I love watching a chicken peck around. While a cow or sheep methodically vacuums up mouthful after mouthful of grass, a hen operates surgically. Her expressionless round eye fixes on a target, and then her beak shoots down to snip up a beetle or a shoot of greenery. She shuffles and scratches and steps back and drops her head close to see if anything tasty got turned up. If a nearby hen is pecking away with particular enthusiasm, she’ll hurry over to share in the anthill or patch of particularly tender clover.
There are a lot of qualifiers on egg cartons, from cage free to free range to pasture raised. The last of these comes the closest to how I manage my chickens. It has good requirements, like 108 square feet of space per bird and some sort of rotational pasture access. I could easily meet these - my flock, in a moveable hoop surrounded by portable fence, will cover a much bigger area, and it is moved regularly. But it also demands year round outdoor access, with a maximum of two weeks entirely indoors due to weather.
While this standard would be easy enough to adhere to on paper, the reality of having chickens in central New York is that they prefer to stay inside a shelter once the snow starts really flying; even if they have access to a big outdoor space, they won’t use it. This is why, I suspect, most of the large pasture raised egg producers are located in the south.
Perhaps in the future it will make sense to establish standards that are better tailored to the northeast. I can imagine hens that are extensively pastured spring through fall, then housed in hoop houses with plenty of clean bedding through the winter. This is what I plan on doing with my flock, and at this early stage the results are promising. The eggs that have arrived so far have thick shells and rich, golden yolks, and I am excited that soon instead of one or two there will dozens each day.
Photo Credit - Garth Brown