Early in our time here at Highfield, we decided if we were going to eat eggs, we wanted to raise our own. We set about learning how to raise hens for eggs, and we were quite quickly appalled by the established practices.

I’m not talking about battery cages here or even barn-laid systems (which clearly don’t stack up against our Farm Philosophy. You see, even pasture-raised egg operations, where chickens free range outside in the paddock, use chicken breeds that had been developed for industrial-style production and rely on a set of established practices we found difficult to stomach.

Let me explain egg production briefly to you.

Ready?

Can’t be that bad, can it?
Only female chickens lay eggs. That may be such an obvious statement that it’s not worth mentioning, but it has significant implications.

Whether we are talking about a large-scale battery hen operation or the much more palatable pasture-raised system or any of the enterprises in between, male birds are considered a ‘waste product’.

Shortly after they hatch, chicks are ‘sexed’. This is done by gently squeezing the chick so that any faecal matter is expelled. This process results in the vent of the chick being turned out.

A trained observer then checks for evidence of the immature male sex organs. Once the sex is determined, every chick that is male is killed. Given a typical sex ratio of hatchlings of close to 50:50, half of all chicks are terminated. They are gassed or popped on a conveyer belt and rolled into a ‘mulcher’ alive.

Even the RSPCA considers this ‘quick maceration’, the euphemism for death by mulcher, the preferred technique. While it sounds horrifying, it is apparently very ‘quick’. But fundamentally, the killing of about half of all chicks seems like a colossal waste of life and protein.

This long-standing practice is, I’m guessing, unknown by most consumers or they don’t care to think about it as they dunk their toast soldier into their runny goog.

It doesn’t stop there!

The female chicks then have their beaks ‘trimmed’, which means having the tips cut off. The explanation – or excuse – for this practice is that because these birds will be raised in close quarters in either small cages (battery) or barn situations, they may harm each other by pecking at each other’s feathers, potentially, in extreme cases, resulting in cannibalism.

But what of the free-range or pastured operations where chickens have much more space?

Well, their beaks are routinely trimmed as well. For the same reasons. As though chickens can’t help attacking each other.

A disabling consequence of beak trimming is that the hen can lose some of its normal beak sensations and function, negatively affect the hen’s ability to forage.

So, in a pastured egg system, we have popped this beak trimmed hen onto grass, but because her beak is disfigured she has trouble taking advantage of her pasture forage.

This paints a very different picture of the seemingly happy hens running around outside on the grassy expanse on a sunny day.

The next time you see pictures of a bevvy of brown contented chooks and happy children, zoom in. Do the chickens have full sharp beaks? Or are they blunt and rounded? Disabled. Disfigured. Does the top beak overhang the bottom beak as it should? No.

The bevvy of brown chooks that pop up on your social media feed will typically be ISA Brown or Hyline Brown chickens. These breeds have become the standard commercial egg laying breed. Whether they are raised in a battery, a barn, a free-range or a pasture-raised system, these are the breeds most commonly used.

Why?

Because they are the most ‘efficient’ industrial producers, they have been bred specifically to lay an egg a day, the optimal condition of efficiency.

However, they can only maintain that high level of ‘productivity’ for a relatively short amount of time. As a result, they are considered largely unprofitable after 12-18 months, even though they still lay eggs.

So, what happens to them?

Some producers do sell their so-called ‘spent’ hens to people who keep a few hens in their backyard. But that’s a tiny fraction of all the hens out there. Many – most? – ‘spent’ hens end up at abattoirs where their low-quality meat is processed into pet food or blood and bone fertiliser. But selling them to an abattoir cost something, so some producers simply gas them or compost them on their farms.
Another cheery scene. In some situations, ‘spent’ hens from the egg industry end up as food for the farmed salmon industry. Yes, salmon.

Too many horrible practices – mulched males, trimmed beaks, short lives, salmon food. It’s a depressing and bleak picture, a long way from the Instagram panoramas of happy chicks. If these were the accepted practices involved in keeping chickens for egg farming, did we want to be part of this at all?

Or could we devise an egg production system we could live with, ethically and commercially?

We would start by having a mix of breeds. We would avoid the industrially designed ISA or Hyline Browns completely. We wouldn’t require or hens to lay an egg a day or else. This would mean far less physical drain on their bodies, meaning hopefully, that they would have longer lives. In addition, we would keep our hens for their entire lifespan.

But how is this efficient?
Is it possible to make this commercially viable?
Give me a moment; I’ll get there. There is more to tell…

We would aim to source hens with untrimmed naturally beautiful pointy and hooky beaks, chook beaks as nature intended.  And, to avoid the male mulching madness and beak trimming trauma, we would breed our own regular supply of hens. We would choose to keep chickens that had a dual purpose: both good layers and a body suitable for meat.

Happy, healthy chickens with beaks

Breeding our own replacement hens would, of course, mean some male chicks as well. But instead of liquidating them, we would grow these young males to a certain age (usually until they started fighting with each other) and then, well, we would take responsibility for their lives. We would dispatch them ourselves and then put them to good, nutritious use. Think delicious chicken stock or coq au vin (a delicious French dish specifically developed for the coq – male bird).

To help us with breeding the next lot of hens with sharp beaks, we would also keep some of the roosters to breed new chicks. And some lucky roosters would get to live with the hens. Roosters have a protective instinct over their flock making alarm calls to the hens when they perceive danger, say from a circling eagle or prowling fox.

And a rooster or two in the flock mimics natural chicken behaviour. This seemed like a system we could not only live with but also justify to others. Delicious stock, coq au vin, breeding new chicks, flock protectors and normal flock behaviour –  so many roles for the male birds.

But how would we house our hens and their chosen roosters? New on the market were metal ‘caravans’, specially developed for the pastured egg producer. They could house a large number of chickens in a free-range set up. The caravan could be moved around the paddock easily and they had cleverly designed nesting boxes. After the hen had laid the egg roll away onto a conveyer belt. With the turn of a wheel allowed the eggs to be retrieved at one end of the caravan. If these caravans were handy for the producer, how were they for the hen herself?

Well, on closer inquiry, the nesting boxes were lined with astroturf. The reasons? Ease of cleaning – a good thing – yes!

Hard to keep straw in place if you wanted a roll away box, I guess? What is wrong with this according to our ethical framework? Am I just reacting to plastic astroturf?

Well, it’s all about the hen, or it should be all about the hen. Hens prefer to lay on materials like straw, grass, or wood shavings. Normally, hens preparing to lay perform a range of behaviours, including inspecting different potential nest sites, a little nest building, and fussing over the arrangement of the straw.

Hens that are able to carry out these normal behaviours have lower stress levels and are less aggressive to other chickens. So maybe if hens were allowed to perform their normal nesting behaviours, they wouldn’t need their beaks trimmed? Functional for the farmer these caravans may be, but astroturf and denying a hen a little time to fuss over her nest? This was not for us.

I was starting to wonder just how ‘different’ pastured egg production actually was.

Sure, the hens were not contained in a battery or a barn. A very good thing. Sure, they were able to access fresh grass, fresh air, have much more space and be able to dust bathe and catch the odd insect, that’s if their beaks had full function and sensation.

But so much of the pastured-egg industry still seemed too similar to mainstream production. Taking a cradle to grave, or egg to salmon pen view, egg farming did not look benign at all. The male chicks were still mulched shortly after hatching, the beaks of the hens were still trimmed, the breed was still an industrially efficient producer, the hens were discouraged from natural nesting behaviours and had terribly short lives when they were deemed unproductive.

As well as keeping mixed breeds and breeding our own hens, as well as giving our junior roosters a life, as well as refraining from beak trimming, we would stay small. Small.

This would mean producing about 20 dozen eggs a week. That would be well enough for us and to  supply our lamb customers with a truly alternative egg, that acknowledged and took account of the horrible practices up and downstream.

And rejecting the expensive, astroturfed rig meant developing our own portable hen house – a real caravan, a caravan for humans converted into a caravan for chickens.

We bought a cheap, second-hand Viscount ‘Ambassador’ with fashionable orange swish that might have otherwise ended up in the scrap yard. It had already been gutted of it’s 1970’s internal fixtures, no doubt re-purposed for fitting out another van.

Our customised moveable Chicken Van

We set about replacing the floor with wire mesh and converting the floor materials into a three-tiered nest box arrangement. And, in each nest box was placed organic sugar cane mulch, not astroturf. This would allow the hens to fuss over the arrangement of the straw all they liked before they laid. And more, they could live their whole lives with us and not be disposed of when their ‘productivity’ fell.

And that organic sugar cane mulch lining their nest boxes?
When it gets a little soiled, it can be removed and placed on the manure from the chickens on the grass. This would add vital carbon to the chicken manure heavy with nitrogen and phosphorous – perfect base material for sheet composting in the paddock to improve the soil. Astroturf couldn’t do that. Worse, it would become landfill when it wore out before being replaced with new astroturf sheets.

And productivity? Efficiency?
Well, that depends on what you choose to measure and how you perceive your pastured egg operation.

If you see your pastured egg operation as primarily a way of adding different manure to fertilise your soil, of adding phosphorous, nitrogen and carbon (via their nesting material) and helping to break the cycle of the intestinal worms in your paddock, and if you see the egg as a handy bi-product, then egg productivity per hen per day isn’t the right measurement. The hen will still produce manure and add to soil fertility even if she no longer lays an egg. She, with her full beak, longer life and accompanying rooster, is still a benefit to Highfield. Her brothers get to live past day one and make the best chicken stock, and we have never had any cases of feather pecking or cannibalism.

More on this topic:

The Chicken and the Egg

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