small flocks of laying hens
Always remember that in Australia, you can give away as many surplus eggs as your hens lay but if you want to sell them you must comply with various regulations in each State, such as having a food safety program registered with your local council, all eggs should be graded and candled and you must use new cartons with labels which meet national labelling laws. As well as providing food, keeping hens also gives you the best fertiliser for your veggie garden.
Eggs are one of nature's most complete foods, containing all of the essential amino acids as well as many of the vitamins and minerals needed by the human body. Eggs contain vitamin A, all eight of the B group vitamins plus vitamins D and E.
An egg has five distinct parts:
The shell, which is mainly calcium carbonate, is quite porous and has nearly 8,000 tiny holes which allow air and water vapour to pass through.
The membrane, which is a barrier against bacteria contaminating the egg.
The egg white or albumen (including the chalazae), which hold the yolk in the centre of the egg to prevent damage.
The yolk which is the food source for us (and a chicken).
The germinal disc, a very small spot on the surface of the yolk. This is where the chicken develops in an egg that has been fertilised for hatching. If the egg is not fertile, there is no embryo.
Why do hens stop laying?One question frequently asked by chook owners is "Why have my hens stopped laying?"
There are many possibilities but the most common causes of a drop in egg production include: The hens are getting older, approaching the end of their laying cycle and may be starting to moult; decreasing day length; improper nutrition; disease and stress.
Decreasing daylightHens need around 14 hours of daylight to sustain top egg production. In winter, once daylight drops below 12 hours, production can slow and may stop altogether – depending on location. To prevent this, some egg farms install lights in sheds to maintain light for 12 - 14 hours a day and trick the birds into thinking it's still daytime (so they keep eating and laying eggs).
Improper nutritionLaying hens require a well balanced ration to sustain maximum egg production. Improper nutrition can easily affect the lay rate. Inadequate levels of energy, protein or calcium will result in a decrease in production. This is why it is so important to provide your laying hens with a constant supply of nutritionally balanced layer food with a protein content of 17% - 19% and good levels of energy and calcium. Avoid feeding too many scraps as these can create a dietary imbalance.
Often these imbalances can generate other problems like prolapse. Prolapse is caused when the bird is too fat or an egg is too large and part of the bird's reproductive tract is expelled with the egg. Prolapse is often fatal.
Having oyster shell or another source of calcium always available is also a good idea to ensure strong egg shells.
A common problem is failing to provide a constant source of fresh water. Provide adequate watering points so the birds always have fresh water (and make sure it's cool on hot days).
Disease problems can hit under the best of conditions and there are many diseases which affect laying birds. Make sure all your hens are fully vaccinated against the common diseases likely in your area. Things like Egg Drop Syndrome and Infectious Bronchitis can hit your flock hard. Often one of the first signs of disease is a drop in egg production. Other symptoms of disease include dull and listless appearance, watery eyes and nostrils, coughing, moulting, lameness and mortality in the flock. If you suspect a disease, contact a vet for help and get an accurate diagnosis before starting treatment. It's a waste of time and money if you treat the wrong illness!
Most hens lay efficiently for two laying cycles. However, after two or three years, there will be a decline in productivity which varies greatly from bird to bird. Good layers will lay for about 60 weeks in their first year and then perhaps 50 weeks in the second cycle. Between those cycles they will moult for a few weeks. As they get older the hens will moult more often and shell quality will deteriorate – resulting in more breakages and wrinkled shells. Not a problem for use in the home, but it makes life difficult if you are trying to sell the eggs! Hens will live for ten years or so (if a fox doesn't get them or they aren't turned into soup or chicken curry!)
StressAny stress such as moving, handling, changes in environmental conditions or fright can contribute to a decline in egg production. Common stresses include:
Heat or cold. Chickens can't handle high temperatures (over 40 degrees centigrade) or damp, cold and drafty conditions.
Handling or moving. Once the laying flock is in place, limit any unnecessary moving or handling of the birds. Introducing new birds may disrupt the pecking order and cause some temporary social stress in your flock as well as possibly introducing disease.
Parasites. Make sure you have adequate controls in place for external and internal parasites. If you don't want to use chemicals, put aromatic herbs in nest boxes to control mites, add things like chillies and garlic in feed and cider vinegar to water to help control intestinal worms.
Fright. Limit the movement of children, strange dogs, livestock and vehicles around your flock as well as loud noises which can frighten the hens.
Predators such as foxes and eagles also stress the birds and can be responsible for a decrease in production.
Other factors which may cause a drop in your egg numbers:
Predators and snakes consuming the eggs.
Egg-eating by hens in the flock.
Insufficient nest boxes can cause excessive egg breakage.
Hens hiding the eggs.
Egg qualityFirst quality eggs, are those that are well-formed, have clean, uncracked shells with an air cell no bigger than 5mm deep. Yolk colour should not be less than Number 10 on the industry standard 'DSM Yolk Colour Fan'. Most commercial farms include additives in the chook feed to boost yolk colour and most pellets which backyarders buy also contain yolk colouring. If you don't want those additives getting into your food, don't buy products that contain them.
It's vital to ensure that eggs are not cracked and are kept clean and dry, as bacteria from dirt and stains can penetrate through the shell. Washing dirty eggs can often make the problem worse by removing the natural 'bloom' over the surface of the shell and allowing more bacteria to enter the egg even if it isn't cracked. There are strict controls on commercial farms which wash eggs covering water temperature, cleaning and sanitising products used. Some of those farms then spray a food grade oil over the eggs to limit the entry of bacteria. If your eggs are dirty, you have a management problem - so it's better to fix the problem rather than wash eggs.
There is no relationship between the colour of the shell and the quality of the egg or its flavour. Commercial hybrid hens can lay either white, tinted (creamy coloured) or brown-shelled eggs. Brown-shelled egg laying hybrids are now the most commonly farmed hens. Birds such as Isa Browns, Hy Line or Hi-Sex birds. Leghorn cross hens are likely to lay white-shelled eggs.
Blood stains on shellThe problem of blood stains on egg shells happens most frequently with young birds, though it can happen with any aged bird when a large double yolker is laid.The shell is stained when small blood vessels that line the oviduct rupture when an egg passes through. Most of the time eggs laid afterwards are generally free from any stains. Blood-stained eggs could also indicate some aggressive tendencies in the flock and it is important to check each bird for possible injury around its vent.
Yolk colourCarotenoid pigments derived from plants consumed by the bird accumulate to pigment the egg yolk. Although orange yolks look good, there is very little nutritional difference between paler yellow and darker orange yolks. Pasture and vegetable scraps can contribute a range of carotenoid pigments to the hens’ diet. These are variable and therefore yolk colour will change when hens are given access to a variety of feed sources.
Blood or meat spotsBlood or meat spots in the eggs may seem unsightly but they are not harmful in any way to consumers and can be easily removed. When a yolk is released from its follicle in the ovary, the follicle usually bursts along a line (the stigma) that contains few blood vessels. If the follicle does not tear exactly along the stigma, a tiny blood vessel may be torn and the bleeding may form a ‘blood spot’ in the egg.Some breeds of laying birds have a genetic tendency to lay more eggs with blood spots. Also, you can expect some blood spots in the eggs of young pullets just starting to lay.Albumen (egg white) is formed around the yolk as it passes through the oviduct. 'Meat spots' are thought to be pigmented pieces of albumen left behind after the formation of the previous egg. The pigment (Ooporphyrinse) is responsible for the colouring of brown-shelled eggs which is why meat spots are less common in white-shelled eggs.
All eggs which are sold should be 'candled' - which means they are passed over a light during the grading process to ensure there are no bloodspots in the egg, no cracks in the shell and there is only a small aircell at the blunt end of the egg.
FreshnessThe best way to maintain freshness is to collect eggs several times each day and store them in a coolroom or refrigerator. As much freshness is lost in one day if an egg is stored at room temperature as in a week in the refrigerator.
Fresh, well-stored eggs have more flavour, produce firmer cakes and custards and the whites beat up to make a stable foam. The moment an egg is laid it contains no air cell, though as it cools and loses moisture, a slight vacuum is created which draws in air through the pores in the shell.
Runny whitesWhen a fresh egg is fried, the albumen is more likely to stand high and close to the yolk rather than spread across the pan. But runny albumen does not necessarily indicate that the egg is old. It can be caused by a number of factors including genetic tendency, the age of the birds, health and nutrient intake. Albumen tends to become runnier as the hen gets older and when intake of key nutrients such as protein is compromised. It is important to provide young stock with shelter and water, especially during hot weather, to avoid a severe reduction to feed intake. It is also important to offer ample feed and avoid diluting balanced feeds with an excessive amount of scraps. Some chicken diseases also affect albumen quality.
What hens should I get?After careful breeding, the most productive hens are commercial hybrids which have the potential to lay over 300 eggs each year under ideal conditions (ISA Brown, Hi-sex Brown, Hyline Brown). The brown-egg laying strains include the Black Cross (Australorp/New Hampshire) and the Red Cross (Rhode Island/New Hampshire). You might want to go for bure breeds – such as the Leghorn to lay white-shelled eggs. Experience has shown that for maximum egg production, pullets which reach point of lay in September (at 17 - 18 weeks) are likely to be the most productive. They should.lay right through to the following September when their replacement flock will begin to lay. Your replacement hens should be bought from a reputable source, either a commercial hatchery or a recognised breeder. Usually the classified section of rural newspapers have advertisements for poultry showing available breeds and prices.
Replacing your flockIf you are keen on maximising production, don’t keep old hens. Most birds will complete their first laying cycle when they are 75 weeks old. Beyond that age, the rate of lay will drop, and egg shell and albumen quality will decline. The hens will probably lay well during their second laying cycle (after a brief period when they moult) but they won't lay quite as many eggs during their second cycle. And that decline will continue over the years although some hens will keep laying for five or six years – some even longer.
Rearing chicks and pulletsRearing chicks from day-old requires good animal husbandry skills, time and the right equipment. Attention to detail is needed to minimise the death rate and poor performance over the life of the birds. If this is regarded as daunting, a better option is to buy point-of-lay pullets. There is likely to be little difference in cost once the price of feed and the vaccination program is taken into account.
Before the chickens arrive, all manure and litter from the previous flock should be removed and the enclosure scrubbed thoroughly with detergent and sprayed with a sanitiser. Dirt floors need particular attention to minimise contamination by bacteria, viruses and parasites. Day-old pullets obtained from the supplier should be vaccinated against Marek’s Disease and Infectious Bronchitis Virus. Protection from predators such as rats and cats is essential. Day-old chicks should be reared for at least the first 3 weeks inside a draught-free enclosure, on clean, dry litter material (such as wood shavings or rice hulls), with a heat lamp or heater positioned so that the temperature at chick level is about 32°C. It is essential that the chicks can easily access fresh water. A pullet starter feed should be provided in feeders and by scattering feed on paper around the feeders and drinking points for the first 24 to 48 hours, the young chickens will learn to gain access to feed and water. Decrease temperature gradually, aiming to reach about 21°C at 3 to 4 weeks old. Once birds are fully feathered, at around 5 to 6 weeks of age, they can tolerate lower temperatures and they can start to go outside. Extreme temperatures should be avoided as they may lead to deaths and poor performance. Roof sprays or internal shed misters can help to keep temperatures down.
Hen housingIt is important to provide all poultry with protection against bad weather and direct sunlight. The house must be ventilated, however it must also provide shelter from draughts and very hot winds. Exclusion of foxes and other predators is essential.
Convenient access to fresh water is important. If using surface water (dam, river, irrigation) it must be sanitised to be suitable for consumption by domestic poultry. This is to reduce the risk of infection with E. coli and serious poultry diseases like Avian Influenza from water contaminated by wild birds, particularly waterfowl. To work out the best size for a hen house, allow about 0.37 square metres of floor space per bird. A 20 bird flock will need a floor area of around 7.5 square metres or 80 sq.ft. Local councils may have restrictions on keeping poultry in some areas so check with them.
Chickens in the wild perch in trees, it's part of their nature. If you don't provide perches in their shed they will perch on anything available including nests, feeders, gates and fences. Without perches, at night the birds may crowd into a corner of the hen house and create a mound of manure which will make their claws and feathers dirty – the dirt will be transferred to the nests and to the eggs they lay. By providing perches for roosting, your eggs will be much cleaner. The average hen needs about 250mm of perch space around 600mm off the floor.
NestsNests need to be comfortable and fairly dark to ensure privacy from the rest of the hen house. The amount of nesting space depends on flock size. Six laying hens need about 1 square metre of nesting space. Individual nests are often preferred but some sheds seem to work well with communal nests. Nesting material can be straw, wood shavings or even rice hulls and needs to be at least 100mm deep and kept clean.
Hens can be trained not to sleep in nests by providing perches and stopping them from entering nests in the early evening by blocking off the entrances. Re-open the nests when they are roosting and within a week or so the birds will have formed a roosting habit, greatly reducing the amount of droppings in the nests. Collect eggs at least twice a day to ensure freshness and minimise the opportunity for egg eating.
Keeping your flock productive and healthy is the main objective. Proper management helps to reduce disease and other problems.
Coccidiosis is caused by an intestinal parasite. It generally is a result of damp ground or litter in the hen house which encourages the survival and development of the oocyst – the infectious stage of the coccidiosis life cycle.There are two main types: Caecal Coccidiosis usually affects young pullets up to 8 weeks of age and Intestinal Coccidiosis is more likely to occur in pullets from 8 to 12 weeks old. Coccidiosis can cause many deaths and poor performance from survivors. Signs that pullets are affected by clinical coccidiosis include deaths, huddling, ruffled feathers, depression and blood in the droppings. Losses can be significant unless the affected birds are treated properly. Because there are a number of different species of poultry coccidia, pullets can experience repeated cases of coccidiosis under poor husbandry conditions. Beyond point of lay, birds will generally have developed an immunity to coccidia. But if there is a need for chemical control measures in place of using products likke cider vinegar, talk to your local vet.If further control measures are required be sure to seek advice from a veterinarian and always ensure that any additional medications are compatible with additives in the feed you are using – if you are buying a commerical product.
Intestinal WormsThe large roundworm (Ascaridia spp.) is the most likely to cause trouble in the backyard or free range flock. The adult worm lives in the intestine where it lays many eggs which are passed out in the birds’ droppings. These eggs are then picked up by other birds when feeding or scratching for food, and so the infection spreads. A notable feature of roundworm eggs is that they can remain viable on the ground for very long periods, particularly in damp, shaded areas. The symptoms of heavy roundworm infestation are wasting, loss of condition and reduced egg production. Hens in barn or free range conditions are often infested with other types of worms including the intestinal worm (Capillaria spp.), caecal worm (Heterakis spp.) and tapeworms (Raillientina spp. and Davainea spp.). The caecal worm plays a role as an intermediate host in the poultry disease, Blackhead. To control tapeworm effectively, you need to control the intermediate hosts – beetles, snails and slugs.
External parasitesExternal parasitic infestation such as ticks, lice and mites causes irritation and stress to your birds, which can lead to a big drop in egg production. Although it is unlikely you’ll be able to eliminate parasites completely, they can be kept to a minimum by sound management practices. If you don't want to use chemicals, put aromatic herbs in the nest boxes
Minimising internal and external parasites
Damp conditions promote the build up of internal parasites in the flock. Control dampness by fixing leaking drinkers or taps and avoid spills when water is provided manually. Ensure that open areas are well drained and that rainwater can't enter housing. Remove damp litter or soil and replace with clean, new material and try to fill in depressions. For maximum productivity, flocks should be replaced on an ‘all-in-all out’ basis to break the life cycle of internal and external parasites. Ideally, young pullets should be raised apart from older hens and on fresh ground that has not been used by older birds for at least 6 months. Before introducing new birds to the hen house, all old litter material should be removed and the house should be washed down with a detergent and then sanitised. To ensure full control of external parasites and litter beetles it may be a good idea to treat the hen house with an approved insecticide well before the new flock arrives. Thorough cleaning and sanitising of nest boxes, drinkers and feeders must be undertaken as well as any maintenance needed before the new birds arrive. If you do use chemical treatments, always follow directions and ask for veterinary advice when required.
Egg eatingLaying hens are naturally inclined to eat broken eggs, they know that a damaged egg cannot hatch even if it is fertile. This trait is not caused by a feed deficiency but it can develope into a vice where a hen deliberately pecks at eggs to break and eat them.Once this habit starts it is difficult to break. It will result in serious egg losses and may also lead to cannibalism.It is best to prevent egg eating from starting with good management, such as ensuring there's plenty of litter in nests, the nest are relatively dark, broken eggs are taken away promptly and eggs sre collected at least twice a day.
Feather picking and cannibalism
This vice is normally an indication of overcrowding, lack of drinking and feeding space, idleness and poor conditions. Any birds that have been vent picked, traumatised by other hens or are showing signs of poor health and debilitation should be immediately culled in a humane manner.This is the problem which major producers solve by de-beaking their hens so they can keep running large numbers. If you must cull, seek advice from your vet about appropriate culling methods.If it is neglected, feather picking may develop into cannibalism. To help prevent this problem, don't overstock, ensure that nesting areas are resonably dark and private and keep the birds occupied. Assuming your hens are well housed with adequate space, this can be done by scattering straw or feed over the ground for them to scratch around.
This is a natural, maternal instinct. Broody hens will lay a clutch of eggs before they stop laying and then occupy the nest for an extended period, preventing other hens from laying. Even during the night broody hens tend to remain on the nest rather than roosting with other hens. Other signs of broodiness include the ruffling of feathers, aggressiveness when approached on the nest and making a characteristic clucking noise. If you want to stop a hen from going broody, it's important to act prior to the hen laying her clutch of eggs. Once you see the signs, remove the hen to a separate coop (with no eggs). Make sure she has sufficient feed and water and you should be able to return her to the flock within three or four days. Keep a close watch for the next few days, as her broody urge may return. Either get her some fertile eggs to sit on or repeat the isolation treatment.
Poultry equipmentPoultry equipment is available from most produce stores. Metal feeders are available for all types and numbers of birds. They range from small round feeders to large 15kg feeders for poultry. Plastic drinkers reduce water contamination and provide visible water levels.
Feeding your chickens
Chickens are omnivores, which means they will eat almost anything that includes animal or vegetable material. In the free range situation this means they will devour insects, worms, carcasses, seeds and other plant material. If you confine your birds they will not be productive on vegetable scraps alone. To achieve good health, well-being and egg production, the laying hen must have a balanced diet with plenty of grains and green feed. Use only quality feed and you will get quality eggs. (Stay away from pellets)
Ample, cool, clean water should always be available as this is essential for maximum egg production. If a hen is without water for even a short time, her comb may turn a blue-black colour and she will cease to lay. In hot weather, a lack of water for even a few hours can be fatal. Although actual consumption depends on the size of bird, level of egg production, season and type of drinker used, most laying hens need around 500 ml of water per day.
In extremely hot weather a good rule to follow is to provide at least three times the usual water allowance and ensure that the water is cool by putting ice.
Protein and energy
Birds require an appropriate balance of protein and energy, vitamins and minerals to support growth, egg production, daily functions and overall health. A good mix of grains with a minimum protetin level of 17% is ideal
Sources of calcium
Calcium is required for strong bones and good quality eggshells. Hens generally lay down egg shells during the night. It can be beneficial to also offer coarse sources of calcium such as shell grit or limestone chips. These provide a sustained slow-release of calcium and allow the hens to be a bit selective in the amount of calcium they eat.
Hard gritHens must be able to eat small stones to allow their gizzards to grind the feed. They require grit when being fed coarse grains such as wheat or other feedstuffs where grinding is necessary for digestion. They may obtain enough grit from the soils in your paddock or yard but if not, small stones of 2 - 3mm in diameter can be incorporated in the feed or fed seperately.
Green feed and scraps
Green feed and scraps are a source of vitamins and can contribute carotenoid pigments for yolk colour. Hens enjoy grazing and picking over scraps and whilst these can contribute to their diet, they can also be very low in nutrients. If too much poor quality forage or scraps are fed too often in place of a balanced ration, egg production and hen health can suffer. Care should be taken to avoid access to mouldy or 'off ' feed such as old damp stored grain or mouldy bread. These may contain toxins that can affect the health and performance of laying hens.
Does It Pay To Keep Your Own Laying Hens?
When properly fed and cared for, hens in a home flock situation (commercial hybrids) should lay at least 20 dozen eggs per year. During that time the laying hen will eat approximately 47kg of feed. By calculating the annual cost of feed, housing, equipment, health care and replacement birds you can then establish how much it costs to produce your own eggs. This obviously pays no regard to the pleasure of keeping hens and producing your own food.
What is free range?
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 Europe manages 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 doors and making them as small as possible. 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, farm management and choice of birds. Which is why the majority of Australias '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 have transfered large-scale factory farming techniques to a version of 'free range' farming which allows the businesses to maximise profits by allowing them 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 enterprise.
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 we use at the Freeranger Farm. 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 or cropping it and feeding to the chooks can boost Omega 3 levels in the eggs.
More studies need to be done, but there is growing evidence that eggs from hens raised on pasture have nutritional benefits over the factory farm versions.
In 1974, the British Journal of Nutrition found that pastured eggs had 50 percent more folic acid and 70 percent more vitamin B12 than eggs from factory farm hens.
In 1988, Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of The Omega Diet, found pastured eggs in Greece contained 13 times more Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than U.S. commercial eggs. A 1998 study in Animal Feed Science and Technology found that pastured eggs had higher Omega 3 and vitamin E than eggs from caged hens.
A 1999 study by Barb Gorski at Pennsylvania State University found that eggs from pastured birds had 10 percent less fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 40 percent more vitamin A, and four times the Omega 3 compared to the standard USDA data.
In 2003, Heather Karsten at Pennsylvania State University found that pastured eggs had three times more Omega 3, 220 percent more vitamin E and 62 percent more vitamin A than eggs from caged hens.
In 2007, the US magazine Mother Earth News analysed eggs from 14 free range flocks and compared the results to nutritional data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for commercial eggs, the kind found in most supermarkets.
The free range eggs had:
- 1⁄3 less cholesterol- 1⁄4 less saturated fat- 2⁄3 more vitamin A- 2 times more Omega 3 fatty acids- 3 times more vitamin E- 7 times more beta carotene
But be careful when buying 'free-range' eggs. As long as hens have 'access to an outdoor run' producers are able call their eggs free-range. What this usually means is that there is a small opening where hens could go outside, regardless of whether or not they ever do. In most cases a better description would be 'non-cage eggs'.
Sometimes you can visibly tell the difference, but yolk colour is not always a good guide. Pastured yolks are often a rich orange colour from the beta-carotene in the plants (as long as there is plenty of green feed in the paddocks). Eggs from a genuine free range farm will vary in yolk colour – depending on the time of year and the amount of green feed available. If the yolk colour is always the same, it's likely that colouring additives are included in the hens' feed. The only other way to maintain yolk colour during dry periods is to provide supplementary green feed for each flock. Things like lucerne and green vegetables are ideal but obviously add to production costs.
It's up to consumers to find out how the chickens are being raised and what they're being fed. Talk to producers at farmers' markets to find out how they manage their flocks and make sure you are comfortable with the way the eggs are produced.
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