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.