Without fail, some local ladies go on a weekly caravanning tour across the hills in Willunga. They cackle and scratch, and at times brood, but cross words are as scarce as hens’ teeth. Life is just fine, thank you.
They’re hens, but no ordinary chooks for their daily routine places these members of the Phasianidae family at the head of the pecking order.
Welcome to the Feather & Peck, which can be best described as a health farm – literally – with an overriding statement that the well-being of the chicken comes before a quality egg. Or is it the egg before the chicken? Whatever, this amazing place will probably make you think about buying your eggs for breakfast tomorrow morning.
The Feather & Peck is run by John and Catriona Byrne with help from John’s brother, Andrew as part of a joint operation with Gregg and Casey Nash at Yundi where they also have a chicken farm. Together, they produce more than 25,000 eggs a week, which are graded and packed at the old Dairy Farm factory at Mount Compass.
The world standard for free range eggs is a maximum 1500 chooks per hectare. The Australian maximum ratio is 10,000. The Feather & Peck has 25 per hectare.
The definition of ‘free range’ is ‘having meaningful access’, but this can mean just leaving doors open to a big shed. According to Catriona, being a friendly bunch, chooks stick together where the feed is, so the 10,000 of them are not likely to go for a walk outside.
However, the amazing growing success of Feather & Peck – as with other farms like Modra’s Kangaroo Island Free-Range Eggs that are rated incredibly well for meeting the national model code – goes beyond simply giving these ‘ladies’ a nice day on the farm. It’s about the importance of farmland regeneration.
The Feather & Peck has 5200 hens on the two farms – but no roosters as they bring in chooks at 16 weeks old. Those at John and Catriona’s 220 acre property are constantly protected by electrified fencing and guarded by beautiful Italian Maremma dogs including Ollie, and puppies Max and Freda featured on our front cover. The chooks are grouped and rotated with specially-made caravans on patches surrounded by portable fencing,
Catriona believes the best part about pastured eggs is the access outside. “This type of farming gives the chooks the most natural existence that you could possibly have whilst maintaining some sort of farming structure,” she says. “In just a week they can scratch and scratch and decimate the soil, so before then we move them on and allow the soil to regenerate.
“It’s not just about the well-being of the chook, it’s the quality of the egg. There are some studies around pastured free range compared with caged. There is higher Omega 3, higher vitamin A, and higher vitamin E marginally.
“Experts will tell you that nutritionally they marginally differ, but there is certainly a far better shell quality, which makes a big difference, especially when you are cooking. Interestingly, one of our customers says that she notices a different smell about the eggs because we have no soy, no genetically modified soy.
“The key to the eggs is the ethical nature of them. We try to mimic nature with that bi-dynamic approach. People ask if they are organic. They are as close as you can get without being registered organic because that is a whole new level of registration and approach. Organic feed is even more costly.”
Although both Catriona and John have a family farming background in Bordertown and Coromandel Valley respectively, before this chook enterprise they were entrenched in the corporate world – Catriona still is, doing marketing for a Sydney-based company which takes her interstate regularly. With two children – Archie, 14 , and Stella, 12 – life is busy, but this bright and energetic family loves every moment.
John was in physiotherapy and also marketing before working this current property 15 years ago, and doing an intense four-year farming course to launch this specialist chicken farm 18 months ago. This operation is far from just plonking Henrietta and heaps of other hens on a block and collecting the eggs.
John said they had been doing the chooks and eggs routine a long time, but it was their decision to be far more professional that changed everything.
“Our regenerative farming approach actually creates this system that you don’t need to put chemicals and fertilisers into your soil,” John said. “You are doing as much naturally with your soil as possible with the eradication of weed and bugs.”
Catriona said regenerative was different to sustainable farming in the sense everything was returned to the earth.
“It sounds terrible to talk about, but when the hens get old and die they are buried and composted,” she said.
“That’s farming. Everything goes back into the soil and improves the life of livestock and the nutrition available to them. It is using nature’s principles.”
John believes the real key is that the Feather & Peck doesn’t feed the chooks anything that has genetically modified soy. “We feed them crushed grain that we buy locally to give them the extra protein they need,” he said.
“The whole idea of moving the chickens round the farm is that they drop their manure where we want it. When we move them on the next week you get that nice breaking down of he manure and so we use a lot less fertiliser, a lot less herbicide.
“We move a herd of 50 Angus beef cattle breeders and their 50 calves through a paddock first, and then the chooks move through and get rid of the cow pads before they move on and the paddock is rested.”
Catriona said if you were interested in the life the chooks have, and the quality of the egg, then you should do research on where the eggs have come from.
“It is not about criticising other people, and there are all different ways of doing farm processed eggs,” she said. “At this end it is obviously premium because there is a lot more effort going into what is essentially a smaller number of chickens compared with a farm that has them either in sheds or free range in large groups.”
With Catriona’s expertise in corporate marketing it’s no surprise she came up with the clever business name, and with John share a wonderful concept that can further enhance the Fleurieu Peninsula’s reputation as a leader in healthy food and delights.
“One of our visions is that people who have land on the Fleurieu can perhaps set up a pod of caravans and farm eggs under the Feather & Peck brand using the regeneration system that we have created, and sort them all as one,” John said.
“With all primary production you have got to keep a close eye on procedures, food safety and all those important things, but we have got the production sorted.
“We don’t think of it as a franchise because they would sell through us and under the brand. In the United States there is a company called Vital Farms that packages under their brand involving farms from Texas up to the west coast.”
Right now, the value of John and Catriona combining their areas expertise with those of Gregg and Casey in the production of real eggs cannot be under-estimated. Well done to everyone who supports them and other real free range egg suppliers.
Of course, give the girls on the farm a cheer too. It’s good to hear they’re not all nameless, thanks to Stella who named one chook Delirious Dave. Strange name for a hen indeed, but that’s what you get when one stands out among the caravanning crowd on the hill in the cold with hardly any feathers. It’s the lowest pecking order here, but geez, she has nice eggs.