As a small farmer, whether you're raising laying hens for your own family or selling them at a farmers market, you want to be sure the eggs are fresh, clean, and safe. Proper collection and cleaning of chicken eggs is important for the health of the eggs as well as the hens.
Collecting Chicken Eggs
Before you worry about cleaning your eggs, you first have to gather them. And there are some things you can do to make sure that the eggs you gather are as clean as possible, minimizing the amount of cleaning that's required later.
As a general practice, try to gather eggs early and often. If you can manage it, collecting eggs twice a day can help keep them really clean. It also helps prevent the chickens from eating the eggs. Allowing eggs to sit overnight in nest boxes often results in poopy or broken eggs. Some of my hens seem to prefer to roost on the edges of the nest boxes, or even in them! (Bad hens!) Overnight, they poop on the eggs that are left in the boxes, or they step on them and break the shells. In any case, missing a day of egg collecting usually makes for a lot more work.
Another tip is to keep nest boxes well-feathered. Make sure the hens' nest boxes have plenty of shavings or straw lining them. If there's poop in the nest boxes, clean it out well when you collect the eggs and replace the straw or shavings. Likewise, if a hen has broken an egg, clean out the mess thoroughly, removing all wet and soiled straw. Careful maintenance is one of the best ways to encourage hens to lay in the nest boxes.
Cleaning Chicken Eggs
Learning how to clean eggs properly is key to keeping your family—and your customers, if you're selling eggs—from getting sick. There are two basic methods of cleaning chicken eggs: dry cleaning and wet cleaning. Dry cleaning is preferred over wet cleaning because it leaves the eggs' natural antibacterial protective layer, called bloom, intact and allows you to store the eggs unrefrigerated if desired. Dry cleaning involves wiping the egg with an abrasive sponge, loofah, or even fine sandpaper to remove all dirt and feces from the shell.
If eggs are very dirty or have yolk stuck to the shells, wet cleaning may be necessary. Wash eggs under warm running water from a tap. The water must be warmer than the egg temperature but not hot. Dry each egg with a paper towel, and place it in a clean, open carton or wire rack. Sanitize the washed eggs by spraying them with a solution of bleach diluted with water.
Tips for Storing Eggs
Once your eggs are clean and dry, package them in egg cartons and label the cartons with the date the eggs were collected. Generally, it's best to store eggs in the refrigerator. Wet-cleaned eggs must be refrigerated, while dry-cleaned eggs (with the bloom intact) can be refrigerated or stored at room temperature, but all eggs typically last longer when refrigerated.
Eggs are good for one month after the date of collection when stored in the fridge. (I actually find they're good for a few weeks after this, but I'd never sell them or even give them away. Instead, I bake with them or hard-boil them.) Dry-cleaned eggs can keep at room temperature for several weeks and should be washed immediately before they are cooked.
To test the freshness of stored eggs, use the float test: Place the eggs in a bowl full of water. If an egg floats, it has too big an air pocket inside the shell; the contents have evaporated too much, and the egg has likely spoiled. Compost it. You can also use a strong light to see how much airspace is inside an egg; this is called candling.