The Egg Comes First

A USF professor cracks us up with his ability to mastermind larger chicken eggs.

University of Florida graduate research professor Robert Harms recently discovered a way to make hens lay larger eggs during warm weather, when, historically speaking, small eggs have been as plentiful as the peanuts in Jimmy Carter's poop. Weekly Planet called Harms to discuss the matter, and found him to be congenial, whip-smart and voluble on the subject of hens and eggs.

Weekly Planet: In the press release, it says that the seeming solution to smaller eggs in warm weather would have been to feed the hens more, but I would think that would result in larger chicken poop, not eggs.

Robert Harms: It does that, too, to a certain extent, but ... hens do not lay as large an egg in the summer. And the housewife demands large eggs.

WP: Why is that?

Harms: Well, number one, the biggest reason they say, is that all the cooking recipes call for one large egg.

WP: Couldn't they just use two small eggs?

Harms: Yes, they could. In fact, one time I was in the grocery store — if I get to talkin' too much, you tell me. (Long story ensues ...) But anyway, it is certainly desirable to make hens lay larger eggs when we can. And I've been in research for 50 years. And I've been working on it for this time.

WP: You've been working on it for 50 years?

Harms: I did my research — well, actually about 45 years ago — not continuously, but off and on. And, uh, but the hen is different than us, she eats to get the energy that she wants, now, and for ... her reproductive purposes; we eat food because we like the taste of it. So we tried every way in the world to get her to eat more feed and get more energy, and this procedure of putting 6 percent corn oil or other fat ... and we found that they would consume about 25 more calories, or almost 10 percent more calories, than they really wanted to ... and lo and behold, the eggs just fell out.

WP: Now, is it the corn in the corn oil? Could you give them cornbread or corn pone?

Harms: No, no, it has to be oil, has almost two-and-a-half times as much energy as the corn does.

WP: If humans wanted to have larger babies, could they consume more corn oil?

Harms: Uh, it'd depend on how much — I don't think it would, no, in a child.

WP: What if people ate cornbread?

Harms: Well, cornbread — see, we feed chickens corn. About 75 percent of the feed that the hens get is corn or some other grain, like wheat, or sometimes we feed them barley, but it's not as good. Grains mixed with soybean meal, or some other ingredient that has more protein in it. There's not enough protein in corn alone to support egg production.

WP: If you give small hens corn oil, would they produce eggs that are too large? Will they have to have, like, chicken episiotomies?

Harms: When the chickens get older, they do produce — see, eggs are sold by weight. We have large eggs that weigh 24 ounces to the dozen, medium eggs weigh 21, small eggs weigh 18, extra large eggs 27, and jumbo is 30 or above. Well, if they get 30 or above, it takes more energy, more feed cost to produce it, so when the hens get too old, they produce eggs that are too big.

WP: If the egg should get fertilized, will the larger egg result in a larger chicken?

Harms: It'd be a larger baby chick. It would not affect the adult size.

WP: Is there an age of consent, for fertilizing chicken eggs. I mean, can you fertilize any-size egg?

Harms: See, we have hens that are kept for producing table eggs, and then we have hens that are produced for hatching eggs to get what we call the broiler, you may call it the fryer in the grocery store. The hen that lays eggs for table eggs, weighs about 3 1/2 pounds, and the one that lays eggs for broilers, we restrict her feed ... if we let her eat all she wanted to, she'd weigh 12 or 13 pounds. That's how the two different lines have been developed over the years. This was started before I was even born.

WP: Do you mostly work with hens?

Harms: For the last 15 years, that's all I've worked with.

WP: I imagine you get pretty attached to 'em. Are there a lot of other animals — for instance, can you hear the lambs?

Harms: I beg your pardon?

WP: Can you hear the lambs? (muffled laughter)

Harms: (Long pause) Hello?

WP: Yeah, I was wondering if there are other animals.

Harms: Yes, in animal science people do work with other animals. I did work with the hens that produce eggs for broiler breeders, but ... the commercial egg industry is more important in the state of Florida than the broilers are.

WP: This is gonna sound stupid, but I've always wondered if before eggs go to market, if they're rinsed off or washed.

Harms: Yes. They are washed out. And any dirty eggs that don't clean up are taken out. You seldom see a soiled egg in the grocery store.

WP: What's the difference between white and brown eggs?

Harms: Certain breeds lay brown eggs, and certain breeds lay white eggs. White eggs are cheaper to produce. And basically when you break them out in the skillet or taste them, you can't taste any difference.

WP: Is there any truth to the old adage that you can fry an egg on the sidewalk? Have you guys ever tried that?

Harms: I'm sure you could on asphalt, on a hot day when it gets to be 100-plus, but I don't know exactly how hot that would get. But it probably would.

WP: You guys should do an experiment some time, just for fun.

Harms: (Laughter)

WP: How do you like your eggs?

Harms: I like 'em over easy.

Contact Features Writer David Jasper at 813-248-8888, ext. 111, or jasper@weekly