Summer is almost here and with it comes the most prolific laying season for almost all birds. Whether chicken, quail, or duck, all breeds love to lay eggs as the weather warms. It is also the time for the LFFC farmers to bring on new birds. The old flocks get sold, made into stock, or they push on at lower production for the next year, typically on a separate pasture. As the new birds start laying, their eggs are small and as the hen matures the eggs will become larger. Many of the eggs we are currently sending out are from the new birds, hence their size.
Egg farming is a difficult practice. Eggs are a market that is often overly scrutinized. Many perfectly fine eggs are thrown out for being too small, misshapen, or even slightly discolored. Commercial battery cage operations use their size and advertising power to tell people the real important parts of an egg are how perfect the shell is and well it can be “graded.” All the while the chickens are stacked on top of each other with barely a square foot between them (even in “cage-free” operations). These situations are exactly what gave rise to the salmonella outbreak of not so distant memory.
The reality is that chickens lay all types of eggs. The commercial chicken farmer keeps hundreds of thousands of chickens in small cages. This creates a situation where each chicken and each egg is treated like a throw away commodity. But on small farm operations this isn’t the case.
Small producers can’t afford to buy hundreds of tons of feed from mills that import cheap grain from overseas. Our farmers work together to get the best price on their feed but they often see feed cost take a huge cut into their bottom line. In response to this we have tried to bring in the best pasture methods possible. The Co-op’s egg farmers work together in order to better their percentage of sustenance from pasture and lower their percentage of feed per bird. This has been a difficult process, but as our farmers learn and improve on their methods we see amazing results.
One of our most senior egg farmers had bought an old trailer and converted into a hen house. He kept his chickens on a multiple acre plot and the chickens found their way into just about everything. This method worked great for his first season, and the pasture responded well. However, as he moved into his second season it was obvious that the stationary unit just wasn’t cutting it. The farmer was sure that he could get a better egg and better pasture. He then took it on himself to design and build his own mobile unit that he could pull with his fork lift. The design was fantastic with great venting, spacing, and ease of use for the birds and farmer. He was so pleased with his design that he has offered to make it for other farmers.
Another farmer was very distraught that his birds were so moody in the fall and winter, constantly showing signs of stress despite being in a large mobile unit on fresh grass. He finally decided to install a very inventive heating system on the floor of the mobile unit. The extra heat around where they roosted was all it took to end the pecking and moodiness of his birds.
Innovation is a must when you are trying out new farming practices. For many farmers, the idea of having a flock that isn’t de-beaked is pretty much unthinkable. Many farmers mistakenly believe that there is no way to manage the pecking. There are strong myths about chickens being unable to control their pecking; leaving many farmers convinced that a de-beaked flock is a flock that kills itself. Our farmers have embraced the idea and have found that sometimes all it takes is a few minutes every day of interacting with the flock to calm them down. In the end spacing, stress, and the ability to behave naturally means more than anything else.
We are often told that farming is a science where yields and production can be calculated down to precise numbers. But when you implement farming, especially animal farming, that seeks to replicate natural behaviors and give birds the best experience possible, all while creating the best and most nutritious egg possible, farming can become more of an art than a science. Our farmers take great care and responsibility in keeping their flocks. Sometimes it can be a financial struggle to get everything going. What it comes down to is people being able to tell the difference between commercial advertising gimmicks, and real food with real nutrition and values behind it.
article by Steve Kirk