HOW WE RAISE AND CARE FOR OUR LAYING HENS
We currently maintain a flock of approximately 250 laying hens, although we are planning on adding additional layers in 2014 to meet growing egg demand. We raise a variety of heritage "heavy" chicken breeds for our layers, as they are much hardier than commercial hens and can lay throughout our cold winters. The breeds we raise include New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orphingtons, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Partridge Rocks, and Black Australorps. These heavy birds all lay large nutritious brown eggs. The life span of a commercial hybrid Leghorn laying hen raised in a small cage with 5 or 6 other hens is usually less than a year. We keep our "girls" for two full years, even though they lay fewer eggs in the second year, they are larger eggs.
First Few Weeks
We order the chicks from a hatchery in Iowa and they arrive the day after they are born. The Barrington post office knows us well from the chicks. We place the day-old chicks in the brooder house next to the barn, which is insulated with heat lamps to maintain a temperature of 90 degrees plus for the first few days. Typically at about 7 days of age the more adventurous chicks will head out into the grass area behind the brooder on a warm day. When the chicks are 3 - 4 weeks old, we move them to the pasture shelter during the warmer months, or to their winter greenhouse if the weather is cold.
Growing on Pasture
Once they are out of the brooder, the layers will live on the pasture during the spring, summer, and fall months. They will have around-the-clock access to fresh growing green grass, herbs, clovers, alfalfa, weeds, and bugs to eat at all times. To ensure they are safe from predators while on pasture, we confine the layers to a large 1-2 acre paddock surrounded by several sections of portable electrified poultry netting, which we move around the pasture as necessary, according to grass height and manure concentration. The netting keeps the coyotes and foxes out, and the layers are usually smart enough and fast enough to avoid the hawks.
During the growing season, the laying hens stay in a portable 24 x 32 "egg mobile" - where we move them in April and they stay through mid-November. The Egg Mobile is surrounded by about 2 acres of fresh pasture circled by electric fencing to keep predators out. They are free to range inside the electic fencing. They will come out of the shelter at daybreak to forage, and then a dusk they will go back into the shelter and spend the night off the ground on several roosts. They have 32 nest boxes to lay their eggs and occasionally we have to gather a "broody" girl out of a nest box to get the eggs.
Once snow arrives, we move all the laying hens into 3 large greenhouse near the barn or at the ranch, where they will spend the winter months. The greenhouse has a white PVC cover so it warms up in the day and provides plenty of light. We use a deep bedding system with wood chips, straw, and hay to keep them warm and to help manage the manure build up. The hens have access to a fenced paddock on warm days, but usually they don't like to walk on the snow or ice.
We feed the layers a locally grown, certified-organic, soy-free, non-GMO feed mixture provided by Cashton Farm Supply, which buys its organic grains and feedstocks from local Illinois and Wisconsin farmers. We feed the layers free choice out of range feeders that are filled up once per day in the evening. Their organic feed mixture also includes Fertrell Nutribalancer, and organic mineral/probiotic supplement that keeps them healthy, along with granite grit and calcium grit which helps them digest the forage the collect from the pastures and produce strong eggs. We estimate 30% - 50% of their total diet consists of pasture forage - bluegrass, timothy grass, fescue, white clover, alfalfa, seeds, plus insects and worms. In winter we also provide the hens with green hay and certified organic "scratch grains" - a mixture of cracked corn, whole oats, whole wheat, and field peas, which provides them with extra energy and encourages their natural scratching instincts in the composted bedding.
Environment and Handling
Between the on-grass brooder and their daily life on pasture, the chickens are free to express all of their natural instincts, including roosting, foraging, and dust bathing, which altogether makes for a low-stress environment. When we walk among them, we do so slowly in an effort not to excite or frighten them as little as possible. When we need to handle any of them, we try to catch them quickly and without too much stress.
The hens usually lay their eggs in the late morning or early afternoon, so we usually collect eggs from the nest boxes late in the afternoon. We then package them and store them unwashed in the refrigerator until customers come to pick them up. We usually do not wash the eggs as that destroys the natural anti-bacterial barrier (the cuticle) on the eggs. We recommend that customers leave them unwashed until they are ready to use them.
When the laying hens reach two years of age, we either sell them or process them with the broilers. The meat from these mature hens is not as tender as the young broilers, but it is very flavorful and we highly recommed these be used as "stewing hens" - perfect for making chicken soup, dumplings, chicken stock for other recipes, or any other slow cooked chicken dish.