We are no longer selling eggs. This page remains for archival purposes.
Our small flock of chickens produces a number of products and benefits for the farm. In addition to fresh eggs and meat, our birds consume a significant quantity of farm scraps such as damaged produce, and generate rich fertility for our vegetable fields. Management
Our adult birds are housed in a permanent shed built from cedar logged & milled on-farm. From this central location, we rotate their outdoor access through various plots of pasture and forest using both permanent and portable fencing (above photo is from winter 2013). Birds range outdoors during the day and are locked inside overnight due to nocturnal predator pressure (raccoons, mink, bobcat, owl, coyote, fox, etc.). They are kept confined during the day only infrequently due to unusual circumstances, such as during a blizzard or during an episode of hawk predation, and even then they have access to an outdoor run. Our birds love to forage outdoors, and they make the most of their free-range lives.
We supplement the natural vegetation with cover crops such as clover, rye, and vetch, and we plan to experiment with plots using surplus vegetable seed to provide even more self-harvest food options for the birds.
In addition to the foods they forage, the chickens eat certified organic (& thus non-GMO) purchased feed, leftover produce & weeds from the farm, scraps from our kitchen, and cooked scraps from on-farm butchering of mammals such as goats and pigs (we never feed poultry to poultry). Not everything that passes through our kitchen is certified organic, but we are quite strict about avoiding GMOs and multi-ingredient processed foods.
The use of cooked, on-farm meat scraps as food is a primary reason that the birds and their eggs are NOT certified organic. (Additional reasons for not certifying include expense, hassle, and the ability that all of our egg customers have to visit & inspect first hand.) Organic rules currently prohibit feeding of “mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products to mammals or poultry” (section 205.237), though there is a proposal to change this provision for animals–including chickens–that are naturally omnivores. Chickens love meat in the form of insects and even small rodents (we’ve seen them hunt down and eat mice), and we feel that cooked on-farm butchering scraps are more natural and wholesome than processed protein sources like soy.
Sourcing certified organic feed and grains has been a major challenge in this part of Missouri.We continue to experiment with different sources and methods, but are wholly omitted to maintaining our birds in this way.
We began our flock with four heritage breeds: Black Ameraucana, Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire, and Wyandotte. We maintain several roosters in with the 40-odd hens, and will let broody hens sit on mixed eggs if they choose, but are also increasingly doing our own selective breeding to improve the flock. After isolating a desired rooster with a selection of hens, we collect the eggs and incubate them separately, then raise the young birds on pasture until they’re ready to be integrated into the main flock. Doing our own breeding keeps cashflow down, and allows us more control over the characteristics and behaviors of our birds. Over time, we expect to see improvements in our flock as we select for productive layers that thrive in the conditions at Chert Hollow Farm.
Though we do not raise meat-specific birds, eating meat is a necessary part of producing eggs. Hens lay well for 2-3 years, after which their production drops off even though they may live far longer. Thus it’s necessary to cull older hens as stewing birds, rather than feed them for many more years to no benefit (or let them die uncomfortably of disease or aging). In addition, breeding new hens necessarily produces about as many roosters, meaning all those young guys have to be eaten or they’ll overrun the farm in short order. Thus we do several rounds of chicken butchering in late summer or fall to get rid of the roosters before they start fighting amongst themselves and abusing the hens in a frenzy of male sexual aggression. We’ve joked in the past that we eat only enough chicken to be vegetarian, i.e. just what it takes to raise eggs as a protein source.
We charge $6/dozen for our eggs, which may seem expensive compared to the grocery store version, but which is quite cheap compared to most other food products. For example, even at $0.50/egg these high-quality nutritional powerhouses are still cheaper per unit than coffee, soda, candy bars, beer, and even bottled water. Given the costs of organic feed, and the time & skill necessary to maintain a free-range flock over the long run, we charge a price that allows us to make roughly minimum wage on egg production (if all goes well). People selling eggs for less are generally either hobbyists not trying to pay for their time, using cheaper or lower quality feeds (“natural” feeds are NOT the same thing as organic), and/or using management methods (such as confinement or large-scale production) that are not acceptable to us. We’re professional farmers who expect to make a reasonable income for the work and risks of raising high-quality pastured eggs. See this long blog post from 2012 for a deeper discussion of egg prices & value.
We sell eggs primarily to CSA members who choose home delivery (eggs can be ordered in the weekly share-customization form) or who visit the farm. We cannot deliver eggs with shares picked up at World Harvest, for reasons explained here. In the offseason, and potentially at other times, we set up egg deliveries in town to a member’s house where other CSA members can pick them up.
More egg info
Each evening, we collect eggs, clean them as needed, and pack them into egg cartons. We do our best to manage the nest boxes to produce eggs that come out of the nest clean, but the reality is that some eggs need a bit of extra clean up, which we do by spot-cleaning with a moistened towel. We prefer not to wash the eggs, because this removes the natural protective coating and thus shortens their shelf life. (Really dirty eggs go to our personal use.) We advise customers to wash eggs thoroughly immediately prior to use.
Eggs are variable in color, size, shape, and shell thickness, in part because our flock is very diverse (see photo above). We do not formally grade eggs by size, but we set aside the smallest ones for our personal consumption.
We often get eggs to customers within a few days of the laying date. Eggs have a long shelf life, and can last for months. Fresh eggs are beneficial for certain culinary creations, such as poached eggs. However, in the case of hard-boiled eggs, fresh eggs tend to be hard to peel. For hard-boiling, it is best to age eggs in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Our eggs have NOT been tested for Salmonella or other pathogens. Because we have fewer than 3,000 laying hens (the FDA’s definition of a “small flock”), we are exempt from Salmonella testing requirements & associated regulations. Though we would be interested in testing for Salmonella if it were cost effective, we have yet to find a practical way to do so.
We are of the opinion that healthy birds with outdoor access are unlikely to carry Salmonella, but we cannot guarantee this to be the case; chickens reportedly can carry Salmonella asymptomatically. We regularly eat our eggs “runny” and occasionally eat them raw (as in tiramisu, cookie dough, etc). If choosing to eat raw egg, sensible precautions are in order, such as minimizing the time that the eggs spend above refrigerator temperatures. Individuals with weakened immune systems should probably avoid consuming raw egg.
Manure & compost
A major benefit of raising chickens is their production of manure, which we compost and use to provide fertility to the crops grown on the farm. Along with our goat herd, this has allowed our vegetable fields to become fertility self-sufficient, and thus not reliant on feedlot manure or off-farm compost from dubious sources.