The working life of a chicken

The working life of a chicken

1512 1512 Table Under a Tree

Have you ever thought about the retirement age of a chicken? I can’t say I had, until a casual conversation with pastured egg farmer Katie Wessling, head-chick at La Finca Booyong got me thinking.

I knew that Katie routinely rotated her flock, retiring the older girls and bringing in the next generation. We have quite a few of Katie’s retirees at our farm, who still provide us with plenty of eggs and entertainment. I knew that the reason for this came down to simple mathematics. Chickens are most productive for roughly twelve months, from the age of 16-17 weeks through to 13 months. They’ll still lay after that, just not as regularly and their eggshells will become more brittle and their yolks more pale. That means that all egg farmers go through a process of in with the new and out with the old – and for what it’s worth, I’m not sure how many of them go to the same effort as La Finca, who rehome their chooks around the district ensuring they get to live out their lives happily.

Rotation aside, Katie had long been talked about expanding her flock. Her chook eggs are in high demand in the region, with cafes, restaurants and small grocers clamouring for cartons. Over the Splendour weekend, Katie reached “peak-egg” and struggled to fill orders as the influx of visitors sent her clients into overdrive. Forget the avocado-crisis folks, this was far more profound!

Katie’s solution to this was to sink money, time and hard work into expanding her flock. That isn’t as straightforward as it might sound and it sure piqued my curiosity, enough that I found myself at her farm at 7am one morning, checking out the arrival of 450 new girls.

Here’s what I learned that early misty morning.

For starters, this wasn’t a hasty decision. It was one that Katie had weighed up and committed to some six months earlier, putting in her order for the extra girls with chicken farmer Rhett at Little Red Hen in Brisbane’s outer suburbs. Rhett’s business is to raise healthy, happy chooks from day-old chicks to the age where they are ready to lay, at which point he sells them to farms like La Finca. Rhett’s care for the welfare of the birds was obvious and he talked me through the intricacies of vaccinations (by hand, of hundreds of chickens), bio-security, breeds and more.

Without doubt, Katie’s decision to expand was a leap of faith. This effectively gives her three flocks, but with that expansion comes the need to manage pasture and infrastructure differently. It is logical when you think about it, but pastured eggs by require a farm to have a decent amount of available paddock-space for the chickens to range, and if you go from two flocks to three, well, that just means more pasture. Plus another chicken caravan, plus more feed and so the list goes on.

It puts the price of a dozen free-range or pastured eggs into perspective. But when you weigh up economics with the welfare of the animal, not to mention the nutritional benefits, it’s an investment we should all make whenever we can.

And Katie’s backing her chooks, her methods and her pastures to deliver the goods. She’s moved to a new breed of chicken, Highlines, who are renowned for the high rates at which they’ll lay and she’s already got the order with Rhett for the next round of girls – to retire the older section of the flock – who will arrive in November. It’s not all smooth sailing. The new chooks still have to get into the swing of things in their new home and new jobs and evidently there’s already been a sneaky fox trying for a middle of the night feed. Some sleepless nights ahead for Katie are highly likely.

Happily, all things being equal, it should all mean that the chefs and shop owners of the Northern Rivers can sleep easy, even if Katie can’t! The eggs are on their way! If you’re a local resident or you’re visiting this beautiful region, make sure you get your hands on some La Finca eggs. You’ll find a full run down of where to get them here, or you can order a Breakfast Classic meal pod from us and we’ll simply deliver it to you!

Wherever you get your eggs, do what you can to get them from real people, at real places where they’re making real food.