Eggs From Old Hens

Chickens were never bred to live a long life. A hundred years ago, poor egg producers were harvested for meat after their first laying season. About half of the flock would be kept through to their second winter, when they were all butchered. This is the where the term dual-purpose hen comes from. Eggs and meat. A few breeds are more specialized – for example the Cornish Rock is solely for meat and Leghorns are kept for their egg-laying proficiency.

If kept around, hens do keep laying eggs past that second year. Despite good care, nutritious feed and calcium supplements, the shells become thinner and thus there’s more breakage, which is yet one more reason that commercial farmers don’t keep older hens. Those of us with backyard poultry, who consider their flock’s dual-purposes as eggs and pets, are delighted when an elderly chicken lays an egg. I’ve always assumed that there’s nothing wrong with them. That is, until this past weekend.

Seven chickens live in the big barn. Agnes and Philomena have just reached their second year (and first molt.) They’ve each laid an egg a day for the last year. Once in awhile Maizie, a three year-old Wyandotte lays an egg. The other hens are six years-old and haven’t laid eggs for ages.

On Saturday, a big, wrinkled, thin-shelled egg was found in the the nesting box. I knew that it was laid by one of the old hens. I put it right into the refrigerator. The next day there was another one! I decide to have poached eggs with these gifts from my old girls. I cracked one open and slid it into the oiled poaching cup and saw…bubbles. I have never, in almost two decades of keeping hens, had an egg that had  bubbles inside.

Look at what’s in the shell. It looks like soap bubbles, or like I’d vigorously shaken the egg before cracking. You can also see how thin and wrinkled the shell is. The yolk looks fine and there was no discoloration or odor. Weird. I fed the egg to Lily Dog. When cracked open, the second egg looked normal. But, when poached, the white tasted grainy. Lily got that, too. She hopes that the old hens keep laying, but she’s had no such luck.


  1. The quality of eggs from older hens isn’t as good … but they’re good enough to scramble or for a cake mixture.

  2. Some past research said that after their second year, which is the most productive, hens average a decline of 5% per year. Admittedly our decline is higher than that because free range chickens sometimes lay their eggs away from the nest box and sometimes break an egg in the nest box and eat that, so those eggs don’t get harvested but they are still laid.
    The eggs from the older hens are so jumbo that they don’t fit into the jumbo egg boxes, so for recipes, one egg equals two or three large eggs. These big hens have developed into the biddies that give the flocks great personality, right? They have more confidence and less fear than the pullets. The huge trust they’ve developed in their humans is astonishing and we need a word that reflects that gift they give us. Triple purpose birds?

    • Hylla, I think that the 5% a year is off. I’d say it’s more like 50%. One of my most useful reference books, the “Prairie Farmer’s Poultry Book” (1925) suggests getting rid of half the first-year layers before winter, as they’re not economically viable, and only keeping the best layers through the next molt. Back then it was especially expensive to raise new chicks, so they wouldn’t have recommended this for a small 5% reduction.
      However, I agree that the old birds are nice to have around. Wouldn’t want 500 of them though! My six are plenty, and they’re lucky I’m not a “real” farmer!

      • So a pullet by one year old might have laid as many as 150 eggs. Given the feed and dormant first five months, that’s an unproductive year. The second year of life that hen might lay 280 eggs. So even if your 50% number were accurate, the third year of life that hen might lay 140 eggs, though I don’t find the decline anywhere near that drop-off.
        That means the third year of life is as productive as the first year but the eggs are jumbos, so worth more than small pullet eggs. It doesn’t make sense to me to dispose of a bird who’s been that productive, strictly from a financial viewpoint.
        It isn’t clear here who stopped laying because our hens aren’t in cages; they share nests and we really only know who lays if we see her do it. I’ve seen five year old hens lay, so I know they haven’t hit henopause. Tell spell check that’s a real word.

        • My “Biggle Poultry Book” (1895) has this to say, ” As to how long hens should be kept for laying authorities do not agree, but it is doubtful if they should ever be retained long after they have passed the spring months of their second year. During spring and early summer dressed hens command good prices.” This is why the dual-purpose breeds were so important. Mr. Biggle goes on to point out that hens in their second year go into an unproductive broody period. This was before high-producing, egg-laying strains were developed (these have broodiness bred out.) What breeds do you have (you’re not counting the pet silkies, are you?)

          • Haha, no, our fancies with feathered feet aren’t here for their eggs. But interesting – we have our first gender changer among them. A ridiculously gawky white Silkie lays eggs almost every day but has become one of the boys. Delilah mounts the hens and crows huge, loud, convincing crows.
            There are a few Barred Rock, Australorp, and buff Orpington hens still laying at four to five years old, each about three or four eggs per week. That stops when they go into a broody mode for a month but then it’s back to normal. I’ve learned to remove eggs from under broody hens but it’s a waste of time to discourage broodiness.
            Our Ameraucanas are under three years old and laying well. I can’t tell who lays how many but the overall numbers are down among the free rangers as they now molt. The RI Reds do decline in egg production after the third year. This isn’t scientific. It’s just what we get with hens that are comfortably going outside almost every day (good outdoor roofing from the rain) and getting plenty of sunlight. Think any of it is Vitamin D related?
            Out here the winters haven’t diminished egg production really. Though some people report dips, we’ve been steady all winter at more than 80% peak summer rates.

            • And this is why Petaluma, California became a center of chicken farming. Here you have to feed extra to keep the chickens warm during the winter – when they’re not laying. Then, you have only about half a year of production before they’re molting.
              BTW, hens go outside when it’s comfortable for them to do so. My big barn is so airy, sunny and comfy that the girls stay inside to relax. The hens in the HenCam coop would rather be outside, and it takes bad weather for them to be in. It might be their age differences, too. The old girls are in the big barn and they aren’t interested in foraging anymore.

              • How old are the oldest now? Really, they don’t forage anymore? What do they do all day? we don’t have anything over five years old that I know of.
                There’s a terrific documentary dvd, “Home on the Range: the Jewish Chicken Farmers of Petaluma.” Political divisions that caused synagogues to split, all the same dynamics we expect. It’s wonderful.

  3. Interesting egg. I’ve had eggs from elderly hens that were wrinkled and put together with little beads instead of a smooth layer of calcium. Sometimes there is so little calcium on the exterior that the egg is rubbery, like a turtle egg. I have the idea that some of the miniscule bits of shell intended for the outer layer gets mixed into the inside of the egg, making the albumen gritty. The bubbles seem to come from a flacid oviduct (especially if the egg is laid nearing molting) which allows air into the system. I have no definitive information, but it seems possible. I believe the egg would be fine for baking, but rather sandy textured for poaching. Good source of calcium, though!

    • Lucy – since the problem with the old eggs is lack of calcium, I doubt that even the gritty ones are a good nutritional source. Also, I worry about the old eggs because it seems that the hens’ systems that safeguard against germs have broken down. Not only does the shell protect against contaminants, but the egg itself has properties that prevent deterioration. To be on the safe side, I toss the weird eggs to my dog – it’s not a waste. She loves them and her stomach can handle much more than mine!

  4. I agree. It’s best to understand the process that causes that weirdness and let the puppies have the strange ones as treats. I was also wondering, did that egg have the proper air space at the end? If it was missing, that might explain the bubbles…they would have been in the wrong place, inside the albumin instead of separated by the sac. I can’t tell by the photo if that membrane is there. Fifteen of my hens will be three years old next spring. I have not yet lost a single one of the original group. They are also molting right now, looking like two-legged porcupines! Do your hens like milk? I had trouble with soft shells and found that my girls love milk and are getting a bowl twice a week, or when I have extra. And with extra oyster shell, there are no more problems. I see no problem with it, they simply sip it as if they truly love it. Was also wondering if there is a way to prevent prolapse. I lost one of my best pullets, from a new group, a month ago. She hid the problem from me and was terminal, so I had to dispatch her because of other problems associated with that as well (and cut my finger to the bone in the process). One of those things a henkeeper has to do. I’d like to never see that problem again. Thanks.

    • You can’t prevent prolapse. It often happens with pullets – they’re producing too-big eggs. Or their systems haven’t matured properly. Betsy prolapsed and I was able to fix it (see the blog archives) but I caught it early before the prolapse became injured or pecked on.

  5. Just had a look back in The Egg Files and see that each of my girls is laying roughly 10% fewer eggs each year. I am increasingly feeling that I should put five-year-old Big Girl forward for some kind of an award – 89 eggs this year!
    Perhaps a spreadsheet of some kind is in order, detailing age of hen, protein content of feed, hours of daylight, climatic zone occupied etc; there are so many variables but surely there must be some algorithm (if that is indeed the word I want and the right spelling of it) we can come up with!

    • I’ve too many hens to keep records for each hen (or maybe I’m just too lazy!) but I have been keeping accurate monthly totals for a couple of years. For this first time this year, I’ve kept detailed records of how much it costs to take care of the girls (down to what I spend on cabbage.) Look for some interesting posts in January when I tally it all up.
      Wendy – do you count your broody hen in the tally, or is she left out of the stats?
      I figure that it costs about 8¢ a day to house and feed a hen. So, that means it cost you about $30 to care for Biddy this past year. So, each egg cost 32 ¢ each, about what an organic supermarket egg sells for. I guess she’s still earning her keep!

      • This is interesting. Terry, do you use organic feed? We did the math last year and found that eggs cost us $6.50 per dozen that we sell. Factors are, in order: cost of organic pellets, labor (interns make > $12/hour), and we don’t count eggs that crack so don’t get boxed for sale.

        Much of what they eat is grown on the farm ( no $ cost included) with no chemicals at all but still they go through four TONS of pellets per month.

        Eggs sell for $6/dozen large and $8/dozen jumbo. Often the jumbos are too big for the boxes to close.