Sunday, May 30, 2010

New career on the speaker circuit?

Anne had an interesting day at Pearcedale on Saturday talking with a group of smallholders about free range egg production as part of a diversified farming operation.
It was one of the days organised by the Department of Primary Industries as a key element of its AgFutures program. We have hosted these sorts of days on the farm for various groups to show how things are done but there's obviously a pretty substantial demand out there for information on farming alternatives. It was a group of around 15 people, which is an ideal size to generate interaction.
There were four speakers at the forum, Anne talking about chooks, garlic and chillies - discussing things like setup costs, sustainability and marketing, Dugald Cameron from Phillip Island, talking about fodder crops, contracting and agistment, Kevin Wilkinson dealing with composting and Tony Gill on setting up a co-operative.
It was apparently a good day.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Controlling aggression in hens without de-beaking

Beak trimming or de-beaking of laying hens is still a widespread practice in Australia – even in 'free range' birds. The majority of so-called free range farms are intensive production systems with flocks of many thousands of hens.

The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry), provides the only national definition of the term 'free range' which is accepted by the big players in the industry. But it states that every effort should be made to avoid beak trimming by selecting birds which have more docile tendencies.

The reality is that intensive free range farms de-beak their birds as a matter of course because they want to run large numbers and they chose to use high producing hens developed for the cage industry. These hens have been selectively cross bred for only two traits – maximum egg production and minimum feed intake. This often means they are aggressive and cannibalistic.

It is important to select a strain of bird that is less aggressive, and to get breeders to breed birds that are more docile. Research has shown that breeding for low aggression can have a marked effect in only 4 or 5 generations. Dr Mike Gentle, a U.S. poultry researcher, has concluded:
" In the long term, beak trimming should be phased out and undesirable behaviour controlled by environmental means and by increased effort being devoted to the genetic selection of commercial stocks which do not engage in damaging pecking, either in cages or when floor-housed in large flocks. "

Hens need to be in groups small enough to be able to recognise each other. At Freeranger Eggs we run maximum flock sizes of 250 birds.

Hens must be able to express their natural behaviour, including the strong urge to peck. They must have material in which to forage and dust bathe.

Good husbandry is a major factor in reducing aggression, especially preventing conditions that cause frustration in hens. They also need an adequate and well-balanced diet, easy access to food and water, enough space, and minimum disturbance.

Customers should push egg farmers into making greater efforts to control aggression without de-beaking. From our experience, talking with consumers at Farmers' Markets, the public does not believe that 'free range' production should involve the de-beaking of birds. Aggression and cannibalism is a behavioural problem which is easily solved by effective poultry management and selection of birds.

In Victoria, the easiest way to ensure that you are buying genuine free range eggs from hens who have not been de-beaked is to only buy from a farm accredited by the Free Range Farmers Association. All member farms carry the logo on their cartons. If your egg producer doesn't have the FRFA logo its probably not because he or she doesn't want to  -  they can't get it because they don't meet the standards.

We are hoping that when a review is undertaken of the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals (Domestic Poultry) and of labelling laws that a real definition of the term 'free range' will emerge. Many buyers of 'free range' eggs are currently being mislead by cartons which depict birds on lush green pasture and show hens with full beaks. It may be that two definitions of free range are needed - traditional free range such as practiced by Freeranger Eggs and other members of the Free Range Farmers Association and intensive free range which is the large-scale factory farming approach.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Talk to the Animals

There will be a video segment about the Freeranger farm on Channel Nine's Talk To The Animals program at 4.30 pm this Saturday (at least in Melbourne).
Des Dowling came down to the farm with his crew to have a look at the way we run our hens and how they interact with their Maremma bodyguards.Should be good

Monday, May 24, 2010

Good weekend sales

We had Churchill Island Farmers' Market on Saturday and Red Hill (for the first time) on Sunday so I didn't spend much time on the farm over the weekend.
Churchill Island was good but Red Hill was a bit slow so hopefully it will improve over the next few months. I was able to do a delivery on the way home on Sunday so it wasn't a wasted day.
It's just under an hour from the farm to Red Hill and that makes it within our food miles policy. It's on the Mornington Peninsula which means I have to drive around to the 'other side' of Westernport.
Everyone says it's a small world - and it certainly is. On the stall next to me at Red Hill was a lady who used to work with the Department of Sustainability and Environment, promoting Landcare on Phillip Island and in West Gippsland. I hadn't seen her for almost 10 years and I had no idea she's now into making goat cheese.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Farm sustainability

Farm sustainability is a term which has been flung around with gay abandon for some years. It means different thing to different people and even farms which are certified organic need not necessarily have any more long-term sustainability than non-organic farms.

Landcare groups, particularly those associated with networks, have been scrambling for Federal cash from the Natural Heritage Trust and, more recently, the Caring For Our Country programme. The race to grab as much funding as possible has clouded thoughts about what the funding was supposed to be for. It was never to create jobs - it was expected to have beneficial environmental outcomes.

Now that lucrative funding stream has started to dry up, the networks (and other environmental groups) are squealing about their jobs. That's all it is. They've had little thought for sustainability or biodiversity conservation and their actions have had little impact. Their main concern has been about maintaining and increasing job opportunities. Some of the networks and groups have become big businesses with millions of dollars churning through every year – but virtually nothing to show for it.

A portion of the funding has been used for things like erosion control and planting native vegetation but there has been a relatively small return for the many hundreds of millions of dollars which has spent.

Has the money decreased the environmental footprint of many farms? The answer is no. Has the money halted the biodiversity decline in this country? Again the answer is no.

It's not possible to have an impact on these things when huge slabs of funding are swallowed up in increasing employment opportunities rather than being spent on-ground works carried out as part of a 'whole of landscape' plan.

There's a need to look at the way a farm and any business operates to determine overall sustainability. What are the inputs and where do they come from? If feed is trucked thousands of kilometres it will have a negative impact even if it is from a certified organic mill.

Here at Freeranger Eggs our biggest environmental issue is transport. We minimise our footprint by imposing a food miles policy (all our deliveries must be within one hour of the farm). The feed for our chooks comes from a Victorian mill – but there is still a significant transport element which we offset with the permanent protection of native vegetation on the farm. A large slab of the vegetation on the farm is protected by a Trust for Nature covenant so it can never be destroyed which makes the property an effective carbon sink and more than offsets our carbon footprint.
For more on sustainability have at a look at Friends of Bass Valley Bush Inc Landcare Group

Monday, May 17, 2010

Little White Van

A few months ago I replaced the windcreen in our little white van which we use for deliveries and I wasn't too happy when stones from a passing car caused a couple of chips in the new screen.
So I thought I'd find out if I could repair it. Most of the windscreen repair companies seem to charge around one third of the cost of a new screen!!
And yes, Do It Yourself kits are available. You simply stick a patch over the chip, attach a syringe filled with the repair liquid, pull the syringe plunger back to suck out air from the crack then release the plunger. The liquid is sucked into the crack. Wait 15 minutes or so, remove the syringe and the patch and sunlight cures the repair.
Worked a treat. I bought the kit from the UK on Ebay for under $20 including postage.

Friday, May 14, 2010

20,000 pullets wanted

I've had some strange 'phone calls over the years, but one this morning was pretty good. A bloke rang me asking for 20,000 pullets because he wanted to start a free range egg farm!
I actually mis-heard him and said "two dozen?" to which the answer was "No - 20,000".
He obviously hadn't looked at our website or at this blog because he would have known that we couldn't possibly meet that sort of order.
We do sell some pullets when we have them available but it's usually 3 or 4 at a time. I think our largest order has been 20 - yes 20 not 20,000!!!With individual flocks of around 200 birds and overall laying hen numbers of 1000 or so, we are running a business but it's hardly big time.
I suggested he contact Baiada who should be able to help him as he wanted delivery in September.
It's another indication of big players getting involved because they can see a dollar in producing eggs they can label 'free range'. It's a safe bet that this bloke, if he goes ahead, will have de-beaked birds and will not meet the requirements of the Free Range Farmers Association  but he will still call the eggs 'free range' and will charge unwary consumers a premium.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The free range and organic debate rolls on

Yet another academic voice has been raised to try to defend conventional farming by claiming that there is no nutritional difference between food from conventional, free range or organic farms. This is part of an article which was published in Melbourne's Sunday Herald-Sun.

Despite the claims of advocates, independent studies that compare the nutritional value of conventional produce with organic fare remain open-ended about the differences between the two.

Associate Professor Samir Samman, from the School of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Sydney, says there is little evidence to suggest that organic food is nutritionally better than conventional food, especially in relation to fresh fruit and vegetables.

In a yet-to-be released major study that has been accepted for publication in the international scientific journal Critical Reviews In Food Science And Nutrition, Professor Samman and his team “surveyed the international literature and critically evaluated the results” – and they aren’t heartening for the organics industry.

“Our review showed that when all the published articles on this topic are considered, organic food is reported to contain more vitamin C and phosphorous than conventionally produced food,” Professor Samman says. “But when the articles are scrutinised for scientific quality, and only
the better-quality articles are considered, only phosphorous remained significantly higher in organic food as compared with conventional foods.

“Phosphorous is not in any way a limiting nutrient in the diet. The presence of higher amounts in organic food has probably little significance. We conclude from the analysis that the nutrient composition differs very little between foods that are produced by organic and conventional methods.”

Professor Samman’s team also analysed the nutritional content of food bought from conventional shops and organic stores, and found that with oils such as olive, peanut and canola, “the method of production [organic or conventional] has no real impact on the composition” of the fatty acids contained in the food. The same result was found for eggs. His team is now conducting research on nuts, dairy foods and meat.

“Some health professionals believe that organic foods have more nutrients and elicit favourable effects on health,” Professor Samman says.

“This advice is given despite the lack of scientific evidence to support it.”
He says it’s more important to simply consume as many fruit and vegetables as possible rather than worrying about whether they are organic.

“The really important thing for consumers is that they continue to consume fruits and vegetables regardless of the source, because this is going to bring about health benefits,” he advises. “If you only eat one organic apple because that’s all you can afford, instead of having two conventional apples, surely you’re better off having two.”

So how does all that explain those eggs that tasted and looked so great? Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of the eggs being organic, but is more about the way the chickens were raised, organically or otherwise. Like any product that’s more expensive, it is probably more a quality issue.

It would be interesting to find out who funded this research and which studies were chosen for these 'independent' studies. Did they compare things like Vitamins A and E, folic acid or Omega 3 fatty acids. Have a look at some research in the US. It seems that Professor Samman likes pesticide and herbicide residues with his food.
I've conducted quite a few farm audits recently and at least six veggie growers/orchardists have said that they don't eat the conventionally-grown produce from their farms. They either have a separate garden where no hebicides or pesticides are used or they buy certified organic food for their own families. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Egg yolk colour

Here's a great example of the different coloured yolks found in free range eggs from hens who are not fed colouring additives.  The yolks should vary quite considerably, depending on what each bird has been eating.
If the colour is always the same deep yellow or almost orange you can be sure that colouring additives are mixed into the hens' diet.
Most of the additives used are synthesised in laboratories and even those which are claimed to be 'natural' are actually only based on natural products - such as capsicum and marigold. They are still processed and refined by men and women in long white coats!
The eggs in the picture were being prepared in our farm kitchen to help make a Sachertort.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Sunday Pakenham Market

The sunday market at Pakenham racecourse was pretty much a waste of time. I only sold aound 30 dozen eggs so it would have been more productive to stay on the farm and work!

But it was worth trying to see if any of the old customers who used to go to the Cardinia Ranges Farmers' Market went along to this one. They didn't - which clearly demonstrates the difference between Farmers' Markets and trash and treasure markets. Dedicated food markets are always going to attract customers who like food rather than people just trying to kill a couple of hours or looking for a second hand clock or electric frypan.
Won't be doing that again!!!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Great to have a Saturday without a market!

Lying in bed until 6.30 on a Saturday seems like luxury. Usually I'm up at five getting ready for a farmers' market.
But it's a short-lived luxury. I have to rotary hoe the rest of our garlic patch today to get next season's crop planted (that's before I start collecting today's eggs).
And tomorrow (Sunday) will be a 5am start anyway as I'm doing a market at Pakenham Racecourse - where the old Pakenham Farmers' Market used to be. It wll be interesting to see if many of the old customers turn up there as heaps of them haven't gone to the new venue at the Cultural Centre in Pakenham.
The general consensus amongst stallholders and customers seems to be that it was a mistake to change the venue.

Chook images

An artist from Thorpdale in Gippsland sent these images of chooks, She is Janette Arnold Collins