Pasture Raised Eggs: Moving Beyond Hens per Hectare
You have probably seen the number of hens per hectare labelled on your egg carton. Why do people use hens per hectare as a measurement of animal welfare?
The measurement of hens per hectare is used to compare egg farms that farm chooks in a shed or 'free ranging' in an area next to the shed - where the space the chickens are provided to roam is stationary, and the chickens are on the same amount of ground for their entire laying lives. This is what it means when you see ‘free range eggs’ on an egg carton.
This number is important in a farming system where the chickens aren’t being moved onto fresh pasture, because they are damaging the ground they are living on simply by being chickens - digging, scratching, dust bathing, foraging and defecating. The manure is left behind and pathogens and parasites are left behind and can become an environmental concern in a shed, with built up manure being a breeding ground for parasites and pathogens, and producing fumes. Therefore, the lower the number of chickens per hectare in this farming system, the better the animal welfare standard.
Hens per hectare actually isn’t as relevant in a pastured egg system, because this system has moved beyond using a stocking density to communicate it’s animal welfare standards, to embracing a farming system that uses those same natural behaviours of a chicken - scratching, digging, dust bathing, foraging and defecating - to improve pasture quality, water infiltration, soil health, control insects and naturally manage any pathogens and parasites.
In Runnymede’s farming system, Blythe's hens are moving onto fresh ground regularly and not staying in their own manure. The manure is left behind and pathogens and parasites are left behind and are an environmental asset in terms of fertiliser for the pasture, rather than an environmental concern.
Blythe runs her laying hens in four mobile chicken vans over 200 acres, with 450 hens per van, where the hens are moved forward to fresh ground every 2 - 4 days depending on the impact they're having on the ground - on ground with more fragile soil or in a brittle dry environment they are moved quicker, with a less brittle environment and lusher grass they will stay longer. The less brittle the environment, the more ability for grass to recover, and the chooks can stay longer without doing damage. This is a ‘pastured egg’ farming system.
It is the time spent in the pasture area and the recovery of those plants before being grazed again that is important in a pastured system - this is referred to as pasture recovery. Blythe’s chooks are rotated over the 200 acres, and don't come back over the same area within 12 months, giving the pasture a very long recovery, and breaking the pathogen and parasite cycle by the chickens not having access to their manure - so it becomes 100% recycled through the mineral cycle in the soil, feeding healthy pasture and soil microbes.
So when asking for a number, Blythe runs her hens at the equivalent of 1500 hens per ha, but that's not really a true indicator of animal welfare or stocking density - it's much less than that, but because the hens are moved one big group to have the maximum benefit on the pasture, it is the equivalent of 1500 birds per hectare at one time.
The marketing in the egg space can be quite misleading - many people believe when they are buying ‘free range’ eggs they are supporting a farming system where hens are free to roam on pasture, but this is not the case. When speaking to Blythe about how to choose the eggs that taste best and are best for the chickens, Blythe stressed transparency - first look for ‘pastured eggs’ or ‘pasture raised eggs’ on the egg carton. Then look for their website and their social media - if their carton says 300 hens per hectare, and the brand does not have a website or social media account, or does not show images or explain the living conditions of their chickens, then they are not being transparent about how they are farming. If in doubt, just support Runnymede farm and buy the best tasting eggs from the happiest chickens! And if you are on holidays elsewhere, check out the eggs at your local farmers market, and learn about how they are produced - ask those questions about whether the hens are in mobile vans and moved onto fresh pasture.