As people grow more and more skeptical about how our food is handled and raised, many are turning to self-sufficient means of providing food for themselves. Raising chickens for eggs has become one way for many, even those living in town, to have more control over their food. But with warnings and recalls from the food industry of eggs tainted with E. coli, salmonella, listeria and the like, some may wonder if it’s too risky to do this themselves and whether they should rely on the FDA to regulate and keep us safe.
Whether you are a backyard chicken enthusiast or a budding homesteader with more than a handful of biddies, you will want to make sure to read these tips on how to ensure that your chicken eggs are safe.
1. Keep a clean coop.
A coop kept relatively clean and free of vermin (such as mice) will do a lot to help you avoid illness in your chickens and contamination of your eggs. While a good layer of chicken droppings and straw can be good to keep a coop warm over the winter, rodent droppings and wet food and litter are some ways that salmonella is spread to eggs (even the insides of them). Not a good thing. Keep your coop clean and dry. If you have a water spill or the rain gets in, remove the wet bedding from that area as soon as you can, and if you see any sign of mice, take measures to get them out and keep them out of your coop.
2. Make an inviting place for your hens to lay.
If you go through the effort to make an attractive place for your hens to lay, you shouldn’t have to be digging through litter on the soiled floor to collect your eggs. Straw or other bedding will help to keep eggs clean and unbroken once they are laid. In our experience, it is good to keep the nest boxes just above the hens’ eye level so as to discourage curious pecking of eggs by a bored chicken if you don’t get the eggs right away. This is especially important in the winter when the weather is bad and the chickens don’t want to go outside in the snow.
3. Keep your hens inside for the morning hours until after they are done laying.
If you keep your hens in their coop for at least the first part of the day, this ensures that the eggs will most likely be laid in the henhouse and not on the back 40 when the chickens go outside to explore. We’ve had hens, especially broody ones, lay eggs outside the hen house and have later discovered a nest she’d made for herself with a lot of (wasted) eggs. If you’ve got a hen that loves to lay outside, you may need to keep her inside for a week or so to help her re-learn where she should be laying her eggs.
4. Gather eggs soon after they are laid.
The sooner you gather the eggs after the hens lay them, the less chance the eggs will freeze in winter, get too hot in the summer, be pecked by an ornery chicken or be an attractant to critters that love to steal and eat eggs. This doesn’t mean you have to hover over your hen and immediately grab the egg after she lays it (though that is a fulfilling experience). It just means that you should consider the circumstances surrounding the current chicken laying status and to adjust the time you check on and gather the eggs accordingly.
5. Wash eggs only if necessary and only just before using, if possible.
Europeans and old timers have kept eggs at room temperature for centuries and been just fine. Assuming the pen and birds are healthy, the key is to never wash your eggs until you are ready to use them. The whitish coating, also known as the “bloom,” protects the inner egg. The shells are porous, and until the bloom is washed off or compromised from getting wet, the inside is more or less protected. Once the bloom is washed off, you MUST refrigerate the eggs and keep them refrigerated. Do not leave them on your counter to “sweat” and then put them back into the refrigerator, as this will cause them to go bad faster, since the moisture will be able to go through the porous shell of the egg and into the inner parts of the egg.
Kept unwashed and never refrigerated, eggs can be kept on the counter from 6 weeks to 2 and a half months, depending on the room’s temperature (the cooler the room, the longer they will keep). To extend the life of the eggs for eating, place them in cartons and rotate them every day. For instance, one day you have the carton sitting on the counter normally, the next you put the carton on its side, the next you put the carton upside-down, the next on the other side, etc.
6. Rotate your eggs.
As you should already be doing with your food storage, use the oldest first, to ensure you’re not using really old (read: bad) eggs down the road. Make a system of it in your refrigerator or on your countertop. I carton my eggs if I am not planning on using them in the near future and have them situated left to right, oldest to newest and use the oldest first.
7. If in doubt, float ‘em.
If you are in doubt as to the freshness of your eggs, an easy way to figure out if an egg is fit for consumption is the float test: Simply put the egg in a cup of water. If the egg sinks, it’s fine to eat; if it floats, that is a bad sign and the egg should not be consumed.
Raising happy hens that will provide eggs for your family doesn’t have to be a stressful thing. Just follow a few simple, common-sense rules of cleanliness and you should be just fine. Take good care of your chickens, gather the eggs on a regular basis, and practice good egg care techniques and you can enjoy your own chicken eggs without fear.