The chicken caravan on the grassy hill is the first thing you notice. Driving closer we were spotted by two dogs sitting calmly inside the electric mesh fence surrounded by brown chickens. Kim met us near the house and took us into the paddock where we were inspected thoroughly by the two lovely dogs. They are of the Maremma breed, specifically bred as guardians for herd animals like sheep and goats but also chickens.
Kim explained that they work at night, keeping foxes and feral dogs at bay. Not a single chicken has been lost to foxes, dogs or eagles since Cheeky and Willow have been on the property.
The chicken caravan is a model of cleanliness and cleverness. It is moved every day so that the droppings produced by the roosting birds at night are distributed around the paddock. The 450 birds spend an average of one week on an area of 3000 square metres and return in 6 weeks time. Our visit was at a very dry time, and the health of the pasture was a testament to the management practices.
The caravan (chickencaravan.com) allows for clean nest boxes, good perches, and easy egg collection using a hand operated conveyor belt.
The chickens are Isa Browns, and when they arrive from the hatchery at about 16 weeks they don’t really know what to do about grass, or even perching. To get them accustomed to using the trailer, they often have to be picked up every evening and placed on the perch.
Although it is a commercial operation. Kim’s personal values make it difficult for her to slaughter the chickens at the end of their optimum productive life, so she keeps them for two years instead of one. They are then offered for sale as “spent hens” to backyarders. “They will still lay 4 or 5 eggs a week, and will give value through their conversion of food waste into fertiliser,” said Kim.
The chickens are fed a commercial mix plus some meat meal from the Moruya abattoirs. In winter, they are fed a special porridge of pollard, bran, meat meal and some seaweed to “keep their bellies warm”.
All of the eggs produced are sold either at the farmers market or to local cafes and restaurants. “The eggs sold on a Tuesday were laid that morning,” said Kim, “All of our production is basically pre-sold”.
Apart from feral animals, the main challenge for the operation is maintaining comfortable conditions for the birds. The caravan provides good shade and ventilation as well as wind protection, but the recent extreme heat wave was devastating. “It got to 51 degrees out here. We lost 200 chickens”.
Watching the chickens eating grass, scratching for insects and generally being chickens, it seems that this is pretty close to what we imagine “free range” to be. With the current “free range” regulations allowing 10,000 birds to the hectare (along with “meaningful and regular access to the outdoors”) it is clear that this type of operation needs a new terminology. This new Australia-wide definition is around 7 times the density at Mogendoura.
Kim says, “I prefer the term ‘pastured eggs’ as it reflects where the birds are spending their lives. Not in a shed with notional access to the outdoors, often bare earth, but on beautiful pasture.”