One hundred years ago, most eggs were produced by true free-range hens on family farms. But as egg production became more mechanized, the chickens were put into confinement chicken houses, with many of them in tiny cages stacked three or four high to get as many hens in a chicken house as possible. In the past 50+ years, much of the knowledge of how to produce eggs on pasture on a larger scale has been lost. In many ways, we feel like we are trying to reinvent the wheel again in regards to pasture-raising chickens because so many of the important little details have been lost. What works for a small family flock of less than 50 hens becomes far too labor intensive when you have 3,000 hens on pasture.
Why would a farm want to have 3,000 hens on pasture? The reason is that in order to have 100% of our income from the farm, and to be able to pay our sons a living wage for working full time on the farm, we have to have enough income. Most small, pasture-based farms receive a majority of their income from off farm sources and are stretched thin making a living off-farm and trying to give adequate care to the farm and animals too. For a farm to try to make a living from only 200 hens would be like a doctor who is a general practitioner only having one or two patients a week, or a mechanic trying to make a living by changing oil in only two cars a day.
As we looked around at the various methods of raising chickens on pasture, we were not pleased with what we saw. The main promoter of pasture raising eggs, Joel Salatin, recommended the use of moveable hen shelters that one moved on a regular basis to new grass areas. It is a method that makes a good story and that works in the warm months of the year, but when winter comes it is a method that becomes very labor intensive with frozen water hoses and difficult access to the hens through mud and snow. In the wintertime, the pastures quickly get torn up and muddy moving the chickens around. If the hens are kept in one spot the ground gets totally denuded of grass and turns to mud with likely manure runoff and erosion. Salatin’s solution is to move his hens into confinement chicken greenhouses for five or six months during the winter with no outdoor access for the hens. The eggs then are no different than white confinement chicken house grocery store eggs for about half the year. That was not acceptable to us.
To learn how to best raise chickens on pasture we did a lot of research. We visited both the Library of Congress, and the National Agricultural Library several times and researched books and publications that were written in the early 1900’s. Then, taking a blend of old technology and modern technology, we developed, over a number of years, a system that provides a good living environment for the hens, protects the soil and grass from being destroyed, and provides you with a high quality, nutritious, excellent tasting pasture raised egg.
Our first hen shelter design was the one pictured below. It was stationary. The pasture was divided into six paddocks that radiated out from the shelter. There was a door on each end of the shelter and on each side. Each week we let the hens out a different side of the shelter into a new paddock and let the paddock that they were just in rest for the next five weeks.
This shelter and setup had many problems. The picture was taken the last day we used it. The shelter was too low, and too small for the hens on rainy and cold days. There was not enough space to keep them penned up when it was too muddy for them to be outside. The dark sides encouraged them to lay eggs on the floor. The feed and water were outside. In rain, snow, and the bitter cold, the hens had to go outside to eat and drink. As a result the grass got killed and they tracked lots of mud in and onto the eggs.
We worked with a Soil Conservation consultant, and he helped us design a heavy use area for the hens. We call it the picnic area, and it has wood chips on the ground like a playground. It gives the hens a place to scratch, dust bathe, and dig. The picnic area is an important management tool that we use help protect the pastures from becoming destroyed and denuded of grass. In the picture above, it is the fenced areas to the left of the shelters. The picnic area is always open for the hens 24 hours a day so that as soon as it starts getting light they can go outside. During the warm months of the year, the hens are let out into the pasture about 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning and the gate is closed again at dark to protect them from night predators. The hens are confined to the shelter and picnic area any time that it is too muddy and their little feet would trample the grass into the mud. In the winter time when the grass is not growing, the hens are only let out on the pasture for two or three days a week. This protects the pasture, while allowing the hens to have some grass throughout the winter to help keep up the nutrient content of the eggs. Each week we also bring home 10 to 15 big boxes of organic vegetable trimmings from the stores where we sell eggs, and feed the veggies to the hens. This helps them get their greens when they can’t be out on pasture as much. We also significantly increased the size of the shelters to make it more roomy for the hens. We raised the height of the roof to make it easier to work in the shelters and to let the heat rise and escape from the hens on those hot summer days.
This is inside our new hen shelters. The sides are open at floor level so that the hens stay cool in the hot summer months. In the winter, we cover the sides and one end with clear plastic. The light that comes in the sides close to the floor helps to discourage the hens from laying eggs on the floor.
These are our hen shelters in the winter time. Each flock has about two acres of pasture. The small sheds along the lane beside the shelters are the nest houses where the hens lay their eggs. The nest house concept was an idea that we got from a book written in the early 1900’s. The central lane makes it efficient for hauling feed to two shelters at each stop and also for gathering eggs.
We designed geo-thermal waterers for the hens. The blue barrel, with the bottom cut out is buried halfway in the ground. The waterline from the well is buried in the ground to keep it from freezing and it comes up through the bottom of the barrel. The geo-thermal heat from the soil keeps the water in the small two gallon bucket on top from freezing on all but the coldest nights. The most that it freezes is about an inch on top, which we remove in the morning when we check on the hens. These waterers also help to keep the water cooler for the hens on the hot summer days. Also, for those hot summer days we installed fogger nozzles under the peak of the roof to help keep the hens cool.
We developed a predator-resistant fence that has made life a lot simpler because we don’t have to move the fence like the electronet fences have to be moved. The wires of this fence are electrified. It does a good job of keeping out foxes and other predators and keeping the hens in.
This is one of the nest houses that we designed and custom built. In the nests and the trays are blue astroturf nest pads. The hens lay their eggs in the nests and the eggs roll out into the tray. This design helps keep the eggs clean and simplifies egg gathering.
Inside the nest house. The hens access the nest house through a covered ramp from their shelter. The floor is slatted to discourage them from laying eggs on the floor and to make the nest house self cleaning. That is also important to keep the eggs clean.
Our method of raising eggs on pasture is part of what goes into making some of the best tasting pasture raised eggs you can buy. We do not feel like we have “arrived”, but we continue our quest to have the best, most humane, environmentally sensitive method of raising chickens that we can. We also are continuing our quest to produce the most nutritious meats and eggs that we can for your health and ours. As our slogan says, we are: “More than a farm — A living laboratory researching the secrets of food, health and life.”