Laying hens have two primary purposes: production and sanitation. Most people know about production, but sanitation is a very important part of a multi-enterprise farm. Chickens can go behind cattle on the pasture, or under rabbits in the greenhouse, or in numerous other places to aerate compost, spread manure piles out, and pick bug larvae out of the mix, which reduces flies as well as parasites and other nasty critters. This is natural. Chickens definitely subscribe to the principle of Hakuna Matata.
Their digestive systems, like falcons, vultures and other predatory birds, are designed to process high-protein foods with significant levels of natural pathogens (i.e., germs). They are very good at sanitizing both the area they cover and the food they eat. For instance, the inside of an egg is sterile until it is broken open. While salmonella may be present in chicken manure and therefore on the shell of the egg, the inside is almost always pure until the egg is cracked. The egg industry now warns that if a hen gets salmonella in her oviduct, the egg itself may be contaminated. But the http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/library/fntr2/mf2139.pdf goes on to estimate that this contamination affects one egg in 20,000. One in twenty thousand! Considering how the industry raises chickens, that means chickens are great sanitizers.
Our Feed Ration
Speaking of what the industry feeds chickens, let’s talk about what we feed our chickens. Our layer feed is corn-based, with soybeans and other meals added. We use no chemicals, hormones, drugs, or poultry meals. Feeding poultry to poultry is a great way to increase pathogens and develop amazing new diseases like Mad Cow.
But, when it comes to chickens, as opposed to beef and other herbivores, the feed ration is less significant than the production model. Chickens must have grain to produce eggs. It’s the other factors of production—sanitation, access to fresh grasses, bugs, etc.—that make our chickens healthier and our eggs more nutritious.
In fact, lots of glossy-printed egg cartons in the healthy grocery stores boast about the high Omega 3 fatty acids such as ALA and DHA in their eggs. Joel Salatin actually had some eggs tested along with supermarket eggs for Omega-3s in 2001. The results were amazing: at 252.6mg per 100g wet egg, the ALA was 289% (2.9 times) higher in the Polyface than the supermarket egg. Joel’s eggs’ DHA, at 552.5, was 298% (3 times) higher than the generic eggs.
Our Production Models
But back to the two purposes of production and sanitation. As there are two purposes, so there are two conceptual models: the Eggmobile and the Feathernet.
The Eggmobile concept is a henhouse on wheels which follows the cattle around to clean up after them. The birds are completely free-range by day, and closed up at night in the house. This allows the house to be moved anywhere in the morning. It is highly mobile, but less controlled than the Feathernet.
The Feathernet concept is a tarp-covered hoop structure on skids. It is bigger, bulkier, and slower than the Eggmobile. It is surrounded by Premier’s electrinet fencing in a rectangular paddock, and moved one paddock length every three days. A Feathernet will usually stay in one field for an entire season, because it is impossible to move the hoop structure an extended without loosing control of the birds.
The Models Compared
From the perspective of grass management and fertilization, if you imagine the farm topographically like a big map on a wall, the Feathernet is like a paint brush and the Eggmobile is like a paintball gun. The paintball gun is fast, effective, but uneven coverage of different areas, while the brush takes a long time, can’t really jump around, but covers a field with a very even coat of chicken manure.
From a profitability standpoint, the Feathernet allows you to raise a lot of birds on a few acres of pasture, the electrinet significantly reduces predation, and the open hoop structures make gathering eggs a lot easier than climbing into a mobile henhouse. The profitability of the Eggmobile is much more connected with cattle they sanitize after, as well as the overall pleasantness of keeping down odors and flies on the farm.
Of course, both models are pasture based, and from about November to March here in Virginia, it is not feasible to raise chickens outdoors. So, in the winter time, our growers will bring the chickens into an indoor area. It may be a permanent hoop structure greenhouse, or a shed or other building. With the shorter daylight, egg production always goes down, and that’s why we often have a shortage of eggs in the winter. But it starts to pick up again in February, and we usually have plenty of eggs for the spring.
The birds are not caged, but rather given at least eight inches of wood chips or other bedding material to scratch through. This will make a fine compost by spring. Often, we’ll hang rabbit cages above the floor. This allows the chickens to sanitize for the rabbits just like they do for the cows, and it makes a richer compost in the process. Then, in the spring, the chickens go out onto the pasture, and the compost gets spread on grass or garden, turning another waste product into a gold mine, and improving the quality of the land at the same time. That’s sustainable agriculture!