If you’ve kept chickens for long enough you’ve probably seen a wide range of eggs: different sizes from the double-yolker to the super-small, ‘fart egg’; wrinkled; bumpy; odd-shaped; eggs with tails; even an egg-within-an-egg. Most of these are anomalies and don’t necessarily indicate potential health problems. A soft-shelled egg can be a one-off or can mean something to be on the lookout for. (If you’re interested in learning more about weird eggs click here.)
Eggshells are mostly made from calcium, so it’s important your layers get lots of calcium in their diet. New layers, or a hen that has issues with the absorption of calcium, might lay a soft-shelled egg. You’ll know it because it feels rubbery instead of having a hard shell. I try to ensure that my birds have access to oyster shell, high calcium foods and crushed eggs shells. The result is I rarely find soft-shelled eggs.
I currently have two pens, each with a coop: one with my rooster and 18 hens and the other with 15 teenaged pullets. I’ve noticed that the pullets don’t eat the oyster shell – they all, as a group, seem to avoid it. I make sure that I put crushed eggshells in their feed a couple of times a week to give them a calcium boost.
Last week I noticed several dried up soft-shelled eggs in the pen (not in the coop), as though they were laid outside. I didn’t know which pullet laid them and all the other eggs are normal.
When I was taking photos of my birds Corazon, an Appenzeller Spitzhauben x, came into the coop looking for a nest box. She wandered around, quickly left and when she stood in the doorway I saw her vent was inverted and slimy stuff was coming out. I’ve dealt with a prolapsed vent and an egg bound hen and wasn’t looking forward to dealing with a potential emergency.
I went into the house and filled my kitchen sink with warm water and Epsom salts, covered my countertops with a sheet and got my first aid kit. I brought Corazon into the house and put her into the sink for a soak. Most hens seem to relax in warm water, but she was having none of it. She talked non-stop and did not look happy.
When she settled down a bit I grabbed my camera. Too often, I have regretted not having photos to document an experience, so I had my camera with me. The problem was taking a picture required two hands and in the moment I released her she tried to make a break for it. In the ensuing capture I got soaked. I wear glasses so they were covered with chicken bath water (did I mention I had just spent several minutes picking poop off her feathers?). Good thing my partner was out of town: she’s not too keen on having the kitchen turned into a makeshift animal hospital. Not to worry, I clean up really thoroughly.
After the bath (one could hardly liken it to spa day), I swaddled her into a towel, covering her head. Most hens are totally compliant by that point, but true to form she gave another little struggle. I did an internal exam (wearing gloves and using lube) and found there was no egg or remnants of one. I wasn’t expecting a normal egg, but if I had felt part of a soft-shelled one I would have gently removed it.
The potential danger of soft-shelled eggs is hens often strain to lay them and in the process their vent can prolapse (turn inside out). What I saw when she was standing in the coop doorway was a minor prolapse as she was trying to push the remnants of a soft-shelled egg out of her vent.
Post-exam: she seemed fine, but just to be on the safe side I put her in a crate with Tums in her water and gave her a dish of Greek yoghurt, hoping to boost her calcium uptake before she laid her next egg.
By the following morning, she was anxious to get back to her flock. I let her rejoin them after checking her vent was totally normal. The next day I found an egg in the pen – this time with a hard shell. I haven’t spotted her in the nest box, but I also haven’t found another soft-shelled egg. I have been giving the whole group high calcium foods to make sure they’re all laying normally.
So what can you do to prevent soft-shelled eggs?
- Give them free access to oyster shell and crushed eggshells. Each hen will hopefully eat as much as she needs. The result of excess calcium are small deposits on the shell; too little and you’ll get a soft shell.
- Avoid overfeeding foods that interfere with calcium absorption: spinach, beet greens, chard and citrus fruits.
- Add Apple Cider Vinegar (1 tablespoon/gallon) to their water to increase calcium absorption.
- Give them calcium rich foods: seeds (poppy, chia, sunflower), dairy products like cheese and yoghurt, fish, beans and lentils, nuts, dark leafy greens, broccoli, arugula, okra, edamame, tofu, sweet potatoes and butternut squash.
- If you’re finding a number of soft-shelled eggs figure out who’s laying them and monitor for any potential health issues.
Update: This was not the end of her egg-laying issues. Read here for what happened next just eight days later.