggs would be cheaper in the spring, when everybody’s flock was laying like crazy, and the prices would gradually rise through the summer and into the fall. When the local flocks would all moult in the late fall and into the winter, egg prices would rise because nobody had many eggs to sell.
From the book “History of Prices during the War, Issue 1” (1919):

“The production of eggs normally increases in April with the opening of spring. The heaviest monthly receipts in the Chicago and New York markets arrive during the months of April and May. The receipts in New York during the calendar year 1917 varied from a maximum of 196,201 cases during the week ending April 14 to a minimum of 21,966 cases during the week ending December 29.”

That’s quite a swing in supply, imagine seeing the egg case at the supermarket only 1/10th full during the winter months! Surprisingly, that big swing in supply only led to modest changes in prices (25-30%). For example, during that year (1917), egg prices varied from $0.32 to $0.42/dz in Chicago and from $0.34 to $0.48/dz in New York. That tells me that the consumers of that time were very aware of the seasonal nature of the egg supply. It really makes me start thinking of egg-nog as a real luxurious winter treat.

So we try to flatten this curve out as best we can, mixing different broods in different laying cycles within our flock. We can’t smooth it out all the way, but it certainly helps get rid of the worst of the swing in production. The only way to eliminate production fluctuations completely is to coop up the chickens indoors all the time under artificial light, and nobody wants that (or if they did they’d just run to Kwik-Trip for some $0.79 eggs).

Our goal is to produce the best tasting eggs possible, with a little variety of sizes and colors to keep it fun. We have to keep our chickens free-rangin’ outside to do that. The trade-off we’re making is that we’re gonna get some seasonal swings in production, both in total number of eggs we have available to sell and in the mix of egg sizes and colors in your carton. When it all goes just right, in June and July we sell some pretty perfect-looking cartons: a dozen big eggs, with a variety of colors from blue-green to white to chocolate brown and even a few with speckles!

I’m sure that I could figure out a way to crank out those perfect-looking cartons all year-round if I really wanted to, but they sure wouldn’t be the best eggs you ever tasted. They’d just be a bland egg in a pretty shell, and that’s not quite what we’re going for.

Andrew

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