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Laying Hens 101
Pasture-raised eggs can provide a useful income stream to an existing farming business. But as with any new venture, it is essential to ask yourself some important questions before buying in your first chicks.
Do I have the time and additional resources to accomplish this task? Can I afford the initial outlay? What are my costs of production? Do I have a viable local market, such as a major metropolitan area or popular farmers’ market? Will local stores or restaurants take my eggs? What makes my farm and eggs different from local competition?
Only you can answer these questions. Do not rush, think it through carefully, as these questions may lead to other issues you might not have considered.
Remember: the number of birds you plan to keep will not only dictate the number of eggs you will have to sell, but also things like space requirements for brooding, housing and range area, perch provision, feed supplies and so on. Make sure you do your homework first!
Choosing the breed
Most small-scale farmers choose traditional-type breeds for their good ranging and foraging abilities. Here are some commonly used breeds for pasture-based production:
- Araucana: 250 eggs of blue or green shell color per cycle. Can be flighty. Some farmers add the colored eggs of these birds into a carton to make them stand out from competition.
- Barred Rock: 250–260 eggs of brown shell color per cycle. Calm bird, great disposition.
- Delaware: 250–260 eggs of brown shell color per cycle. Calm bird, hardy for cold regions. The Delaware breed was used to start the modern broiler industry.
- Rhode Island Red: 250-260 eggs of brown shell color per cycle. Friendly and calm.
- White Leghorn: 280 eggs of white shell color per cycle. Nervous and flighty.
Note: AGW does not endorse any specific breed. Lay rates will vary depending on strain and hatchery.
AGW standards require you to source chicks or point-of-lay (POL) pullets from an AGW-certified laying hen/breeder farm. If there is no suitable supplier near you, you can order chicks from any hatchery or farm as long as the birds are placed on your farm by 36 hours of age. Note: you can only source POL pullets from AGW-certified laying hen/breeder farms.
If your hatchery is within driving distance, it’s well worth picking up the chicks instead of having them mailed. The faster you get the chicks on the ground eating and drinking, the better overall results you will have.
Speak with a local veterinarian or extension agent to discuss potential vaccination against diseases in your area. Some hatcheries offer vaccinations when you order.
It is possible to brood and raise a small number of chicks in a garage or a spare outbuilding. But brooding is a critical time for the young chick and any brooding area must be predator proof with access to water, electricity, and a heat source to keep chicks warm. You will need to provide a minimum of 0.25 sq. ft. brooding space per chick, increasing the area appropriately as the birds grow. You will also need to provide training perches made from natural tree limbs or lumber for young pullets from 10 days of age through to point of lay. Remember that AGW’s laying hen standards require chicks “to have access to forage by seven days of age.” Some farmers place a piece of sod in the brood chamber to help the chicks become more accustomed to foraging.
After brooding, chicks will need suitable housing with access to pasture. There are many different types of stationary and mobile housing kits available to purchase. If you’re looking to save costs, you can build your own coop from scratch (plenty of designs are available), while it is certainly possible to modify an old farm wagon, camper or mobile home into a mobile coop or roost, and construct your own nesting and perching systems. Likewise, an existing barn with extra space will work well. Just like the brooding area, you will need water and electricity and possibly a heat source, depending on where you farm.
There are pros and cons to using mobile and stationary structures.
The largest drawback for stationary housing is ensuring continuous access to fresh pasture, as AGW standards state that pasture must not become more than 20% denuded or void of grass at any time. Rotating pasture access from the house is the ideal, moving birds between different paddocks around the house.
While mobile units mean you can move to new pasture as needed, supplying water for drinking systems, keeping birds warm in colder climates, transporting feed to the birds and moving coops in hilly fields are all things to consider.
Make sure you understand the AGW standards on housing from the very outset. To qualify as a roost, the structure needs a minimum of 7 in. perch space per bird and the birds will have to be released from the structure within 1 hour of sunrise. If the doors are opened within two hours of sunrise the structure is not classified as a roost and must meet the 1.8 sq. ft. per bird space requirement. If the doors are not opened within 2 hours of sunrise then structures must meet the 1.8 sq. ft. per bird space requirement plus the additional 4 sq. ft. loafing requirement, requiring a total of 5.8 sq. ft. per bird.
Entry/exit pop-holes or doors are essential. The number required under AGW standards will depend on your flock size. Minimum door width is 18″ wide for a flock of 75 birds or less, while a flock of 75–140 birds will need two 18″ doors or one door of at least 36″ wide. (The height of any entry/exit must be at least 1 in. higher than the tallest bird in the flock when upright.)
If you farm in a colder climate your birds will need a warm structure to reside in. Some farmers pull mobile roosts into the barn or tunnel building for the winter, giving the birds at least 4 sq. ft. per bird for a ranging area and using the mobile roost with doors open so they have a roosting area. Other farms utilize a stationary structure with pasture access year-round.
When birds reach four weeks of age, AGW standards require continuous access to pasture (except in extreme weather) with a minimum of 4 sq. ft. of range per bird. The minimum range area is 10’ X 18’. So, if you had a 180 sq. ft. ranging area, the maximum number of birds allowed would be 45 hens. If you plan to have 500 hens, for example, you will need a fenced pasture area of at least 2,000 sq. ft. to comply with the standards. But remember that any fixed area will most likely become over 20% denuded if hens are not rotated to new areas to allow the previous section to regenerate.
Hens need to feel safe in order to range and planting bushes, shrubs or a few rows of tall crops like corn, sunflower or sorghum will definitely help.
Simple wooden structures, tarp or an old farm trailer will also give the birds cover in the pasture. Using multiple water founts and feeding areas will also encourage hens to range. Running a couple of roosters will also help move the hens along in the pasture.
Feed is the highest cost item in production, so it is important to plan what you are going to feed —and find ways to reduce costs.
Commercial poultry feed is usually available in three stages—starter, grower and layer. Buying bulk feed is the best way to save costs. Will you have enough hens to buy a pallet at a time? Or do you have a bulk storage bin? Maybe you have a large tote that will hold a ton or more and drive to the mill to pick it up.
Can you grow your own crops? If so, it is possible to grind and mix your own rations, although you will need to work with a nutritionist to ensure the diet will satisfy the birds’ nutritional requirements.
Some feed mills add grit to the feed mix during the manufacturing process, but if you live in an area with a lot of natural grit your hens will consume it. Hens also need a source of calcium for the shell-creating process. Most commercial layer feeds have a calcium range of 3–5%, which is adequate for egg production, although some farmers like to offer grit and oyster shells.
Do you intend to pursue Certified Non-GMO by AGW or organic certification? Certifications can enhance your product and increase profit margins, but you will need to secure suitable feed supplies.
Bedding is another area where bulk purchasing can reduce costs. During the brooding phase most farmers use pine shavings or coarse cut sawdust. Make sure the material is dry, as too much moisture in fresh cut timber products can cause respiratory issues, although most shavings or sawdust from local farm stores is kiln dried. For adult birds, farmers use shavings, sawdust or straw as bedding. Mobile roosts may have mesh or slatted flooring, which is compliant with AGW standards if it does not injure the hens’ feet. These products can be used in nest boxes.
As well as housing, you will need essential equipment, including nest boxes, fencing, watering and feeding stations. Poultry founts, nipple drinkers and various water containers are available for drinking, as well as a bewildering array of feeding equipment, with everything from the old metal can style and PVC units to fully automatic feeders. Individual or communal nests are available. If you decide on individual nest boxes you will need a minimum of 1 nest box per 5 hens, while a communal system requires a minimum of 20 sq. in. per hen.
Most farmers use electro-net style fencing with a good charger, as it is light, portable and effective. Solar, battery and electric chargers are widely available. Buy the best you can afford.
While it is worth looking out for used equipment, make sure you power wash and disinfect anything you buy to prevent disease transmission.
Good fencing is extremely important to protect hens from terrestrial predators. Check electric fencing regularly to make sure it is properly grounded. (It might be necessary to have two or more grounding points to provide the proper current.) When hens migrate back to their structure at dusk it is essential to shut them in until sunrise. Aerial predators can also be troublesome. However, providing cover in the range will reduce the chances of a hawk picking off a bird. Some farmers place scarers in their pasture to deter aerial predators. Another option is to place poles around your structure and tie fishing line between the poles, as the aerial predator is afraid of getting tangled. Trained guardian dogs that live with the birds can be highly effective.
Egg handling equipment
The scale and complexity of your egg handling set up will depend on the number of hens. Your system could be simple as a couple of egg baskets for egg collection, a double sink to wash eggs, a low-cost candler to inspect the eggs, a simple set of scales for grading, and refrigerator to store eggs. Specialist machinery is available to wash, weigh and grade eggs for larger operations.
Note: Every state has its own regulations on selling farm eggs and it is important to take the time to examine your state’s requirements before you start. Some states have exemptions for smaller flocks.
Don’t just copy your competitor’s egg price! Costs of production will vary from flock to flock and it is essential to do the math to ensure you will not lose money.
When calculating production costs for a dozen eggs, make sure you factor in electricity, fuel, labor, feed, water, chick costs, lay rate, egg breakage, mortality, bedding, egg cartons and other miscellaneous supplies. Remember to depreciate major equipment costs like fencing and brooding lights over several flocks. Online laying hen calculators can help you to estimate costs and egg price. Marketing is far too big a topic to cover here, but let’s just say every farm has a story to tell—and your customers need to feel part of it. Make the most of your AGW certification and explain why it matters. Social media is a cost-effective way to share information about your day-to-day farm activities and where people can buy your eggs.
AGW standards require that hens go through at least two laying cycles before removal from the flock. Some farmers give away spent hens to local farmers or hobbyists, while others process spent hens for meat to sell as stew birds. Remember: if you decide to sell the meat under the AGW label your farm or processing facility will need an annual slaughter review.
- farmhealthonline.com: With information on over 100 common diseases, plus nutrition, housing and husbandry, Farm Health Online offers free and immediate access to practical, science-based advice on positive livestock management.
- agreenerworld.org/farmer-services/technical-support/: AGW’s free technical advice fact sheets cover the most commonly asked questions about high-welfare farming—from range management to feather pecking.
- attra.ncat.org/topics/poultry/: ATTRA’s: ‘Sustainable Agriculture Program’s Pastured Poultry: Egg Production’ guide is an excellent (and free) introduction to integrating egg production into an existing farm operation.
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens: While focused on backyard flocks, this book by Gail Damerow is a useful for the beginner. But always cross-reference any advice with the AGW standards
- poultry.extension.org/: World of Poultry is part of the online U.S. Cooperative Extension System, known as extension, and offers useful content for the small-scale producer.
Author Frank Morison is Lead Auditor with A Greener World