Chasing the juiciest worm

One of my favourite times to ‘walk the birds’ is in early evening when they’re most active. You feel like the Pied Piper with a big trail of them behind you, writes organic egg producer Duncan Janaway.

It’s been an exciting week as our new chicks have arrived here at the farm. We put them under heat lamps so they’re nice and warm, and then after about 17 weeks they go off to the laying sheds.

The industry average is for chickens to lay for around 72 weeks, but we take some of our birds up to 80 or 95. After that, we re-home as many as possible and the rest go into the food chain. That’s the way of it, but an organic farm really does give them the best life possible. 1,000 birds have a hectare of space between them, so it’s a huge area – about the size of a Trafalgar Square, or a rugby pitch.

The egg industry has changed a lot, from batch cages, to barn eggs and free range, which is now the base level. That’s an improvement, but the big difference between organic and free range is the flock sizes allowed, and the number of exit doors, known as ‘pop holes’. In any flock, there is a pecking order and if there’s only one exit the chances are the birds at the bottom of the pecking order won’t get to use it.


Then there’s the fact beak-trimming is 100 per cent banned under Soil Association rules. Under free range it is frequently done – chickens are an aggressive bird and they will take it out on each other, especially in stressed and crowded conditions. If a chicken is bored in a shed, they’re going to peck each other, so what we do is hang things up like egg cartons, or lay bales of straw around.

Personally, I think consumers need to share responsibility for the farming industry we have today. When you think of chicken, it’s an amazingly cheap protein that was expensive in years gone by. And you do need a protein that is available to low-income families.

One of my favourite times to ‘walk the birds’ is in early evening when they’re most active. You feel like the Pied Piper with a big trail of them behind you. Or when they know it’s been raining and they all come running out looking for the juiciest worm. That’s the great thing about organic – everyone who comes and has a look at our chickens can see how happy they are. And I’m convinced that happy chickens make fantastic layers!


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  1. Glad to think the organic worms will have a lot less microplastic in them than the ‘regular’ worms have as recently reported. And since the plastic- eating worms didn’t thrive it’s hardly surprising the organic hens are happier…
    .Does anyone in the ‘free-range’ industry have to test the soils for pathogens after only 2 months between flocks? I’m certainly reassured to know that in the organic system it’s 9 months!

  2. It must be so traumatic to be bourn in a hatchery, tweeting for but never finding your mother, living in a crowd. Then being killed while very young not getting anywhere near your normal 10 year life span. Hens are a very maternal animal

  3. I received my News From The Farm leaflet in my veg box today and this week it is from egg supplier Duncan Janaway. I decided to stop buying free range eggs and instead get the mixed sized ones to be included in my weekly veg box. Reading the leaflet reminded me of how far we have come since the days when some 40-50 years ago chicken was a treat and we ate it less than beef and hard to imagine for my children. It also reminded me of the wonderful flavour that chickens once had rather than the tasteless artificially plumped birds that adorn our supermarket and most butchers shelves. It is a real treat to get an egg with a vibrant yellow yolk that when the egg shell is broken it keeps its shape in a frying pan or on slow simmer for poaching.
    All animals and not just chickens deserve a proper life before the inevitable happens for them to enter the food chain but the incessant commercial pressures of more,more,more means that they are rushed through with little thought for how they end their lives which makes the fact that some have a decent life almost meaningless, to them anyway. When a nation who cannot look into their food cupboard or fridge and then make a meal without reference to a “celebrity” chef recipe book (on how to buy more outlandish ingredients and enrich the “celebrity” chef and his/her pr team) yet can buy 10 types of tomato, £3 whole chicken, 24 pork steaks for £10,10 types of cabbage……….The illusion of choice that equals quality is a myth and the phrase “keep it simple” should have real resonance with everyone. We face an enormous problem as supermarkets, with the collusion of the shopper and governments have been instrumental in the great food con, appealing to our base instincts of greed and cheapness not interested in the true long term costs to health and environment. Society is in a mess.

  4. I used to buy organic eggs and dairy before I saw footage that showed the real life of farm animals in the UK. I was shocked, it made me very sad and I am so sorry. Like many I thought those farms committing animal cruelty were the bad apples of the business and surely organic farms uphold the highest standards of the industry. They care for their animals right? And I’m sure if I wanted to know details about what it means to be an organic cow, chicken or pig, they would be transparent and thus reassure me, that their animals lived a happy life. I never looked any further than the ‘organic’ logo on the packaging.

    I came across questions I never asked myself before like:
    What happens to the brothers of laying hen chicks hatching at the same time?
    How many eggs does a ‘wild chicken/bird’ lay naturally? How many eggs does an organic chicken lay and is this painful?
    I know organic egg farmers make sure the female chicks are nice and warm when they arrive from the hatchery – but how do the hens feel when they are no longer needed and face the slaughter house? Does the organic farmer and indeed the consumer still care then?
    What is the natural life span of a chicken?
    Apart from lots of space to roam, might the chicken have other interests like keeping their eggs, raising their own chicks and being part of a natural flock of birds of all ages?

    I’m not in the position to blame anyone who might read this. After all it took me a lifetime to make the connection. I’m no longer using any animal products, because it’s not necessary. No-one gets hurt on my behalf anymore.


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