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!