A Mixed Half-Dozen

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mixed half dozen

When you picture half a dozen eggs, what do they look like? Are they brown? White? Do they have a little smiley face on them in blue ink?

Are they all the same?

Open any carton of eggs in the supermarket and most likely they will all look pretty much the same. Same colour, same size, same shape.

The photo above is the six eggs I brought in this morning. Two duck eggs, two eggs from large brown hens, one from a bantam Australorp and one from a Silkie. Different colours, sizes and shapes. Silkie eggs go great in toasties, duck eggs are excellent for baking.

So, if eggs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours, all of which are useful, why can you only buy white or brown eggs around 60g in the supermarket?

The eggs you buy in the supermarket, whether they are cage, barn or ‘free range’ laid, come from patented crossbred laying hens. Some of these crosses are sex-linked for colour, so chicks can be sexed and hatching and the males disposed of. Brown-egg layers are preferred because customers prefer brown eggs.

These industrial crossbred hens are capable of laying huge eggs. But in intensive situations they have their feed intake restricted to keep the eggs to a fairly uniform size. If you have ISA Brown hens in a real free range backyard environment with access to as much feed as they like, they will lay eggs closer to 90g than the factory-standard 60g.

Known as ‘Commercial Hybrids’, varieties such as the ISA Brown, Lohmann and Hyline are derived from heritage chicken breeds. In some cases, the actual cross is a secret as closely guarded as KFC’s 11 herbs and spices. They are bred to be autosexing and to produce large eggs of uniform colour for 300 days without going broody. A broody hen is a hen who isn’t laying, so the instinct to hatch and raise chicks is generally absent in these birds.

I had an ISA who gave me eight eggs a week for a year and a half before her first moult, and then laid every day for almost another year before I lost her to a fox. This heavy production takes a toll on the birds, and they generally slow down their laying in their third year and stop altogether soon after. A heritage breed layer might take a couple of months off over winter, or sit on eggs once a season, but she may also lay regularly for seven or eight years and never completely shut up shop.

So a big part of the reason why supermarket eggs look like they do is for ease of production. Another part is because that is what people want to buy. I have already mentioned a preference for brown eggs. How would the average consumer feel if they opened up their carton of eggs to find a blue egg? Or eggs that were of odd sizes? They would put the carton down and pick up the dozen on the next shelf that were all the same size and colour.

Supermarket eggs are also not susceptible to the same seasonal variations that home-grown eggs are. I once had a visitor comment that the yolks in my eggs were pale, and that perhaps I didn’t feed my birds as well as the ones on the commercial farms. Bright orange yolks can either come from green feed or from additives in a commercial ration. It was the middle of summer, with little green pick available, so the yolks from my hens were much paler. By contrast, duck eggs tend to have deep orange-red yolks, as they eat quite a bit of grass.

When it comes to backyard eggs, I have commented aloud that I get a much better yield from ducks than from hens. Ducks generally lay in the morning, with their eggs ready for collection when I open up the pen. This means I can collect the eggs before the crows steal them. Ducks lay plenty of wonderful big eggs, are placid, many domestic varieties don’t fly, and the drakes are quieter and less aggressive than roosters. So why can’t you buy duck eggs in the supermarket? The main reason would probably be that ducks are messy and take up more space. To be happy and healthy, ducks need access to enough water to dunk their heads in. They are water birds after all, and where you have water and poultry, you have mud. Hens can be kept in a dry environment. The other thing ducks will do is take a few days off if the weather goes cold or conditions don’t suit them in some other way. Hens will just keep laying as long as they have the requisite hours of daylight to prompt them.

Supermarket eggs are one of the things that I never buy. If I am having an egg-drought at home I have a couple of places where I can buy genuine free-range eggs. It is not just the methods of production that I disagree with, I also object to paying for eggs with watery whites, artificially-coloured yolks, and no taste. But of course, the poor chooks on those farms.

My birds live in families. They pick through poop to eat the undigested grains. They come running to the call of ‘chook chook chook’. They can dust in the cool dirt amid the tree roots and scratch for bugs in the farmyard. The ducks swim in the dam and roam the paddocks for the best grazing. And they produce amazing eggs, in a range of colours, shapes and sizes.

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