Keeping Eggs Fresh

Chicken EggsObviously, the freshest eggs are the ones that come straight from your chickens without being stored at all. But often, you do need to store eggs for a few days, or even a few weeks. So, what’s the best way to store them so that they’ll stay fresh the longest? Should they be put in the refrigerator or left out on the counter?

First, let’s look at refrigeration. In America, any eggs you buy at the supermarket will already have been refrigerated. The reason for this is that these eggs have already been washed in order to meet U.S. health requirements, and washing eggs removes the protective outer coating known as “bloom” or “cuticle” from the egg shell. Egg shells are porous, which allows them to “breathe,” and bloom is a waxy substance that covers the egg shell to seal out contaminants.

When you gather eggs from your own chickens you can choose to leave them out at room temperature or refrigerate them. If you plan to store them for a long time, it’s better to refrigerate them, because they’ll stay fresh longer that way. But if you plan to eat the eggs soon, within a week or so, you can refrigerate them or store them out on the counter, as long as you haven’t washed them yet. Once you’ve washed them, you should either go ahead and use them or store them in the refrigerator. (We’ll go into more detail in a separate article about how to wash eggs.)

When refrigerating eggs you should aim for a temperature between about 36 degrees (F) and 40 degrees (F). Much colder than that, and the eggs and other food in your refrigerator are liable to freeze. Much warmer than that, and they’ll spoil faster.

Since eggs can absorb strong odors from other foods in the refrigerator (like onions) it’s best to keep eggs in an egg carton rather than store them in the open-topped egg tray that came with or was built into your refrigerator. It’s also best to store them on one of the shelves, where they’ll stay at a more constant temperature than if you were to store them in the refrigerator door. Eggs have an air cell at the large end, so store eggs in the carton with the large end up.

If you’d like to learn more about long term storage of eggs — what works and what doesn’t — read the following informative article from Mother Earth News: How to Store Fresh Eggs. It goes into a number of different “old time” methods for preserving eggs. Having experimented with a large number of eggs to test the effectiveness of these methods, they concluded, among other things, that:

The very best way we’ve found to stash eggs away for long-term storage is in a sealed container at a temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Their whites may become somewhat runny over a period of time, but even after seven months [the eggs] … stored in this manner smell good, taste good, have a good texture, and — in short — seem “almost fresh”.

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How to Tell if an Egg is Fresh

Photo by Swen Bos

Photo by Swen Bos

When your chickens are laying well, sometimes you can start to get more eggs than you’re able to use. When you go to use the eggs in your recipes, it’s good to be able to tell which ones are getting old and which ones are still fresh.

Although it’s not obvious to the eye, eggshells are porous. Each egg has thousands of tiny pores in its shell. This allows the egg to “breathe,” letting out carbon dioxide and moisture and taking in air. When you consider that the role of an eggshell to protect and help provide a nurturing environment for a developing baby chick, then it’s easy to understand why eggshells are porous: a developing chick needs to be able to breathe.

When you get eggs from your chickens or from the grocery store for eating, ideally, you will store the eggs in such a way as to keep them fresh. A fresh egg that has just been laid has either a very small air cell or none at all. But as it first cools and then ages, an air cell will form and increase in size. The size of the air cell gives a good indication as to the age and freshness of the egg. A smaller air cell indicates a younger, fresher egg.

This makes it easy for you to test how fresh an egg is. Take a chicken egg and place it into a bowl of slightly warm water. If the egg is very fresh, it will sink and lie on its side at the bottom of the bowl.

An egg that sinks but doesn’t lie flat on the bottom isn’t as fresh, but it will still be okay to eat. Actually, eggs at this stage are ideal for cooking as hard boiled eggs (but not ideal for use as poached eggs). It’s hard to cleanly peel off the shell on a very fresh egg that’s been hard boiled, but if you let your eggs age a little, then hard boil them, they will be much easier to peel.

If the egg floats in the bowl of water, discard it. It’s unlikely that it will float on top of the water, but even if it just floats up toward the top of the bowl, it’s not very fresh, and you shouldn’t use it.

As a second test and a safeguard against ruining your recipe, if you’re getting ready to make something that calls for eggs and you come across an egg that’s questionable, crack it into a small, separate container, then look at it and smell it. If it smells rotten, discard it. If it smells okay, and if the yolk is holding together and the whites aren’t too runny, it should be fine to use. Egg whites that are cloudy are not at all a cause for concern — on the contrary, they indicate that the egg is very fresh. The egg whites become more clear as the egg ages.

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An Interview with Joe Claborn, Part 3

Joe ClabornBackground: Joe Claborn has worked with McMurray Hatchery for many years and currently raises started chicks and started pullets for McMurray. Joe is also involved with a project that Bud Wood, president of McMurray Hatchery, initiated to start backup flocks for many of McMurray’s rare breeds during the current Avian Flu outbreak.

This is part 3 of a three-part interview (see part 1 and part 2 of the interview).

Q: What prompted you to start raising birds on this scale?

McMurray's sebsite circa 1997

McMurray’s one-page website in 1997
(from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine)

Joe Claborn: Part of it is that I’ve had a long and very fruitful relationship with McMurray Hatchery. Years ago, when we first started to look into raising chickens, my dad and my sons had built a coop in our little backyard, and we looked online to try to find a place to buy chickens. At the time, McMurray Hatchery had a little one page website.

I was working for a small internet company at the time and I said to my manager, “We should build them a new website. If you can sell chicks online you can sell anything.” So we did. We built them their first e-commerce website, and I’ve been working with them ever since.

Filling watererBut eventually, I got to the place to where I wanted to do more than work at a computer all day. I really wanted to be able to do something where I could express care — not only care for the chickens, but also care for the people that would receive the chickens. And I wanted to do something that involved more of my family so that I could express more care into their lives, and transfer my passion for care into them, teaching them to care.

I was talking to Bud Wood, the owner of Murray McMurray Hatchery, and found out that there was an opportunity to raise three breeds of started pullets, and I said, “We’ll do that.” So we learned — we cut our teeth on that. Then people began to want younger birds, and they wanted smaller orders. During much of the year, to ship day-old birds, you need at least 25 birds in a box to keep them warm enough during shipping (there are times in summer you can ship 15). But many people that want chickens live in the city, and they only want to order 5 birds. The U.S. Postal service will ship day old baby chicks, and they will also ship birds that are 4 weeks old or older.

By the time the birds are 4 weeks old in most parts of the country you don’t need any auxiliary heat to ship them during the warmer months of April through July. In the far North, in the earlier part of the year, you’d probably still need a heating pad for a while. So we just kind of started with these three breeds (White Leghorns, Red Stars and Black Stars) and then we just saw a need and started moving to meet that need, and the business has just kind of grown.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about doing this?

Well, it’s very satisfying when the day after you ship, you get a text message from someone that says “We just picked up our birds. They look great. We love them. We’ve already picked out names.” That gives you a good feeling.

While we’re shipping each week, my wife makes a big breakfast. When we’re done shipping, we all come sit down and eat together. That’s a feeling that’s very hard to beat.

And when you spend the morning cleaning out brooders, that’s not the most pleasant task, but then when you look back afterwards, and everything’s clean and well cared for — that, too, is a feeling that’s pretty hard to beat.

Q: What was one of the most unexpected things you’ve learned while raising chickens?

{Laughs}. I think one of the most unexpected things I’ve learned is that taking care of birds is a lot different than computer programming. Working with computers, if you make a mistake, you can just press Control-Z (Undo) and try again. It’s easy to get into a rut of just trying something, testing it, and if it doesn’t work, just press Control-Z and try something else. There’s not really any long-term consequences to your mistakes. There’s no real consequences to a trial and error approach. You’re just thinking about problems, testing theories and trying things out until you come up with something that works. Because there are no real consequences to your failures, you don’t really learn or grow.

But when you’re taking care of birds, and you think to yourself “Oh, I checked them four hours ago — they don’t really need to be checked again before I go to bed,” and then you get up the next morning and find out that a skunk got into them because you didn’t check to make sure everything was locked up tight, you realize right away that there are consequences to my failure. Any time when I fail to care, it has consequences.

For me, coming from a technical background, being faced with the fact that there are consequences to not caring, and that these consequences come home to roost pretty quickly, that’s been really good for me. I feel that has affected all areas of my life as I’ve learned how to care more, and to care more consistently. It gets me up and moving in the morning, and it keeps me moving until bedtime, because if you don’t care, then problems are going to happen.

That, for me, has been an unexpected lesson, an unexpected change in my perspective in life.

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An Interview with Joe Claborn, Part 2

JoeClabornBackground: Joe Claborn has worked with McMurray Hatchery for many years and currently raises started chicks and started pullets for McMurray. Joe is also involved with a project that Bud Wood, president of McMurray Hatchery, initiated to start backup flocks for many of McMurray’s rare breeds during the current Avian Flu outbreak.

This is part 2 of a three-part interview (see part 1 of the interview). We plan to publish part 3 of the interview in the next few weeks.

Q: In addition to caring for the chicks that Bud brought down from Iowa, I know that you also raise and supply started chicks for Murray McMurray Hatchery. Can you tell me more about that?

We raise both started chicks (available for purchase at 4 to 9 weeks of age) and several breeds of started pullets (available for purchase at approximately 15-22 weeks of age) for Murray McMurray Hatchery.

We start by getting an order of chicks from McMurray Hatchery once a month. We normally get somewhere between a thousand and fourteen hundred chicks at a time.

new chicks from McMurray Hatchery

New day old baby chicks received from Murray McMurray Hatchery

When we get the chicks, of course, we do the same things that an owner at home would do. We water each chick and feed them. We always give them some boiled eggs to start with because that’s a very good feed, and it’s what they’re used to. An egg is the last thing the chicks ate before they were shipped, so we start them off with another egg to eat. When the weather is cool, we use warm water in their waterers so the chicks won’t lose body temperature when they first drink. We also use a nutrient supplement in their water to help them get off to a good start.

introducing chickens into the brooders

Before turning chicks loose in the brooders, we dip their beaks one by one to teach them where to find water

After we set them up in our brooders, we watch them and take care of them. In four weeks we begin to ship them to customers. We ship them at four weeks, five weeks, six weeks and seven weeks of age. Normally we’ve sold out (or nearly so) by seven weeks, so we’ll do our brown egg layer special on the last week to sell any chicks that remain. Then on the eighth week we’ll have another batch of 1,000 to 1,400 chicks come in and we’ll start all over.

Of the chicks that we brood, we raise three breeds to adulthood: the Red Star, the Black Star and the Pearl White Leghorn. We buy extra of those to make sure we will have enough, since we also sell these same varieties at four, five, six and seven weeks of age. When they get old enough to take out of the brooders, we move them out into our field. There we keep them in ten foot by twenty foot hoop houses. We move these portable coops each week so that the chickens will get fresh grass and soil. We feed and water them and care for them just like somebody would at home — we just have a few more to take care of.

Hoop coops for raising started pullets

Hoop coops for raising started pullets

Q: How many different breeds do you raise?

Different times during the year, we carry about twenty-seven different breeds.

We don’t carry all of the breeds all the time, but there are a handful of breeds that have the most demand for, so we carry those nearly all of the time. We nearly always have Ameraucanas, Barred Rocks, Pearl White Leghorns, Black Australorps, Cuckoo Marans, Rhode Island Reds, Red Stars, Black Stars, Buff Orpingtons and Silver-Laced Wyandottes. Most of the time we also have Golden-Laced Wyandottes, and we usually have several varieties of Polish.

Four week old Ameraucana

Four week old Ameraucana

Q: How long have you been raising chickens for McMurray?

We’ve been doing it about three years now. And we’ve been raising birds for nearly twenty years, but not nearly as many birds as we’re raising and shipping now.

When we first started, we’d consider ten orders to be a huge week. It was challenging for us. The shipping boxes we were using at the time were one difficulty, so it was a big improvement when we worked with McMurray to design a shipping box that would be better for the birds and easier to work with. The box we came up with has more ventilation for better air flow. It has dividers so the birds can’t peck each other. And it has more room.

It’s also very easy to work with. We can pre-attach the lid halfway onto the box so that as soon as we put the bird in we can close the lid, and unless the bird is very vigorous and really wants to get out, there’s enough friction to keep it from opening. Then after we’ve put the bird in the box, one staple and the box is sealed. Since then, we’ve also developed a smaller box for shipping the four-week-olds.

Nowadays on a big shipping day we ship 100 to 140 orders. It’s nothing like what a large hatchery would ship, but for a small family operation, I feel like we’re doing pretty good.

Q: Can you tell me a little more about your shipping process?

Well, today we shipped out forty-nine orders, which was almost 300 birds. In our cycle of raising chicks, this was our second shipping week, so these birds were five weeks old. We also shipped about 120 started pullets (of the three breeds I mentioned previously). We ship on Tuesdays, and we start preparing the shipping boxes the Friday before to save time on the day of shipping.

Monday night, a group of us — my nephew’s working here now, as are my sons, daughter and daughter-in-law — will look at each order and figure out, based on how many birds are in the order and their ages, how many boxes we’ll need. We put bedding in the boxes and attach the invoice and a bar code that later tells us which order each box is for. By the end of the evening, we have a mountain of boxes that are all ready to go.

Shipping boxes

Boxes that have been prepared prior to shipping

The day we ship, we’ll get an early start. Today, I went out to my office at 5AM to begin downloading the shipping information from McMurray into our shipping software. Around 6AM, one of my sons starts cutting cucumbers and cantaloupe to put into the shipping boxes to give the birds the hydration that they’ll need.

Next, I start selecting the birds that we’re going to ship and transferring them from the brooders into small cages that we’ve made, so we can easily transport them to our shipping room.

Started chicks

Started chicks that will be soon be loaded into shipping boxes

Once we’ve gathered all of the young birds, we go out into the field and select the started pullets. By this time, it’s about 7AM, and the temperature’s about 80 degrees (F), so once we get the pullets back to the shipping room, we turn on a fan to keep them cool.

We work together to fill each order. We put strapping on the boxes to secure them. We weigh the boxes and print and attach shipping labels. My daughter-in-law inspects each order to make sure it meets our quality standards.

Filling orders

Filling the orders

Once we’ve packaged all the orders, we load our van and drive the birds two hours north to the postal service distribution center in Coppell, just past the Dallas-Fort-Worth airport.

We load the boxes of chicks in our air-conditioned van and drive them to the postal center by the airport.

We load the boxes of chicks in our air-conditioned van and drive them to the postal center by the airport.

We drop them off inside the distribution center there because if we just took them to the local postal center, they’d sit on a hot loading dock waiting to be loaded onto the truck, get transported in a truck without air-conditioning and then sit on another hot loading dock in Coppell. By transporting them ourselves in our air-conditioned van, I figure that we save the birds from five hours of unnecessary heat stress.

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Moving Chickens to Texas

chickens-in-truckAs Avian Influenza (AI) has continued to spread in the United States and Iowa, in particular, we began making arrangements in May of this year for how we could start some backup flocks.

Although the strains of AI found in the U.S. have not affected or posed any direct risks to humans, AI has caused the loss of millions of birds — both chickens and turkeys — since December 2014. Many of the breeds that we raise are somewhat rare, and if we were to lose a breeding flock of one of those rare breeds, it would take a long time to find good breeding stock again and then build our flocks back up to the size needed to maintain the breed’s genetics and to provide adequate numbers of chicks for our customers.

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An Interview with Joe Claborn, Part 1

JoeClabornBackground: Joe Claborn has worked with McMurray Hatchery for many years and currently raises started chicks and started pullets for McMurray. Joe is also involved with a project that Bud Wood, president of McMurray Hatchery, initiated to start backup flocks for many of McMurray’s rare breeds during the current Avian Flu outbreak.

This is part 1 of a three-part interview. We plan to publish part 2 and 3 of the interview in the next few weeks.

Interviewer: What kind of preparations did you make to receive the chicks that Bud brought down from Iowa?

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My hen is broody. Now what?

Hen with chicks

Photo by Jean Kirkhope

It’s normal for hens to go broody. Some breeds — such as Buff Orpingtons, Cochins, or Silkies, and many breeds of bantams — are more prone to go broody than others, but even production breeds can, on occasion, go broody.  Black Stars are a production breed that rarely goes broody, but this spring, one of the Black Stars in my home flock went broody, and she already appears to be going broody a second time.

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Why Do Chickens Eat Their Own Eggs?

Chicken eggs

Photo by Steve Taysom

Sometimes you may be getting fewer eggs than you expect, even when your hens are laying well. This can happen if they develop the bad habit of eating their own eggs.

Egg eating can start by accident, sort of. Maybe a hen stepped on an egg and punctured the shell. Or maybe once when you were gathering eggs, an egg slipped from your hand, fell to the floor of the coop and broke.

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Why Do You Raise Chickens?

Why do you raise chickens?

Most of us reading this article have probably already made the decision to raise chickens and have raised them for at least a few years, but occasionally, questions like this come up, perhaps in the form:

Raise chickens? Why would I ever want to do that?

to which my immediate response, verbalized or not might be: “Well, why not?”

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Don’t Let Your Chickens Run Out of Water

Photo by Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden

Your chickens need to always have access to plenty of clean, fresh drinking water.  This is especially important in hot weather when their need for water increases significantly.

Problems Caused by Lack of Water

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