The Problem: Broken Eggs:
When chatting up the benefits of keeping chickens, few mention the battle to keep clean, soft nesting material in a nesting box with hens that are constantly “rearranging” their nest. If you’ve kept chickens for long, chances are you’ve found yourself cleaning raw egg out of a nesting box more than once.
Rearranging their nest is a normal part of chicken nesting behavior, but it often means clearing a once softly-bedded nesting box to a hard piece of wood covered only by a few sparse pieces of straw. Once the bottom of the nest is exposed it’s easy for a hen to accidentally break eggs.
The Solution: A Modern Replacement for Nesting Material
After cleaning up many broken eggs, I decided to experiment with materials to create a a soft nest base that would be easy to clean and impossible to move. I wondered if it could work to line the nesting boxes in thick astroturf.
Thin mini-golf type putting-green turf might work for providing a base underneath a straw nest, but I was curious about experimenting with astroturf as the only nesting material provided, so I purchased a few square feet of thick synthetic turf. The turf I used for my coop is about 1.5″ deep, very dense, and soft to the touch. Buy it buy the square foot here. Thin outdoor carpet style turf that putting greens use is easier to find, but I didn’t think it would cushion enough or simulate natural bedding.
When I initially introduced the new synthetic bedding the hens briefly revolted, however placing wooden eggs in the center of each newly bedded nest and blocking off the alternate area they were nesting in during their protest resulted in total success.
When I first penned this article, I’d been using the mats as nest liner for 8 weeks and was immediately pleased with the result. We were able to clean them easily by removing the mats and smacking them against the side of the coop like a rug. This removes the vast majority of debris. The soft mats have completely ended egg-loss due to eggs hitting hard boards under scattered straw bedding, I expect cleaning up tougher messes will involve just a brief soak in a bucket and hosing off.
Here’s How I Made my Easy Clean Nesting Boxes:
I hoped the thick pile would feel enough like natural grass that the chickens would adapt to it without needing additional nesting material:
First, I totally cleaned out my nesting boxes. Then I added a few strips of silicone calking to the bottom of my new mats to add a non-slip grip to help keep the turf mats from slipping. I allowed the caulking to completely dry before adding the turf to the nesting boxes, since I did not want to glue the mats down, only provide traction.
Once the silicone was dry, I added the turf mats:
…And added a few wooden eggs for motivation. Here’s an interior view of my reach-through nesting boxes. (My DIY nesting boxes are made from old shipping crates. We just turned the crates on their side, removed the bottom of the crate and then cut a hole in the wall behind them.)
Initially, my hens wanted to lay on top of the boxes, so the portion above the nesting boxes is filled tightly with crumpled chicken wire salvaged from another project:
Once I blocked off the alternate area above the nesting boxes success was immediate! Almost immediately my hens began happily laying eggs in their astro-turf lined nesting boxes.
Aside from being easy to clean, I really like that this nesting medium makes it very easy to spot any droppings in the nest. Dirt and droppings tended to blend into a straw nest and often end up transferring to the eggshells. With the astro turf nest I can see right away when I need to pull a mat and shake it off, and my eggs are cleaner than ever.
Update August 2015 & How to Deep-Clean:
I still LOVE these liners! My hens have fully adapted to laying eggs on the astro-turf and I even had two chickens happily go broody on the artificial grass lined nests last summer.
With two broody hens in attack mode and several weeks of temperatures in the 100’s, I was not good about collecting eggs regularly in August. As a result, my nests and liners ended up really dirty, with broken shells and rotten egg dried to the mat.
Although a gross cleanup job, it was a good opportunity to put these mats to the test. Result: I was thrilled with how easily they cleaned up! Cleaning was simple and this method worked well:
1. I pulled mats out of nesting boxes and slapped against the side of the coop to dislodge loose debris.
2. I then placed mats in big bucket, splashed a generous portion of white vinegar on top (about 3 cups to my 10-gallon tub trug)
3. I left the mats to sit in vinegar water for about 30 minutes.
4. After 30 minutes, I dumped the now-dirty vinegar water, then refilled the bucket with clean water, sloshed mats around, and dumped. I repeated this rinse 3-4 times until water ran clear. The artificial grass was like a sponge to clean, so once the dried egg was soaked and soft, they cleaned up easily.
(For faster cleaning, you could also take the mats to a carwash and use the floor mat clips to hold while pressure washing the mats)
5. I think the mats could have gone back in the coop the same afternoon, but I left them on the coop’s roof to dry overnight and placed the artificial grass mats back in the nesting box the next morning.
Want more? Check out a tour of my renovated 100 year old chicken coop