In the lush green pastures of southern New South Wales sits what can be described as free-range chicken heaven.
- A Holbrook farmer has revived his paddock health with free-range egg production
- The farm keeps a low stocking density of 40 hens per hectare
- The 15,000 hens are never locked up, and instead are protected by Maremma guardian dogs
Holbrook farmer Sam Pincott accidentally fell into egg production 11 years ago when he set out to improve the health of his soil with 50 chickens in an old caravan.
Now he tends to 15,000 hens on his property, producing around 50,000 eggs per week.
“We’re just seeing the most incredible response from pasture species that are coming back compared to what was here when we started,” Mr Pincott said.
“Our organic levels in the soil are improving all the time; we do regular soil testing to monitor that.”
The farm has 19 portable sheds that were made in Holbrook and are moved around the paddocks once a week.
“It’s a very simple system, like hooking on a trailer and moving it 50 metres,” Mr Pincott said.
“That is done in conjunction with cattle or sheep that come in on agistment.
“It’s really important for the cattle to come in. They do a vital job of eating that grass down and the chooks just follow through.”
Low stocking density
In 2018, new free-range egg laws came into place, aimed at making producers live up to their label.
To be considered free range, egg producers can run a maximum of 10,000 hens per hectare of land. Mr Pincott said his farm kept a low stocking density of 40 hens per hectare.
“As producers, we need to make sure we are giving them that information.”
Mr Pincott said 80 per cent of his farm’s eggs went to Sydney customers who he said had a good idea of what free-range eggs were.
“We are continually amazed at the questions that come out of the city,” he said.
“They want to know if they are de-beaked, what supplementary feed is used, and what the density stocking is. They are very informed questions.”
Mr Pincott said the low stocking density had also reduced animal health problems on his farm.
“We’ve got so much space and there’s so many distractions for them in the paddock, for foraging and climbing branches.
“We don’t have any issues with them pecking each other, [so] we don’t have to de-beak.
Guardians of the paddocks
Mr Pincott said some of the most important workers on the farm were the nine Maremma guard dogs that live in the paddocks with the hens.
“They live in pairs with each age group in the paddock,” he said.
“We couldn’t do what we do without them. We don’t lock the hens up at night, so the dogs are on duty to guard the chickens against all predators like foxes and eagles.”
The nine working dogs will be joined by a new puppy in a few weeks’ time.
“We don’t want to break their bond with the chooks, so we give them the attention that they need but nothing more.”
The Maremma, a common breed found at free-range egg farms, originated in the Italian hills.
“Daytime is their downtime so they are pretty relaxed right now but when night comes they are on patrol and I wouldn’t want to cross them,” Mr Pincott said.