Monday, December 28, 2009

Almost meeting demand

We almost met the demand for our eggs last week but with the increased numbers of tourists on Phillip Island over the past couple of days, there's not much chance of us having enough eggs to satisfy all the customers until the end of January.
It was extremely busy at the Churchill Island Farmers' Market on Sunday and we sold out of eggs at about 11am but kept going with our fresh garlic for a while.
Altogether, we sold 460 dozen eggs last week and we expect to sell 480 - 500 dozen this week through our combination of outlets, including restaurants, health food shops, other stores and Farmers' Markets. The temporary increase in population means that the underlying local demand for free range eggs is now something like 1200 - 1500 dozen a week.
As always happens, that demand will be met by shonky operators who stick 'free range' labels on their cartons and flog them to an unsuspecting public.
Our new flock of Isa Browns is helping us to increase egg numbers but even when they are in full production (assuming the other hens keep laying at their current rates)  our total output will be something like 600 dozen each week.
I've just finished digging the final crop of late Californian garlic so that should see us through most of this heavy demand period. I expect all the garlic will be sold before the end of January.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Peak tourist season

We are at the start of our tourist season with two markets this weekend. Churchill Island Farmers' Market was on Saturday and Inverloch Farmers' Market was Sunday.
Thankfully we had plenty of eggs but it was a bit of a juggle to meet our normal orders as well. From now on the restaurant trade and our shop orders build up - orders have already been doubled for next week!
The new flock of pullets has just started to lay so we expect them to be in full production in a week or so.
Unless we are hit with problems such as a couple of weeks of really hot weather, we should have enough production to meet most of the demand although we expect to be selling out of eggs at every market during January (hopefully not too early because it's a tad embarrassing to sell out before 10am!)
We won't be doing two markets each weekend as we wouldn't have a hope of having enough eggs to offer customers on Sunday if we'd been to a market the day before. This latest weekend was a one-off and it was just fortunate (or rather fantastic planning) that the chooks were able to cope.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Carbon Credit 'Offsets' a sham

It's looking increasingly unlikely that anything positive will emerge from the Copenhagen talkfest on climate change.
And to make things worse, a United Nations board has decided that soya, palm oil and other agrofuel plantations can now receive carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The agrofuel industry, already boosted by EU and US targets, incentives and subsidies, can now pocket hundreds of millions of dollars in extra subsidies. Vast carbon dioxide emissions from coal power stations in Europe can now be officially ‘offset’ by companies paying for soya plantations in Brazil or palm oil plantations in Indonesia or Thailand, which in turn will cause more deforestation and other ecosystem destruction - and more climate change.

The CDM was set up under the Kyoto Protocol and allows Northern hemisphere countries to ‘offset’ greenhouse gas emissions by paying for projects in the South, instead of cutting their own emissions. There is clear evidence that most of the CDM carbon credits go towards polluting industries in the Southern hemisphere, and in future, more carbon credits will go towards monoculture plantations in the South – now including soya, palm oil and jatropha plantations for agrofuels. The new CDM rules for agrofuels state that plantations must be on ‘degraded and degrading land’. This definition is so wide that, for example, any land where vegetation is declining because of increased droughts and heat due to climate change would fall under it, also any land suffering from soil erosion or soil compaction. Yet industrial monocultures are the quickest way of degrading soils, destroying biodiversity and polluting and depleting water resources.
We will still be doing our bit on the farm to try and redress some of the problems created by our 'civilisation' but it's looking more pointless every day when decisions are made which allow polluting businesses to 'offset' their emissions rather than STOP polluting!
More details about action you can take at

Monday, December 07, 2009

New flock is out exploring

The 300 fifteen week old Isa Brown pullets in our new flock are spending their days exploring their paddock. Here are some of them under a stand of eucalypts.
There are two mobile sheds in the paddock but many of the young hens prefer to roost in the trees rather than spend their nights in one of the sheds.
Hopefully, once they start laying eggs (in two or three weeks) they will get the message that the nest boxes in the sheds are wonderful things.
The pullets quickly realised that their Maremma, Abby, is a friend and she now has an air of self-importance because for three weeks she didn't have a flock to protect.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Paul Mercurio on the farm

Paul Mercurio, host of Channel 7's Mercurio's Menu came down to the farm during the week to video a segment on eggs for an upcoming show.
The crew spent a couple of hours on the farm filming Paul collecting eggs and then packing them in the grading room.The dogs and the chooks behaved well (and so did Mr Mercurio and the crew).
Once they had enough on tape they headed off up into the hills to take a shot of the Bass Valley and Westernport - basically to show the locality.
After finishing off our day's egg collecting, I headed off to Pakenham on a delivery run. On the way back home I delivered to one of our restaurant customers Caldermead Farm - and who should be there but Paul Mercurio and his crew.
Paul had taken over the kitchen and had been cooking away for a while.
It'll be interesting to see the show but I don't know when it will go to air.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

We've started to eat this crop of garlic

We've started to eat this year's crop of garlic and we are very pleased with the quality. We eat heaps of garlic because of its flavour, it's especially delicious with eggs, roast beef or lamb, cooked with pasta and greens, in fresh tomato sauces, and with potatoes or beans.

We will keep at least four or five bulbs a week for us to eat on the farm, and about half of this harvest for planting next season. The rest, mostly the biggest bulbs, will be sold at farmers markets (starting next Saturday at Churchill Island) where the hardneck varieties are always popular.

Garlic or allium sativum, adapts to the local soil, and does well when it is replanted in the same space in the garden for several years. For best results, I'm told that it's good to plant garlic which originates in your region – so keeping seed from year to year is the way to go. The majority of the garlic we planted this year was bought-in so it will be interesting to see if there's much difference next year when we use our own cloves.
Did you know that China produces around 70% of the world's garlic and is driving many garlic producers out of business?
For at least 10,000 years, humans have enjoyed garlic. From ancient China, Egypt and India, through Biblical times and Greek and Roman cultures, down to the present, people have used garlic to treat a variety of illnesses including cancer, heart disease and leprosy, as well as infected wounds and dysentery.

Modern research shows that garlic is a powerful antibiotic, provides at least three beneficial effects for the heart, helps eliminate lead and other toxic heavy metals from the body, has anti-tumour properties, and said to be useful in treating leprosy and AIDS. It's our garlic's wonderful flavour, however, that keeps us growing and eating it.

You can grow garlic, too. Look for decent size bulbs at a local farmers market, hang it up until autumn and then plant it when you set out other bulbs like daffodils and tulips. In around six months you'll harvest your own and will have your own culinary delight.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Garlic almost ready for harvesting

Our first crop of garlic is just about ready to harvest and we will probably have our first sales at the Chuchill Island Farmers' Market next Saturday (November 28).
It takes a long time to grow and takes heaps of weeding but the end result looks pretty good. The latest burst of hot weather has set it up well and we won't be watering the crop anymore (at least not the main varieties). We may have to keep the water up to our late Californian variety to ensure the bulbs fill out properly - but everyone tells me to be carefull not to over-water as this could affect keeping qualities.
We should be selling our French, Australian white and Australan purple striped garlic right through to the end of January and then the plan is for the late Californian to be ready. (But the way it's growing I think the late Californian will be ready to harvest within three or four weeks.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Burn, Burn, Burn

On the farm we are getting ready for summer and what is usually seen as the fire season. I must say I find it rather pathetic that we now appear to have autumn, winter, spring and the fire season. Climate change may be upon us but most of our challanges come from brain dead people. I agree fully with the comments on the Friends of Bass Valley blogsite at

On our property we have our three fire pumps ready and I'm equipping a couple of trailers for some rapid response around the farm.

The sad thing is that if we get a wildfire around here it will most likely be deliberately caused by: an arsonist from the Department of Sustainability and Environment (or Parks Vic) desperate for a 'controlled burn' to show that they are doing something; an arsonist from the CFA who gets a buzz from starting fires and then being called to put them out; an arsonist who just has no reason to be alive; dickheads on trail bikes riding through the bush or dumb mongrels flicking cigarette butts out of their car window.

It's much easier to live with the results of a natural disaster created by nature - lightning stike etc - but it something else to come to terms with a disaster caused by a deliberate act.
If Parks Victoria has any intention of conducting a burn in the Grantville Flora and Fauna Reserve, I suggest they talk to us first!! It it gets away on them they can expect a bit of trouble.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Food production or houses - why choose houses!

Australia's ability to produce enough of it's own food is coming under massive pressure - which is weird when you think about how efficient our rural sector has been over the years. The latest onslaught has been from the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Glen Stephens, who is urging State Governments to chop up more land for housing – and (here in Victoria anyway) that land is usually prime farmland which feeds Australia.

And the Federal Government is still doing nothing to check the impact on farmers of the flood of cheap frozen vegetables from China.

Quite apart from the health risks and the unfair competition from food which does not meet the same standards demanded by regulators here, the imports are threatening to drive many farmers out of the industry.

Huge tonnages of Chinese produce have been dumped in Australian supermarkets in the past year even though similar produce meeting higher standards is grown by Australian farmers.
It's no wonder farmers are giving up!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New flock of chooks arriving soon

We have a new flock of 300 Isa Brown point of lay pullets arriving at the end of this month so I'm busily selling off the last of our oldest flock of hens to people who want them for their backyards.
The last 100 will go on Sunday to a young guy who is setting up his own egg farm on his parents' property.
From then I'll be able to clean out the two mobile sheds, fix one of the skids which needs a bit of repair work and get them ready for the new girls.
I usually like to leave the sheds empty for a couple of month betwen flocks but we will need maximum production during the Christmas holidays when Phillip Island sinks under the weight of all the tourists.
We plan on a production level of around 600 dozen a week from mid December until the end of January - which won't leave time for much else!
So I'm getting as many farm inspections and audits done as soon as possible because it will be even more like a madhouse here than usual once the festive season hits us.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Conducting farm audits

I'm often asked what's involved in carrying out audits on farms or other regional businesses. There's a whole heap of questions tangled up there because it totally depends what the audit or inspection is for and who requires it to be undertaken.

I don't get involved in financial audits – my focus is on environmental audits, organic certification, food safety, compliance with the Egg Corp Assured program, accreditation for the Free Range Farmers Association and most recently, compliance inspections for the Victorian Farmers' Markets Association. I also organise and conduct flora and fauna surveys to provide species information for a variety of clients. (Don't know how much good it does but at least people will now what was here before the poor buggers went extinct). Unfortunately most people around here don't understand (or care) about biodiversity - it's all about chasing dollars.

The most demanding and time consuming audits I undertake are those environmental audits which require certification to ISO 14001. If the business is conducted on several sites, the audit could easily take days and possibly weeks, involving heaps of paperwork, soil sample analysis and checking through prior land use.

Thankfully most inspections/audits can be completed in a few hours and usually in under an hour if it's a simple compliance issue for a specific purpose – such as VFMA or FRFA accreditation.

I try to only work within Victoria because I have too much to do here to undertake many inter-state audits. But it's all interesting, seeing different approaches to how businesses are conducted.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why are egg yolks yellow?

This is a question we are often asked and it's easily answered. The colour of the yolk reveals what the hen has been eating. The carotenoids in the hens' feed make the yolks yellow. They occur naturally in things like grass, vegetables and fruit. The greater the quantity of these substances in the hens' diet, the stronger the colour of the yolk. The hens ingest yellow pigments in corn or grass, but if they have no access to green fodder (such as hens in cages or sheds) additives are put in the feed to enhance yolk colour.

Some of those additives may trigger allergic reactions in some people and we think that all egg producers who use additives to boost yolk colour should have to clearly state that on their labels. There is currently a review of Australian food labelling laws under way, and we will be making a submission to suggest that if feed additives are used it should be mandatory for them to be declared on the label. If companies don't want to do that ....simple .... don't use additives.
Why we love yellow egg yolks

Our preference for golden yellow egg yolks is rooted in history. Pale yolks were always a sign of sick hens, worm infestation, or poor feed. Only healthy, well-nourished hens store carotenoids (preliminary forms of vitamin A) in their yolks. Bright golden-yellow yolks show that the hens are well supplied with essential carotenoids such as lutein or canthaxanthin. These protective substances are widely found in nature; they not only give the yolk its yellow colour, but also prevent the oxidation and destruction of fragile, vital substances such as vitamins in the egg.
Europeans are not unanimous where the colour of egg yolks is concerned. There is a real North-South divide where  northern Europeans prefer pale yellow yolks, but as we go further south the preference of consumers for golden-yellow yolks grows. On the shores of the Mediterranean, only bright, orange - red yolks stand a chance of reaching the plate.

Not all carotenoids find their way into the yolk. The well-known beta-carotene, for example, is completely converted to vitamin A and metabolized by the hen. Beta-carotene has no effect on yolk colour.

Canthaxanthin, another carotenoid, is different: Birds only convert about 30 per cent of it into vitamin A. The rest is stored in the egg yolk as a protective substance, causing the yolk to take on a golden-yellow hue. As long as this is ingested as part of the hen's naural feed it's fine. Allergy problems can be generated when manufactured and concentrated Canthaxanthin (or other colouring additives) are included in the diet.
There's more information about feed etc in our ebook on the Freeranger website products page

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Our farm has a low Carbon Footprint

For some time we have been taking a look at the carbon footprint of the farm and doing some rough comparisions with other egg farms - both free range and cage farms.
Some in the industry try to claim that cage farms are more sustainable than free range or organic farms - and their bleating has been reinforced by a study presented a few years ago by Cranfield University in the UK.
It purported to show that organic egg production needs 14% more energy than non-organic and increases most environmental burdens by 10% to 33% (except pesticides), but the land area needed more than doubled. Comparing non-organic systems, it says that keeping 100% of the hens in cages incurs 15% less energy than 100% free range, with similar differences for most other burdens, although abiotic resource is 10% higher for caged birds and land use 25% less.
It seems to have been research which was designed to show that cage farms are environmentaly friendly!
What it clearly didn't take into account were things like the footprint created when the cage farm is initially established - the tonnes of concrete, steel, cooling equipment etc. etc. and the ongoing power costs associated with the massive sheds. (They don't have to worry much about cooling the sheds in the UK, but here right through summer the sheds have computer-operated climate control systems.)
At the Churchill Island Farmers' Market on Saturday we started promoting the low carbon footprint of our farm with leaflets like this:

Freeranger Eggs are renowned for being tasty, versatile and packed with goodness … and they are also green!

Freeranger Eggs are laid on an environmentally friendly farm by hens kept in small flocks. They lay their eggs in mobile roost houses and each flock is protected from predators by Maremma guard dogs. Choosing Freeranger Eggs helps you make a positive difference to the world – as well as the taste of the food you eat. Our strict food miles policy, use of solar energy and traditional farming techniques gives the farm a carbon footprint which is less than half that of most free range farms - and at no extra cost. Our carbon footprint is probably less than a third of the major cage farms.

More than half the 200 acre property is covered with remnant native vegetation and we encourage native grasses in our paddocks.

Make a difference – buy Freeranger Eggs
for more information see our website:

Monday, October 19, 2009

GM ban in Ireland - WHY NOT HERE?

The Irish Government will ban the cultivation of all GM crops and introduce a voluntary GM-free label for food - including meat, poultry, eggs, fish, crustaceans, and dairy produce made without the use of GM animal feed. The policy was adopted after some years of paying lip service to the problem.
See more at

Genetically modified foods pose a series health risk for us all and it's sad to see Australian Governments allowing the major chemical companies to put our cropping areas at risk of contamination from GM crops.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Exporting Eggs?

In the UK, demand for free range eggs has become so great that distributors are looking overseas for more eggs – and one has even asked us for stocks! As Freeranger Eggs only produce around 450 dozen eggs each week and we have a food miles policy which limits our distribution to within one hour of the farm, export is not something on our agenda.

Apart from that, I don't fancy driving to the airport every day with a van full of eggs to send off to the Poms!
It's an indication that demand is outstripping supply – but another more sinister indication is that the RSPCA and Compassion In World Farming have agreed to relax their definitions. RSPCA have allowed an increase in the stocking density for hens for their 'Freedom Food' brand (which is a big money spinner for them in UK) and will now permit an outdoor density of 2000 hens per hectare – double the previous level. For some reason CIWF has given its stamp of approval.

This is just another con by the RSPCA, similar to here where RSPCA accreditation allows hens to be debeaked in its accredited barn and 'free range' flocks. Most consumers have no idea that the RSPCA allows and even encourages de-beaking even though the Model Code of Practice specifies that the practice should be a 'last resort'.

In 2008, over half of the shell egg market, by value, in the UK was from free-range eggs. This increase in consumer demand for higher welfare eggs has lead to fears from the industry that this cannot be fully met by UK producers. It is believed that if British producers cannot meet the demand for eggs, then lower welfare eggs from overseas wll be imported to meet the deficiency. (In the EU there is an even higher stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare)

Consumers here will need to be vocal if any signs start to emerge that Australian standards for free range eggs are to be watered down. The current stocking density limit in the Model Code is 1500 birds per hectare but the Free Range Farmers Association standard is 750 birds per hectare.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

New Draft Standard for egg producers

Tighter regulations on egg producers are being considered in an effort to improve food safety. The details are in a draft standard prepared by Food Standards Australia New Zealand and if it is adopted it will further restrict the sale of dirty eggs and will require all eggs sold in Australia to be individually marked to identify the farm on which each egg was laid.

At first glance it seems a bit bureaucratic, but, as a small-scale egg producer we welcome this initiative which should help to improve the system.

There are so many eggs sold on roadsides and an on market stalls which pose huge potential health problems for consumers because the backyard operators have no idea about food safety – the eggs are often dirty and have not been stored at the correct temperature. They generally have no food safety program in place, they use second hand packaging and local health inspectors usually turn a blind eye.

As long as these new standards apply to ALL egg producers, no matter how small they should go a long way towards bringing honesty back into the system.

Adding a farm identification mark to each egg is already required in Queensland and it doesn't present much of a problem - it's just another step in the process. But I do wonder how these standards will be enforced to ensure there is a level playing field for everyone who sells eggs. It's hardly fair if some of us do the right thing and then have to compete against others who cut corners by not having a food safety program, use secondhand cartons etc etc.

Here's the submission we have made to FSANZ:

As a small producer of eggs, we agree with the introduction of tighter standards designed to achieve better food safety outcomes for consumers. The current, largely voluntary requirements, have put consumers at risk.

We have been particularly concerned that backyard producers are not subjected to the same food safety and packing requirements as registered producers. There have been estimates that as many as two million dozen eggs each year are sold on roadsides, at markets and direct from properties by operators who have no food handling training, do not have a food safety program in place, are not inspected or audited and meet no labelling or packaging requirements.

The proposed change to tighten traceability by marking each individual egg will be a great step forward and we are pleased to note: 'FSANZ agrees that any regulatory obligations should apply to egg producers irrespective of the size of the operation. This is reflected in the draft Standard.'

Hopefully this means what it says and is applied to ALL egg producers. Presumably the definition of an egg producer is someone who sells eggs (regardless of quantity) and will not include people who keep hens in their backyards and give away any surplus eggs. Only if they sell eggs should there be an obligation for them to meet any new requirements. One on-going difficulty will almost certainly be the enforcement of any changes.

We also fully endorse the use of only new packaging and are pleased that in the proposal, 'retailers are required to comply with the packaging requirements in Standard 3.2.2 which prohibits the use of packaging material that is likely to cause contamination.' But does this mean that second hand cartons must not be used or is there an opportunity for producers to make individual decisions on what they think 'is likely to cause contamination' ? Unless the use of new packaging is mandatory this loophole will be widely exploited.

In our experience, the managers of many Farmers' Markets (at least in Victoria) try to ensure that egg sellers do have food safety programs in place and are registered with their local councils. The problems are more apparent with the many hundreds of general or 'trash and treasure' markets which often make no attempt to regulate egg sellers.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

High Noon on the Range

This is part of an article from the Epicure section of today's TheAge newspaper.

Whether it's chicken, eggs or pork, there is no legal definition for 'free range', and this has some premium producers concerned, writes Mary O'Brien.

The term "free-range" is mainly used in connection with eggs, chicken meat and pork. But there is no legal definition of "free-range" and a small organic farmer's "free-range" is very different to the "free-range" of a mass egg producer with 120,000 chickens which often have little more space than their caged counterparts.

Choice consumer group has been campaigning for years for tighter regulation of the industry.

"We would like consumers to have greater confidence that when they are purchasing a product that is labelled free-range, that it's produced in a way they would believe is consistent with free-range practices," Choice's Clare Hughes says.

Earlier this month, free-range egg farmers renewed calls for an independent accreditation system after figures released earlier this month showed there are not enough free-range hens to produce the number of "free-range" eggs being sold.

The number-crunching was carried out by NSW Greens MP John Kaye, also a mathematician, who says one in six eggs labelled free-range on retail shelves are actually cage or barn-laid.

Free Range Farmers Association president Anne Westwood is frustrated by the situation. She says 90 per cent of "free-range" chooks are debeaked, and in big farms they are often unable to find their way outside.

Laid to order

"OUR chooks lay to order; their eggs are sold before they're laid," laughs Gippsland farmer Anne Westwood.

Though she has a waiting list for her Freeranger Eggs, Ms Westwood is not going to expand much more.

She keeps about 1000 chooks, separated into flocks of 200 birds to minimise problems of disease and aggression.

As president of the Free Range Farmers Association, she abides by strict rules and her farm is independently audited.

She encourages her customers from farmers' markets to visit Freeranger Eggs in Grantville to see how chooks can be farmed in a safe, free-range and sustainable environment.

The flocks are enclosed in electro-netted paddocks and guarded by Maremma dogs. They have 24-hour access to pasture and are never locked up. They lay their eggs in eight mobile roosting houses.

"Our customers who are buying free-range eggs want to come to our farm gate and see our chooks running around in the grass with their dogs for protection and with the horses and sheep as well," Ms Westwood says.

She aims to produce 450 dozen eggs a week. Freeranger Eggs cost about $2 a dozen more than standard eggs, but operating costs are higher than for bigger factory farms and they can't buy feed in large quantities.

"I'm frustrated because we're selling a product that is what it is and people who are not are claiming the same status."

Freeranger Eggs are sold at the Organic Edge in Maribyrnong, the Fruit Plaza, Pakenham, farmers' markets at Churchill Island and Pakenham and local stores.
The full article (unfortunately without photos) is at

Monday, September 28, 2009

Letter in Canberra Times - Ban Battery Farms

This letter was in the Canberra Times on September 28.
I would like to lend my support for the condemnation of battery hens. On our farm in England we had over 5000 laying hens in large open pens.

Of their own accord they would go into the large sheds overnight for protection from foxes etc. In these large pens we planted our apple orchard where the hens kept insect pests such as codling moth in control without the use of chemical sprays, and the manure fed the trees.

The hens were able to supplement their food by picking up grit naturally for shell production.

When the dreaded fowl pest disease spread throughout Britain in the late '50s it was the battery hens that succumbed to it. Hundreds of thousands of hens were burnt and properties were quarantined for up to three months.

We used to supply eggs to the Ovaltine factory nearby who had, I think in the order of 10,000 laying hens all in battery cages. The birds were all destroyed when the disease spread through their sheds. They were allowed to restock after the quarantine period and within weeks their restocked birds caught the disease again.

The factory then relied heavily on farmers with healthy non-battery hens kept in the open air and all our hens proved resistant to the disease.

Battery hens are in a situation that they simply cannot resist disease.

That was a real learning experience for me of which I have never forgotten. Hens kept in large barns is the lesser of two evils but will never replace hens kept in large open air pens and every effort must be made to ban the use of battery hens.

Cedric Bryant, Watson

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The latest Organic con

It's amazing what people can get away with. There's one egg farmer who is selling his own version of 'organic' eggs at over $9 a dozen – and people in Melbourne are falling over themselves to buy them.
He has come up with a sham organisation which accredits member farms. The organisation acknowledges the National Organic Standard 2008 (a new version of the Standard dated July 2009 should be approved this year) – but there is no process to ensure that member farms meet those standards.
Inspections are undertaken by other members of the group who have no qualifications or experience in conducting audits or inspections. It's just a back-slapping exercise to con gullible consumers into paying more for 'organic' eggs. And it looks like he is getting away with it because of slack controls over the certification process.
There are seven approved organic certification bodies in Australia (and that's part of the probem). They are: National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia Ltd; Australian Certified Organic; Bio-Dynamic Research Institute; Organic Growers of Australia; Safe Food Queensland; The Organic Food Chain Pty Ltd and Tasmanian Organic-Dynamic Producers.
They all have tight inspection criteria, meet international standards and the whole system is overseen by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).
All very tightly controlled to maintain the integrity of the organic status of the food produced.
The only trouble is that AQIS only imposes the rules for exports. It doesn't care what happens in the domestic market – so any clown can set up an organic certification system to squeeze extra dollars out of consumers without the costs of meeting real organic standards.
If it wasn't so serious it would be a joke!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An open letter to the Minister for Agriculture

The Hon Tony Burke MP
Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
PO Box 6022

Dear Minister,
Re: The lack of a clear national definition for free range eggs
Recent on-going publicity highlighting dubious practices in the egg industry shows that it is time for consumers to be protected from unscrupulous producers. I urge you to frame legislation which clearly defines the term 'Free Range' so it is more aligned with consumer expectations.
Research at farmers' markets has demonstrated that consumers who currently buy free range eggs do so because they believe that the hens are not de-beaked and that they are able to range all day on vegetated land.
Perhaps to satisfy the major industry producers, there needs to be two definitions – one for intensive free range and one for traditional free range
Yours sincerely
Anne Westwood
Please contact the Minister if you think there should be a realistic definition of the term 'free range'.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Egg group figures run foul of free-range

This article by KELLY BURKE appeared in various publications around Australia on September 6

Photo: Andrew Meares

An analysis of egg industry data has confirmed what most consumers have suspected it is doubtful enough free-range layer hens in the country exist to produce the number of eggs labelled free-range.
From January 2006 to January 2007 the free-range flock would have had to grow by more than 37 per cent to match the increased sale of free-range eggs in the grocery sector, as recorded by the Australian Egg Corporation in its annual reports.
Over that time the number of eggs sold in the grocery market jumped from 811 million to 971 million and the proportion of those sold as free-range rose from 20.3 per cent to 23.4 per cent.
But at the same time the total number of eggs produced dropped from 3 billion to 2.8 billion, and the overall flock of laying hens decreased by 6 per cent.
The total free-range flock would have had to grow from 891,000 hens to 1.22 million to meet the free-range sales figures.
Greens M P John Kaye, who used his maths P hD to crunch the industry's data, said 200,000 free-range chickens appeared to be missing in action in 2006-07, and about 36.8 million eggs labelled free-range- just over l6 per cent - would have to have been bam- or cage-laid.
"Either the industry's making up the figures as it goes along or there's dodgy producers who are getting away with calling eggs free-range when they are not," he said." In some cases 'free-range' is nothing more than a marketing exercise to boost sales and prices."
With giant retailers such as Woolworths recording an increase in demand from consumers for free-range eggs from 32 per cent to 36 per cent over the past year alone, the anomalies in the chicken-to-egg ratio highlighted an urgent need for formal accreditation and labelling regulations, Dr Kaye said
Egg Corporation spokeswoman Jacquiline Baptista said it was not possible to reveal how many free-range layer hens existed in Australia, or provide year-on-year figures of flock growth, as total bird numbers came from the hatcheries that did not record which chicks ended up in which production system.
She said the Egg Corporation" supports any moves to investigate product substitution, as this practice undercuts honest farmers who do the right thing and also devalues their premium product".
The Egg Corporation said it used registered third-party auditors for its voluntary accreditation program, Egg Corp Assured.
But egg producer Tony Coote, whose Mulloon Creek Natural Farms east of Canberra supplies the Harris Farm stores in NSW, said consumers buying only Egg Corp Assured eggs might not be getting what they thought they had paid for because the Egg Corporation set the free range bar too low.
Large free-range operators were allowed to crowd thousands of hens in giant sheds containing all the flock's needs, so very few birds ventured out to forage.
"You can't believe all the pictures you see, with birds roaming on green grass. That's just not so in many cases." Mr Coote said.
* Birds continuously housed in cages in a shed, with a minimum floor space of 550 sq cm per bird.
* Beak-trimming permitted.
* Birds continuously housed indoors but free to roam within the shed, which may have several levels.
* Stocking capacity not to exceed l4 birds a square metre.
* Beak-trimming permitted.
FREE RANGE (Egg Corporation and Primary Industries standing committee)
* Housed in sheds with access to an outdoor range.
* Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed 14 birds a square metre.
* Maximum 1500 birds a hectare.
* Beak trimming permitted.
FREE RANGE (Free Range Egg and Poultry Association of Australia)
* Unrestricted access to free-range run during daylight hours'
* Stocking capacity within shed not to exceed seven birds a sq m'
* Maximum 750 birds a hectare.
* Beak-trimming prohibited, as deemed unnecessary if above housing conditions are adhered to

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Pullets Rule

Our latest flock of pullets (200 birds) laid 182 eggs yesterday and 186 today (a 93% lay rate) which makes them our best perfoming flock at the moment! Yeayyyy!!! It took them a while get up to speed.
It still intriques me that some flocks start laying at 16 weeks but you won't see an egg from some others until they are 20 weeks old. They can be the same breed and well grown! It makes planning difficult because we need to balance our supply to meet demand and we have a massive over-demand problem during the tourist season.
And to compound the problems, 0ur peak terrorist (sorry tourist) season usually coincides with hot weather (which the chooks don't like).
But we still like egg farming.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A fun tractor day

Don't know about you, but somedays things just don't go right.
I was collecting eggs from one of our flocks today when the dogs alerted me that a truck was driving down our road. (There's nowhere but here for it to go unless the driver's lost. And the dogs don't care anyway, they'll just bark at any intruder).
I realised that it was probably two pallets of egg cartons which I had ordered on Friday. So I took the trays of eggs up to the shed, locked up a couple of the marauders (ah Maremmas) and wandered off to get my Chinese tractor with it's Chinese front end loader with forks attached. Everything was going swimmingly.
And then the unloading began!
The first pallet came off the truck with a bit of juggling. Then of course I had to try to put it on the ground. Well, suffice to say the joystick mechanism isn't the most sensitive thing in the world and the pallet of cartons suddenly decided to tip forward and distribute themselves over the ground.
Oh well! One pallet down, one to go.
Should be easy - more room on the back of the truck.... Complacency is a wonderful thing....
The tractor was in low ratio, the forks were lined up with the pallet, it lifted off the tray of the truck - bloody brilliant and then ... crunch ... the loader arm touched the side of the truck (only a touch I swear).
The hydraulic hose coupling snapped and warm hydraulic fluid sprayed over the truck, the truck driver, the cartons, the tractor and me. Oh joy!!!!!
At least it wasn't raining and I was able to get the cartons into the shed by hand. I must be stupid because I thought that machines were supposed to make our lives easier.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Woolworths/Safeway debate rolls on

The debate is continuing over whether or not the announcement by Woolworths that it plans to reduce the brands of cage eggs it sells will result in more free range sales.

This article appeared in the Moorabool News, a local newspaper distributed throughout the Bacchus Marsh region of Victoria.

Woolworths has free
range on eggs

By Kate Green
Barn laid eggs could be on the menu in more Moorabool households following a decision by supermarket giant Woolworths to cut the number of cage-laid eggs on its shelves.
Despite higher cost to the consumer, averaging $2.00 more per carton of 12 for free-range or barn laid eggs, cage eggs have lost a market share of 1.5 per cent per year since 2000.
Woolworths is phasing out its 'Woolworths Select' caged eggs, cutting the number of cage-egg brands it sells from 15 to 11 and continuing to sell 28 barnlaid and free-range brands.
Vesna Luketic is the Managing Director of Myrniong based business Family Homestead Genuine Free Range Eggs and explains that the decision to reduce cage laid egg brands is more likely driven by improving profit, not animal welfare.
"This will not speed up a consumer-driven switch to free-range & barn laid, in fact this will only give Woolworths greater negotiating power within the industry to drive prices of eggs down, which will only affect the farmer.
"If there are only 11 brands/lines, this means that the competition within the industry to supply these cage eggs will become even more competitive and fierce, which will only drive down the price, which will not be reflective on the supermarket shelves for the consumer, but will allow a greater margin for Woolworths, and in turn will impact the farmers bottom line.
"If 80 per cent of eggs sold within Australia are in fact cage eggs, can you imagine the price bargaining power that Woolworths will have?" she asked.
Ms Luketic also refuted Woolworths' claim that reducing the number of brands of cage eggs it sells will increase sales of barn and free-range eggs.
"The concept of supply and demand is simple. If the consumer wants to purchase cage eggs, a choice usually price driven, then it doesn't matter if there are 20 brands to choose from or 11 brands, that consumer will still purchase cage eggs. Therefore the level of sales for cage eggs from Woolworths will not decrease.
"It is the Australian consumers who are more aware and pushing animal welfare issues that have been driving the increase of free-range egg sales in Australia.
The rate of change occurs due to education and awareness of animal welfare issues and overall consumer support of business that are animal and environmentally friendly," she said.
The debate over accredited free-range eggs and barn laid eggs also continues.
Ms Luketic explained that barn laid factory farmed eggs come from free range hens housed in large sheds which may never go outside and these eggs come off conveyor belts.
"If the consumer was really aware that they were paying more for eggs produced under these types of systems they would most likely not buy them.
"The cost of 'genuine freerange' farming is extremely high, production costs are greater and such farming is very labour intensive. Margins are already extremely low and here we have Woolworths already waiting at the bit to reduce prices. The price needs to be higher, not lower, that way farmers can actually make a decent living, and be supported," she said.
Family Homestead Genuine Free Range Eggs are an accredited free-range egg producer.

And in last week's Weekly Times, Les White wrote this article:
WOOLWORTHS"STUNT' Egg growers crack it

WOOLWORTHS' move away from cage eggs is nothing more than a publicity stunt, according to the Australian Egg Corporation.
The AEC says cage egg sales will remain the same. despite Woolworths' reduction of cage suppliers.
The corporation has accused the supermarket of playing games with producers to increase its bargaining power.
But the AEC has also come under criticism, again being accused of representing the interests of cage producers over the free range sector.
One of the country's most respected free range farmers,Ivy Inwood, has even written to Agriculture Minister Tony Burke complaining about the situation.
In a circular to members, seen by The Weekly Times the AEC says it believes Woolworths' apparent move to halve its number of cage egg suppliers was to "consolidate their stock, reduce supplier numbers and therefore increase their price bargaining power".
The supermarket has rejected the claims. "This is about responding to consumer preferences,"a Woolworths spokesman said.
Free range farmers have attacked the AEC over an item in its newsletter which suggests egg farmers should tell media that "thousands of workers and their jobs could be threatened by any such move (away from cage eggs)."
"Some might conclude that if this were to occur, it would represent a gross abuse of market power by retailers and restaurant chains," the newsletter said.
Ivy Inwood, who produces both caged and free range eggs, has complained to Mr Burke that the AEC bats for cage producers at the expense of the free range industry.
She said a move to more free range would produce more employment because it was much more labour-intensive than fully-automated cage systems.
But AEC communications manager Jacqueline Baptista said moves away from cage eggs could see the eggs imported from overseas, resulting in lost Australian jobs.
She said the AEC "stands by all production methods", and denied the circular instructed members about what they should say to media.
Farm Pride, Family Homestead and Mrs Inwood rejected suggestions free range eggs could drop in price as demand increased.
"How can we drop the price unless we go automated, which means the birds don't go outside," Mrs Inwood said.
A spokesman for Mr Burke had not returned calls by The Weekly Times at the time of going to print.
Also see the post on this blog dated Sunday August 16

Thursday, August 27, 2009

big winds cause havoc

The last few days have been a bit windy here (like most other parts of Victoria). Thankfully we haven't suffered any major damage - just a few branches off trees and a few broken electric fence posts.
Most of our flocks have electranet fences around them with pvc posts and they snap if they whip around in the wind too much.
The veggie garden hasn't even suffered much - the garlic is still growing well, the peas and beans are coming up and we have the ground ready for our crop of chillies.
The winds haven't affected the chooks either. Our lay rate is still around 90% for the main flocks and the pullets are now nudging 50% so they should be in full production by the end of the week.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Keeping Chickens

We are still getting heaps of enquiries about keeping chooks and people tell me that they can't find the post I did on this blog a while ago.
So here it is again!

We can always send you an ebook on either keeping a backyard flock, or starting a commercial flock.  Have a look at the products page on the

An introduction to the management of
small flocks of laying hens

Keeping hens dates back many thousands of years since the eggs (and meat) of jungle fowl were first enjoyed by humans. Ever since, the sound of chooks wandering around the yard or the paddock has been an enjoyable part of life for countless people in many civilisations. Today, keeping hens in the backyard or in small commercial flocks can still be rewarding. Fresh eggs laid each day are delicious, nutritious and reduce the family grocery budget. In the case of a commercial flock they also provide an income.
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!
Old Hens
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.
Egg shell
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.
Shell colour
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.
Nutritional benefits
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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