If you are a chicken-keeping gardener like me, you know that the second-best thing hens give you is eggs. The first best thing they give you is their awesome nutrient rich poop!
As grateful as I am for both the poop and the eggs, I prefer them to be gifted separately. Typically if the eggs I’m collecting are poop-smeared it’s a sign that the chicken-keeper (ahem – me) needs to step-up her daily coop maintenance.
1. Keep Paths to Nesting Boxes Clean
Although a hen’s poop and egg exit through the same hole – called the vent – they come from different internal channels. The poop comes down the intestine and the egg comes down the oviduct. The egg, as it exits, pinches off the intestine so it’s not possible for a hen to lay an egg and poop at the same time, or for poop to get on an egg inside a hen. (For an awesome explanation of all this complete with MacPaint-style illustrations, see How a Hen Lays Her Egg.)
Occasionally some hygiene deficient hen will lay an egg while her bum-feathers are full of poo and end up soiling everything in the nest box, but more often poop that ends up on eggs has been tracked into the nesting box.
A chicken feels the egg-laying urge and makes her way to the nesting boxes. On the way she steps through the giant pile of chicken poop under the roosting bars. Now she’s got a bunch of poop on her feet, and after she walks or flies into the nesting area, she steps on the half-dozen eggs already in the nesting boxes, tracking poop all over each of them.
Poop-free eggs are therefore typically the benefit you get for keeping the pathways to the nesting-boxes clear.
I have sand in the upper portion of my coop, which is where the nesting boxes and the interior roosting bars are. I really love the sand bed for how easy it makes poop maintenance.
First, the sand acts like kitty-litter, drying out and clumping around the chicken poop. Removing the poop is a simple matter of raking it down into the straw-based, composting deep-litter system in the enclosed run below. Second, the grit of the sand acts a bit like a welcome mat, and as chickens walk over it towards the nesting boxes, it helps to scrape debris off their feet.
If I rake the poop of the sand-bed daily, I almost never have dirty eggs. I once timed how long it took to rake the entire sand-bed area clean and it was 45 seconds, so I have no real excuse to not take care of it. Every coop is different, but whatever steps you can take to make sure the chicken’s natural pathway to the nesting box is poop-free will help ensure clean eggs.
One sure-fire way to get really poopy eggs is if your hens sleep in the nesting boxes or just above them. Do whatever you must to discourage this behavior. Make sure your nesting box has a steep roof to stop night-time roosting, and if necessary, block off the nesting boxes from dusk till dawn, until hens (typically young pullets) learn to sleep elsewhere.
2. Keep Nesting Box Material Clean
If poop or (worse, in my opinion) a broken egg soils your nesting box, deal with it right away. Lingering poop is just nasty, and tends to re-soil eggs over and over as hens step in it and spread it around. Thick layers of clean nesting box liner material is key.
My recent order of fruit trees from Raintree Nursury came packed with bags and bags of shredded newsprint and scrap paper. Rather than recycle the paper, I collected it up and hung it from a couple of bags in the coop. Now there is a ready, easy-to-grab source of “top up” material for the nesting boxes.
I have also used straw, burlap, shredded junk mail (plain paper only) and wood shavings for the boxes. As long as the material is soft, shapeable and offers great padding to the eggs, you can use whatever is cheap and available. I strongly prefer biodegradable nest box material, so I can just toss spoilt material into the deep liter portion of the coop and let it compost. When the nesting box material starts to get that not-so-fresh quality, swap it out or top it up as appropriate. If an egg breaks in there, replace all the nesting box liner material.
3. Collect Eggs Frequently
The more frequently you can collect your eggs, the less chance that one poopy butt or foot is going to dirty a whole clutch of eggs.
I try to collect eggs twice a day – my daughter collects in the morning when she feeds and waters the hens, and I collect later in the afternoon when I need a break from being inside and go out to see how the farmlette is doing.
If any stragglers lay late in the afternoon, we will bring those eggs in at night when we lock the hens in for the night.
To Wash or Not To Wash
Sometimes, no matter how scrupulous your maintenance or diligent your egg collection, you will still collect a poopy egg or six. I’ve read some advice to discard any egg that has poop or dirt on it and, frankly, I think that’s silly. I’m not going to throw away a perfectly good egg that one of my chickens worked hard to make and push through her oviduct just because it’s a little dirty on the outside.
I prefer not to wash my eggs unless they are noticeably dirty because when a hen lays an egg, she coats it with a natural “bloom” to seal the shell from dirt and bacteria. When we wash off this bloom, we reduce the storage life of the egg (store washed eggs only in the refrigerator!) and actually make it more likely that the edible portion of the egg will be compromised with bacteria.
That said, sometimes the “Eww, I can’t store that,” factor wins out. When that’s the case, Step One (for lightly soiled eggs) is to gently buff or scrape off any dried poop with a dry nylon scouring pad or a clean dry dish towel.
Step Two (for more highly soiled eggs) is to actually wash the egg. Again, I consider this something of a last resort. Interestingly, the rules regarding commercial egg production in the United States require washing and sanitizing. In Europe, it’s the opposite: washing is forbidden. According to Forbes,
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) graded eggs would be illegal if sold in the UK, or indeed anywhere in the European Union (EU). It’s all to do with the fact that commercial American eggs are federally required to be washed and sanitized before they reach the consumer. EU egg marketing laws, on the other hand, state that Class A eggs – those found on supermarkets shelves, must not be washed, or cleaned in any way.
“In Europe, the understanding is that this mandate actually encourages good husbandry on farms. It’s in the farmers’ best interests then to produce to cleanest eggs possible, as no one is going to buy their eggs if they’re dirty, ” explained Mark Williams, Chief Executive, British Egg Industry Council in a phone interview.
When I need to wash my backyard eggs, I hold a soiled egg under hot running water – about as hot as I can comfortably stand but not so hot as to start to cook the egg – and rub off any offensive dirty spots with my fingers or a soft clean dish towel.
The use of water hotter than the egg is important so that external bacteria doesn’t get sucked through the pores of the egg and end up contaminating the inside of the egg. For more about that, see this PDF from the University of Nebraska. Although commercial eggs in the US are sanitized with a dilute bleach solution, I opt not to dip my eggs in a bleach bucket. I like to live on the wild side like that.
Do you have trouble with dirty eggs? How do you handle washing and sanitizing eggs?542
I never bother to wash a dirty egg- the dogs get those! Other than that I follow the same principles you outline here and most of the time have lovely clean eggs too.
Mike @ Gentleman Homestead says
You’re spot on when you say discouraging bathroom visits in the nest boxes is key. This includes making sure the chickens have a suitable roost that is higher than the nest boxes. If your nests are at the same level as your roost, and definitely if they’re higher, you’ll probably have birds sleeping there and making a big mess.
We always seem to have hens that want to sleep in the nest boxes so we have dirty eggs fairly often. I rinse all eggs – even if they look clean. I don’t want to get any little bits of feather or straw or even henhouse dust in my food. Never had any spoilage problems or sickness from eating them raw. If they are really dirty I use the corner of a 3m green scrubbie with a drop of soap and rinse well.
John R says
I was told that poop on the eggs were a sign the chickens needed to be wormed. The easiest way to do this is to mix a little diatomaceous earth with their food. I do this at the first sign of dirty eggs and my eggs are pretty much clean, although my nesting boxes are built on the out side of the coop, with an opening on the inside, so I can get to the eggs from the outside, and they are low.
I just cant crack open a dirty egg, with the thoughts of some of the dirt may fall in the pan, so I wash all dirty eggs under a little stream of water and wash with a nylon pad. I didn’t know about the water needing to be hot, but if I am going to store the washed eggs for very long, I wipe them with mineral oil. I’ve heard this acts as a “bloom”.
I mix DE in all my animal feed, everytime.
Sometime I would love to see a schematic of your coop so I can get a clearer picture of where the areas are in relation to each other. I have seen photos from the blog, but for some reason can’t quite put all the pieces together in a coherent plan.
This thread has the best overall photos. The area that is now sand bed is the section that’s painted grey in these photos. Now, there is an extended run attached to the coop too, because total free range of the hens doesn’t work in my yard with my vegetable growing (they eat everything).
I guess I’m just a rule bender, but this is what I do: I run hot soapy water into my bucket full of eggs bucket every morning, wash the eggs that need it with a scrub brush, and set the clean eggs to dry. I do try to keep the nesting boxes very clean. I also store my eggs on the counter (we use them up pretty quickly, within a couple of weeks) and I’ve never had one of my eggs spoil. I try to keep it as simple as possible. Gently sanding a dirty egg seems to time-consuming for me.
Another thing to do is to use sandpaper to sand the eggs if you are sharing them with neighbors, and make sure they know to wash immediately before use. This way they look better and stay naturally unpermeated by water, bacteria, etc.
Thanks for the post Erica. My little girls won’t be laying probably until September (the husband was very disappointed to hear that it would be that long), but I’ve been wondering about washing or not. Thank goodness I have a “building” kind of husband…he’s already mapped out the coop from your posts and my notes….although he thinks we’re going to use “sandy soil” from our yard for the coop sand….might be another battle there. Yes, the soil is very sandy…some free dirt he had dropped in the yard about 8 years ago, but I’m not sure the effect will be the same as real sand. Looking forward to the post about how well your extended chicken yard is working! That wasn’t too subtle, was it?
When we lived in England it was something that took some getting used to – eggs are kept in the cupboard and they’re on the regular shelves in the shops, not in the fridge. At least one egg per box had a bit of poo on it, usually with a jaunty feather attached. It never occurred to me to throw it out! You just cracked it on the non-poop side. I still forget where the eggs are sometimes, now that we’re back in Canada.
I never wash our eggs. If they are dirty so be it. We eat the inside not the shell. I do scrape off the worst of it though. I must say it’s not a big problem for us. I must say I’m surprised that we wash eggs here. Everything I’ve read says don’t do it. No wonder store bought eggs expire so fast.
Thanks for the great post. I have one question about keeping eggs clean. One of our hens has a pretty poopy “backside”, which I’m assuming means there is something off and it’s likely making the eggs dirty. Any idea why that happens and what to do about it. Thanks!
I’ve read that it means your chickens need to be wormed. Whether this is true I can’t say from personal experience. I’ve never had to worm my chickens (yet). Someone posted earlier that he uses DE to naturally worm his chickens. Its a mechanical way of worming. I like that idea compared to using chemicals. Common sense would dictate that the chemical wormer would become gradually less effective over time.
Shelley S says
We use the extra large kitty litter boxes for our nest boxes, and they are really easy to keep clean. The smaller part of the lid becomes the front, preventing eggs and bedding from falling out. We cut a piece of indoor outdoor carpet to fit in what becomes the bottom, and that way if they kick around the bedding, the carpet still protects it. The carpet is easy to pull out and shake off, and is cheap to replace when necessary.
Another great practical post! We have a large chicken coop and run for five hens, built originally as a horse stall, then a greenhouse mist house. The roost is in a separate inner enclosure inside the coop for extra security since we’ve lost bantams and a goose to wildlife in the past. At first they were returning to the back corner of this enclosure to lay because it was the darkest place. I read somewhere about putting the nicest newest straw where you want them to lay and so I got them over to the side of the coop that I wanted to that way, and then a few weeks later I moved the boxes (just plain ole’ cardboard boxes on their sides with a front lip) up on a table in the same corner. I’m so thankful I no longer have to bend over to collect eggs. Once in a blue moon there is a soiled one. If it’s really bad I run it under water in the kitchen (never thought of the water temp being important), and then letting it dry in the carton in the fridge. I definitely go for the no frills, no extra work (sandpaper, mineral oil?) enjoyment of our hens and eggs, including raking out their roost area when it gets really disgusting, or I need the mulch elsewhere in the garden. The whole run gets done at least twice a year. I’m about to fence part of it off so that I can grow some foraging grass or wheat in one section and then rotate that so they don’t have such a huge run of bare ground all the time.
thanx for the advice on the sand before the nest boxes, and the hot water tip. we don’t wash our eggs either unless they are really dirty
Just viewed the link to your coop layout and the sloped roof above the nesting box is brilliant. I’ve got a couple of rebels who like to sleep on top of the nest box dividers despite ample roost bar space and how uncomfortable sleeping on the 1/4″ nest box partition would be! I’ve gone out there multiple times to relocate them to the roost bar but they always end up back where they don’t belong. I will be modifying the coop this weekend!
Diva Goes Organic says
Love this! I’m in the “wash as a last resort” camp as well. Great tips for preventing dirty eggs to begin with!
I only rinse them if they have poop right before I crack them open to use. I give a friend eggs that I wipe any yucky stuff off of. I love my girls and their eggs. Thanks for the info, I adore your blog 🙂
Naomi Williams says
I’m not sure I believe the poop/worms connection. I have three chickens, and only one of them has a poop-sticking problem. Seems to me that if one of my chickens had worms, they’d all have them.
I keep a rough piece of carpet hanging outside the coop; I rub the poopy eggs on that to get the yuck off.
Thank you for all these ideas. I wondered why sometimes our eggs are covered with poop while at other times they are beautifully clean. I think the hens are stepping in piles of poop on their way to the nesting box. I never thought to put sand in the nesting house. I can’t wait to try that. Also, I believe I’ll put some DE in their food today. I bought the DE to sprinkle and keep ants out of the nest boxes, but didn’t know it could treat the hens for worms, and I do have 1 hen with a poopy behind. Thanks again!
I Wilkerson says
Our “storage” eggs–which we get at the end of the season from the CSA to store into the winter are not washed with the idea that they will store better. We keep them in the “basement fridge” and I bring them upstairs a dozen at a time. Those get washed in hot soapy water all at once–they won’t last the week anyway, so keeping isn’t an issue. This eliminates any “ick” factor from the kids. But someday I will have some hens of my own and I will work on keeping their quarters clean! Great topic!
Thank you for the informative post. We have 2 hens. Eggs collected are refrigerated as they come out of the nesting box, bloom unscathed. I wash the eggs immediately before use, whether I see poop or not. I guess I don’t need to be concerned about washing them unless visibly dirty. I didn’t know about the unwashed eggs in Europe, even though my mother was English. Once again their reasoning makes total sense.
Hi Erica! Now that you have ducks too, do you come across the staining issue that many folks report with duck eggs? Since they don’t roost on bars, they are more likely to sleep in their nesting boxes. Mine try to avoid popping in theirs, but they track lots of mud in the coop and like to bury the eggs down into the nesting material, which facilitates staining the eggs (even if I collect them right away). Any thoughts?
The link provided for the .pdf from the University of Nebraska is broken. The only thing that comes up is the 404 error page.
I have just begun to use pastured eggs. I have used raw brown eggs in my smoothies for over 10 years without any ill consequences. BUT – THEY HAVE BEEN GROCERY STORE EGGS.
So I’m trying to determine if I’m taking a major health risk to use raw eggs in my smoothies from a dirty shell. I also make one minute mug cakes frequently. If the cakes – and therefore the egg – is only cooking in a microwave for one minute, is this risky business?
I’m a newbie to all this…can you help a sistah out?! Lol
Janet Downing says
I raised chickens for 14+ years and yes, occasionally, there will be a bit of poop (I said “a bit”) on an egg. Here is the best way I found to avoid it…check the nest boxes and keep them clean! (I think Erica addressed this).
Everyday when I it was time to let the girls out I would feed, water, and lift out any little “poops” in the boxes and drop them to the floor. No big deal. And if there was soiling on an egg or two, I let it dry and then gently scrubbed it off with a dry waffle-weave dish cloth. Voila!
To recap: If there are too many dirty eggs in your life, here is the solution: Don’t be lazy…the girls are counting on you…KEEP IT CLEAN!
P.S. If they are sleeping in the nest boxes check the roost. It may be too big, too rough or too close to the floor. And check their feet for sore spots. Usually the roost is preferred for sleeping.