Sunday, December 28, 2008

What's an egg worth?

We had a great day at Churchill Island Farmers' Market on Saturday - selling out by 11.30. The highlight for me was when I had sold the last of our Megga Eggs (eggs over 80 grams and which usually have a total carton weight of more than 1 kg).
I had just sold the last one when a customer said "I'll have the same please" She wasn't happy when I told her that the last Meggas had just been sold and her immediate response was to turn to the young lady who had just bought them to say 'I'll give you $10 for them'.
Perhaps I'm selling the eggs too cheaply at $8?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Free Range Egg Forum

Dr Peter Scott made a great presentation at a free range egg industry forum in Brisbane last month. Details are on the Australian Egg Corporation website http://www.aecl.com.au/
He outlined some of the basic differences in husbandry between cage egg production and free range.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

New pullets doubled production


Our new flock of pullets doubled their production today - two eggs!!! They should be in full swing over the next two or three weeks, ready for the big Christmas holiday rush.
We are hoping that throughout January we will be able to hold production at around 600 dozen a week to meet demand.
But it will largely depend on the weather because if it gets too hot, production will fall.
It was interesting that last night one of the sheds for the new girls was completely empty. All 300 birds were crowded into and under one shed while an identical one within two or three metres was shunned. Hard to understand because they spend time in it during the day.
Don't think I'll ever understand chooks!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

What is free range?

Buyers of free range eggs are often confused by reports in the press about what a free range egg really is.
From consumer research carried out at Farmers' Markets, a definition that most buyers seem to accept is: 'Free-range chickens are able to spend most of their time outdoors. They should not be de-beaked. The hens should not be confined to small areas. True free-range flocks are generally fed and watered outside'.
This encourages the birds to spend most of their time outdoors and keeps the laying sheds cleaner and drier. If fences confine the birds to small areas, the farm shouldn't be described as free-range, and neither should those where feed and water is only provided in sheds to keep the birds inside.
The egg industry view is that the term 'free range' applies to any poultry with access to an outdoor area, no matter how few birds actually go outside and how uninviting their outdoor yard is.
What's the problem with a yard egg system?
It comes down to the amount of manure the land can handle, and the geometry of chicken yards. An acre of grass can handle about four tonnes of chicken manure per year. That's the output of up to 100 chickens. So, unless you want to kill off the grass and pollute the area with runoff, the limit is around 100 outdoor chickens per acre – unless you remove the manure.
What's worse is that the droppings are never evenly distributed across the yard. The manure is concentrated near the chicken house. This kills off all plant life near the chicken shed (if its a fixed shed) even if the chickens don't destroy the grass sod by scratching.
100 hens per acre equates to about 400 square feet per hen. Hens also don't like to travel long distances. They'll go 100 - 200 metres from the hen houses in good weather, if properly encouraged by outdoor feeders, waterers, vegetation and shade.

How the Europeans manage 400 hens per acre in their 'free-range' flocks.

EU regulations allow 400 hens per acre but require that the yards remain green. If that many hens actually went outdoors, the grass would be destroyed in no time. The manure load of 400 outdoor hens is unsustainable on one acre, killing the grass, producing high nutrient runoff levels, and a muddy yard unless the nutrients are removed from the ground. But as the hens spend most of their time indoors, the grass can remain green. It's similar in Australia where the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Domestic Poultry sets out a maximum stocking density of 1500 birds per hectare. The Code doesn't limit flock sizes, so large farms have been established with sheds containing tens of thousands of birds – and they can be classified as 'free-range' as long as they have 'access' to an outdoor run.
Chickens eat and drink many times during a day, so their movements can be managed by careful placement of feeders and waterers. The basic scam in Australia (and in Europe) involves putting the feeders and waterers as far from the outside doors as possible, installing only a few small doors. A few hens will wander around outside, providing window dressing for gullible observers, but most hens stay indoors.
The reality is that most 'free-range' hens are really confined in barns surrounded by nice lawns. To produce the coloured yolks associated with free-range flocks, many producers add special colouring ingredients to the feed. Some of these additives are claimed to be 'natural' but nearly all are produced in laboratories by men in white coats. If the hens eat grass, other green vegetation and a corn-based ration, the yolks will be a vibrant golden colour. But yolk colour in eggs from real free range farms will vary depending on the time year and the availability of green feed. If yolk colour never varies, you can be sure that colouring additives are being fed to the hens. Another indicator that shows that the flocks aren't free range at all is if the hens are de-beaked. With true free-range flocks, feather-picking and cannibalism are rare. Those behavioral problems are caused by intensive farming, confinement, poor flock management or choice of birds. Which is why the majority of Australia's 'free-range' commercial flocks are beak-trimmed as a matter of course.
It's disappointing that the RSPCA encourages the de-beaking of birds by accepting royalty payments for the barn laid and 'free range' eggs which it accredits.
Some of the big producers even claim, after doing everything to discourage the hens from ever venturing outside, that 'chickens don't like to go outdoors.' Everyone who has ever had a small flock knows that chickens will spend most of their time outdoors if the weather isn't too bad and feed and water are provided outside.
The regulations have been written for major operators who want to transfer large-scale factory farming techniques to a version of 'free range' farming which maximises profits by allowing the businesses to charge a premium for eggs which should be classified as 'cage-free' rather than 'free range'.
So how do you do it right?
Traditional free-range egg production is just part of a diversified farm. It enables a farm to make full use of the nutrients from the chicken manure. And it adds to the sustainability of the farming operation.
Many free range farms use portable hen houses, either on wheels or on skids. They can be moved around with a tractor to prevent the ground around the houses becoming muddy. This is the traditional approach. There is a trend towards using mobile electric poultry netting combined with frequent shed moves probably every 1-3 days. Moving the sheds is labour intensive but it helps to maintain pasture growth. With low stocking density, even if the houses are left in place for several weeks at a time, a scattering of bare rectangles every now and then on the pasture is not significant. The grass will regrow over the season. By feeding the hens outdoors and moving the feeders regularly, it's possible to get most of the effect of moving the houses, but with less effort.
It's clearly much more labour-intensive than the pretend 'free-range' techniques most big operators use, so it's not worth doing unless prices are substantially higher than for eggs produced by other methods – which is why the big producers don't want a legal definition of 'free range' to prohibit de-beaking and limit flock sizes.
It's often possible to get away with infrequent house moves as the manure under a chicken house becomes drier and less obnoxious the longer the house sits in one place. For the first few days a house is in a new spot, the manure can be wet and smelly. If the house has been in one place for a month, the manure is quite dry and there is no smell. Moving the houses too frequently seems to maximize the wetness and smell. Some operators have trays under the sheds to catch the manure and allow it to be spread where it is required rather than simply dropping through to the ground under the chicken house.
On clay soil, the mud problem makes it important to keep a solid turf at all times. Permanent pasture is the simplest way of achieving this, though a crop rotation with grasses or clover as one phase will also work. On sandy or gravely soils, cultivating the soil does not lead to an instant mud problem, so keeping the chickens among growing crops is a viable alternative.
Chickens love shade. It keeps them cool, out of the wind, and protects them from eagles, hawks and owls. Plantings of things like Kangaroo Apples, corn, kale, and sunflowers are suitable in the range areas, and native grasses can help to boost protein levels (as well as being drought tolerant to maintain green feed for most of the year). Adding plants like purslane in the pasture can boost Omega 3 levels in the eggs.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Visitors from Papua New Guinea

Last Saturday we hosted a group of environmental lawyers from Papua New Guinea as well as a forest campaigner from Friends of the Earth, Melbourne and a staff member of Australian Conservation Foundation.
I had been at the Cardinia Ranges Farmers' Market selling eggs (to pay a few bills) and I rushed home to the farm to have a chat before they left to look at a forestry plantation being established alongside Candowie Reservoir (the regional water source), the site of the water desalination project near Wonthaggi and Phillip Island.
I found it hard to imagine why they wanted to look at Phillip Island as it hasn't lived up to its tag as 'the natural attraction' for a generation. But they wanted to see how planning laws can stuff a place up. Good start!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Eggs laid to order!

The demand for 'real' free range eggs produced on farms where the hens are free to roam on pasture all day, are kept in small flocks and are not de-beaked is not showing any signs of slowing down.
Some consumers recognise that the big players who claim their eggs are 'free range' are simply taking advantage of a brand image which has little to do with their production methods.
Small scale research among buyers of free range eggs at Farmers' Markets has shown a 100% response to two key questions - the hens must not be de-beaked and they must be allowed to graze on pasture for most of every day.
But to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for 'free range' eggs, the big producers cut corners and have been doing a very successful job.
It's not possible for a small farm like ours, producing only 450 dozen eggs each week to meet the requirements of a supermarket chain, or a major restaurant group.
All our eggs are virtually laid to order and delivered to regular customers within our region. We've had a food miles policy in place for some years which limits our deliveries to within one hour of the farm.
Unfortunately this means that the big operators with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of hens have an opportunity to market their eggs as 'free range' because genuine producers are unable to meet the demands of a mass market.
If consumers are happy buying eggs laid by hens who are de-beaked and kept in huge barns with automatic egg collection systems - that's fine. But they shouldn't be duped into paying more for the eggs because they think the hens are running around grassy paddocks all day!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

New flock settled in

Our new flock of 200 Isa Browns have settled in well. So far today they have laid 36 eggs so they will soon be up to a box a day (180 eggs).
That will certainly help to keep customers happy as the ratio of production to demand is a bit out of kilter at present.
Demand keeps going up - but of course each hen only lays one egg a day so we have to keep saying 'no' to new customers. It's still a battle keeping some of the existing customers supplied with all the eggs they want during a busy period like this weekend.
The Melbourne Cup is run on Tuesday and the numbers of terrorists (sorry tourists) staying on Phillip Island and surrounding areas has lifted orders from restaurants and retail outlets.
For the last two or three days eggs have been going off the farm as soon as they have been laid and packaged - they haven't even made it to the coolroom!
The next flock of 200 birds arrives in three weeks to help us get ready for the Christmas rush.

Monday, September 29, 2008

New chooks arriving in a couple of weeks


We are preparing for the arrival of a new flock of Isa Brown hens in the middle of October. I completed some repair work on one of the mobile sheds yesterday and I'll be fitting some new skids to another shed today.

This flock will be 200 birds and we have another 200 arriving in November. We don't normally get flocks that close together but we need to ensure we have maxium production for the Christmas holiday period.

Our normal level of production is around 400 dozen eggs a week but during peak holiday periods down here demand soars to over 1000 dozen. Everyone wants more eggs - the shops. restaurants, home delivery customers and shoppers at the Farmers' Markets.

Trying to keep that balance right between production and demand is the big trick.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Free Range hens don't need to be de-beaked

Claims by a staff member of the Australian Egg Corporation that flocks of free range hens needed to be de-beaked to prevent cannibalism have been met with derision in the industry.
The Victorian rural newspaper, The Weekly Times, ran the story on its front page this week. Have a look at http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/article/2008/09/24/9555_latest-news.html
The reality is that if hens show aggressive and cannibalistic tendencies it's an indication that the flocks are too large, the wrong strains of birds have been selected or that the farm has poor management practices (or all of the above). Beak trimming or de-beaking is not necessary on a true free range farm where the hens are not confined.

Friday, September 19, 2008

New pump on our house

I finally got sick of trying to the fix up the electric pump on our home water system. I bought a new pump on ebay about five months ago and it has been nothing but trouble ever since. It would work for a week or two and then stop.
The place I bought it from were helpful in sending a new part which got it going for a week or two and then something else would go wrong.
So.... yesterday I went out and paid over $1200 for a Grundfos pump which is now working well and hopefully will keep going.
The advantage of paying for a decent pump is that the major parts are stainless steel - and not the plastic insides disguised by a stainless steel outer cover.
It's great finally being able to turn on the taps again and have water come out in a rush rather than a trickle! Made it hard to have a shower.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Food Miles

An evaluation of the environmental benefits of 'Food Miles' as a measure for determining the greenhouse impacts of the food we buy has been conducted by staff of the Victorian Government Department of Primary Industries. Their report is at http://www.agrifood.info/connections/2008/Food_Miles_Rama_Lawrence.pdf
It concludes that 'Food Miles' is not a valid indicator of environmental performance but carefully ignores that it can be a vital part of any farm's sustainability processes. We have a farm 'food miles' policy that limits our deliveries to within one hour of the farm. We don't claim that on its own, that makes our eggs and other products 'sustainable'. But combined with our production methods and the way we run our farm business, it is a part of our overall strategy to ensure we have minimal adverse environmental impacts.
It seems to be yet another example of bureaucrats locking themselves in a room and coming up with a document which ignores reality but which tries to push the economic imperitive and the god 'growth'

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Demand still outstripping our ability to supply

We are still receiving enquiries for eggs even though all our production is fully committed for supplying our existing customers.
The latest enquiry is from La Trobe University at Bundoora, Melbourne, which wants to phase out cage eggs and introduce free range.
They only need around 60 dozen a week but it's hard for us to guarantee to supply that many when our order book is already full.
The other issue is the distance involved. We have a farm food miles policy which restricts our deliveries to within one hour of the farm.
That's why the only markets we do are Farmers' Markets in our region. Churchill Island is only 15 - 20 minutes away and Inverloch, Korumburra and Pakenham are only 30 - 35 minutes.
We have passed the La Trobe Uni request on to other members of the Free Range Farmers Association to see if anyone is able to supply. It's important to encourage the changeover to free range (especially from an accredited source rather than the pretend free range often seen in supermarkets)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

New display for Farmers' Markets


Our new display for Farmers' Markets had its first outing on Saturday at Churchill Island. I had too many signs (as you can see) so I will reduce the numbers at future markets.
We have a couple of weeks to get ready as our next market is the Cardinia Ranges market at Pakenham Racecourse on Saturday September 13.
I think its important to promote the Free Range Farmers Association as well as our own business because it's the accreditation process which sets real free range farms apart from those who have tens of thousands of de-beaked birds in sheds with eggs collected by automatic conveyor belts rather than people.
Annual inspections ensure that accredited farms comply with all regulations, including stocking densities, hen welfare and food safety procedures.
Come and have a chat at Pakenham, Korumburra, Inverloch or the next Churchill Island market - or call at the farm any Sunday afternoon.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Demand still huge for our eggs

Demand for our eggs has never been greater! Since the Jamie Oliver TV show 'Jamie's Fowl Dinners' was screened here on Chanel 10 we have been receiving phone calls and emails almost every day enquiring about supplying eggs.
The reality is that our eggs are virtually laid to order. We have our regular sales each week which normally take up our entire production of 400 - 450 dozen eggs per week. We already supply four restaurants, two health food shops, two fruit and veggie shops and our local outlet at the BP service station in Grantville. On top of that we home deliver to regular customers and we sell at Farmers' Markets at Churchill Island, Inverloch, Pakenham and Korumburra.
We are in the process of setting up new display stands for the Farmers' Markets which we hope will strengthen the image of 'free range' and in particular the freeranger brand.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jamies Fowl Dinners creates a stir

The Jamie Oliver TV show - Jamies Fowl Dinners - was recently broadcast in Melbourne and it created quite a stir.
We had our first enquiry for eggs at 11.20pm after the show. An email came through from a restaurant.
Since then we have received at least three enquiries a day (one wanting to source 5000 eggs).
As a very small egg producer (around 450 dozen each week) there is no way we can take on orders of that size.
Anyway, most of the enquiries were from Melbourne which is outside our delivery run. We have a farm rule which limits us to only delivering within an hour of the farm. The problem of food miles is something we have been very concerned about for years - and we have no intention of adding to the problem.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chicca's happy

It was a bit traumatic for poor Chicca. After hauling her off to the vet and letting him stick needles and things in her, she's now spent a day or so confined to a shed!
She's used to running wild with the hens. I've spent around six hours with her today and she's whingeing and wailing. Hard to know if it's pain or just wanting to go outdoors.
She's great at taking her medication (as long as it's with meat) and I think we will put her back with her hens tomorrow.

Chicca's back home

Chicca's back home now after her operation. She'll be a bit groggy and sore for a few days so we're keeping her inside.
The other dogs will be a bit lively and the hens will jump all over her if we let her out now.
We shuffled some of Maremma's around so that Chicca's flock is protected from foxes and we don't expect any problems.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Operation on one of our chook protectors

Chicca, our Breton Pyrenean Mastiff, who protects one of our flocks of laying hens is at the vets now having an operation to remove a cyst on her neck.
There has been a bit of a swelling there for a while, but we were advised that it was unlikely to be a problem. It burst through the skin yesterday and needs to be removed.
Hopefully everything will be fine this afternoon and she will be back with her hens.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Run Your Car on Water

At the farm we are preparing to reduce our carbon emissions (and running costs) by converting our vehicles to run on hydrogen - effectively running them on water.
It is expected to make a significant impact on our delivery and farm running costs.
If anyone wants to talk about how this is done come and see me at one of the Farmers' Markets - Churchill Island, Inverloch, Cardinia Ranges or Korumburra - or come to the farm in Grantville.
We can provide an electronic manual which details the conversion process for $25.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Protecting native forest

A community forum will be held at Boolarra on Sunday July 27 to provide an opportunity for people to discuss the Victorian Government's $5.5 million 'deal' with logging company, Hancock Victorian Plantations.
A flier for this event can be downloaded from: http://www.fourthcrossingwildlife.com/stomp.pdf

A short video about the problems can be seen on You Tube at http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=ICycJXAS-J8

At this stage the community has no idea what the Government is getting for $5.5 million of taxpayers' money because details have not been released. Even maps have been withheld showing where the loggers will be allowed to go and what areas will be 'protected'.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Great rain in South Gippsland

We've had a couple of days with great rain - not too heavy with around 25 mm on Sunday and Monday. Even though the nights are getting fairly cool we should still get some good grass growth because we don't get many frosts here in winter.
Some years we don't get frosts at all - and this may be one of those years. One of the plum trees near the old house on the property has decided to start flowering - so it obviously thinks it's Spring!
The dogs aren't too happy with the rain, preferring to sit around under cover. And some of the hens are wondering what the wet stuff is. The new flock is just 20 weeks old and they've never seen rain.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The chooks were extra glad to see me this morning!


It's always hard getting deliveries of feed exactly when we need them. We have a six tonne silo and we usually need to fill it every six weeks or so. The time it lasts depends on how many hens we have on the farm and the weather (hens eat less in warmer weather).
If we order the feed too early, and it arrives the next day (as has happened in the past) there may not be room for it in the silo.
So when I think there's just a couple of days feed left in the silo, I order a delivery. The difficulty then is that the feed mill understandably wants to minimise its fuel costs (don't we all) by waiting 'til it has a full truck load for the area - which may be three, four or even five days away.
That's what happened this time. I had to go to our local feed store to buy ten bags of mixed grains to get the chooks through - needless-to-say they didn't much care for the change in diet.
So after the truck delivered this morning, I went round the farm filling up the feed bins in each paddock and the chooks thought I was Father Christmas!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

High winds cause chaos

Ours was one of 350,000 properties in Victoria knocked off the electricity grid by high winds in Victoria yesterday. We were without 'power' for 24 hours but did it have much impact? No!
The biggest problem was the havoc the wind caused with trees on the farm and the feeders for our hens.
But we still had solar power for our hot water, fences and mobile phones. Our small generator was brought into use to operate the egg grading machine and keep food OK in the freezers.
It's hard to understand why people go into panic mode when natural events happen .... but then I suppose they don't understand .......

Sunday, March 23, 2008

No eggs for a soufle

It's a dreadful thing when a family running an egg farm can't have a soufle for dinner because there aren't enough eggs!
We were planning on a soufle tonight, but the demand for our eggs over Easter has taken every egg on the farm - and we have an order for 30 dozen first thing in the morning.
Oh well, we'll just have to make do with pasta. Just as well I love ravioli and we have heaps of tomatoes and chillies in the garden.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Churchill Island Farmers' Market

Well we knew we would not enough eggs for the Good Friday market as we were short of a day's production - but it was a good day even so.
The reason for bringing the market forward was that Churchill Island has a Working Horse Festival every Easter - starting on Saturday - and custromers wanting to go to the market understandably refuse to pay an entry fee to the festival.
We sold around 80 dozen eggs which was all we had available as all our restaurants and retail outlets wanted extra supplies during the week to cater for Easter demand.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Farmers' Market dilemma

This Easter weekend has presented a bit of a problem for us because we normally have a Farmers' Market at Churchill Island (just off Phillip Island) on the fourth Saturday every month.
Every Easter, Churchill Island - which was bought for the community by Trust for Nature - has a Working Horse Festival which starts on Saturday.
Market-goers won't pay the entry fee to a festival if they are just there to buy produce. So the market day was switched to Friday. GOOD FRIDAY!! Hmm
But in practical terms it has meant that bringing the market forward a day has deprived our customers of 60 dozen eggs (our average daily production). We have regular deliveries to restaurants, stores and homes which had to be met so we won't have many eggs at the market!

New flock of pullets settling in

The new flock of 200 Isa Brown pullets are settling in well. They arrived yesterday and at first they weren't too sure about Bella - the Maremma whose job it is to protect them from marauding foxes, dogs, humans (if you can call them that) and birds of prey.
But within 12 hours or so the young hens were happily playing with her and inspecting her kennel.
The birds are well grown and I'm sure will start laying in week or so.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Hot day today

It was a hot day at Grantville today - almost 40c - but thankfully we had no problems (other than a water leak caused by ground movement in the dry conditions. I was off at the Inverloch Farmers' Market and Annie found the leak at about 8.30.
When I got back it was just a matter of digging up the poly pipe and tightning up the joiners. Naturally she had turned the water off at the mains as soon as she discovered the leak so we didn't waste much water.
The market was pretty good with sales of nearly 100 dozen eggs.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Getting ready for a new flock

A new flock of 200 point of lay hens is arriving next week and we've been making sure everything is ready for them on the farm.
Their mobile shed has been cleaned out and the electric mesh fences moved to ensure they have new pasture to roam on.
We never lock our chooks up so it's important that we move the sheds and fences fairly often to maintain pasture growth.
The new flock will maintain our overall numbers at around 800 as we have been selling off a flock of older birds to people who want hens for their backyards.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

161 gram egg laid this week


How's this for a big egg! The chooks must be enjoying themelves 'cause not only do they get to play with dogs every day but they have competitions to see who can lay the biggest egg.
This week Myrtle scooped the pool with an egg weighing in at a whopping 161 grams (the average egg is 60 - 65 grams).
The previous record on the farm was an egg (also laid by Myrtle) at 140 grams and there have been heaps of contenders with eggs between 120 and 135 grams.
The huge egg will be on display at the next Cardinia Ranges Farmers' Market at Pakenham Racecourse on Saturday (Feb 9)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Great Farmers' Markets

We had two great Farmers' Markets over the weekend - Churchill Island and Inverloch where we sold around 400 dozen eggs. It's the tourist season here in South Gippsland so basically we have wall-to-wall people and traffic like you wouldn't believe.
Tourism is not wonderful for our business because we can't dial-up production for a few weeks to take advantage of the terrorists (sorry tourists) but we do what we can to meet demand. As an accredited free range farm we have to maintain an audit trail, and we can only purchase eggs from another accredited farm. Thankfully we have been able to that this year from farms which are not in tourist locations.
We increased our flock size on the farm with an additional 400 birds in November and that helped us through the huge peak demand.
Hopefully within a week, we will be back to normal - whatever that is!!