I’ve always had an idyllic, romantic image of farms. A vision of warm, hazy summer days, vast open areas of lush fields and lots of animals hanging around to socialise with. It’s a storybook image of a farm, which belies the hard work and long hours that the UK’s farmers put in every single day, tending to their flock, fields or crop. So imagine my joy when I was invited to spend a day on a Happy Egg Company farm! Even my strong British stiff upper-lipped attempts at containing my excitement were short lived, because the happiness with which I anticipated this event was massive, I couldn’t wait to get down on the farm.
When I got there, I saw 120 acres of lush green pasture and 14,000 chickens, all purring away happily. Yes, I know that chickens cluck, but when you’re faced with the residents of a mobile chicken shed, running across the field as they begin to range free for the day, all those clucks merge into a gentle purr-cluck-purr sound. You can tell when chickens are stressed, the noise is obvious and very different to the mellow purr-clucking which I experienced.
How Many Eggs?
Eggs are ridiculously popular in the UK.
12,216,000,000 eggs were consumed in the UK last year and 83% of those were produced within the UK, the rest were imported. 53% of eggs bought by consumers in the shops are free range, but only 40% of eggs used in pre-made products (cakes, mayo etc) are free range. Individually we eat a lot of eggs, around 189 per year, a total of 33 million every single day. This means we need a lot of chickens, preferably free range, happy chickens, which is where the Happy Egg Company comes in.
Down on The Farm.
The Happy Egg Company has several farms who supply their eggs around the UK, the one I visited was previously an agricultural college 30 years ago, so has a few more facilities suited to arranging visits such as this one. There was a gaggle of bloggers meeting for the day, nice and early at 7.15am. The early bird catches the worm, after all. Once assembled we donned our blue all-in-one suits to ensure the bird’s health and met JP, who was our esteemed guide and font of chicken-based knowledge for the day.
As we walked around, the cynic within me was half expecting to find a special show-barn that had been polished to within an inch of it’s life, ready and waiting for us. My cynicism was unfounded, all I saw was a well ordered, spacious, lush, active, working farm. There was no facade, no restricted areas, no show-equipment or questions left unanswered. It was a working farm with lots of open space and happy chickens ranging around, kicking up the dust.
The Chicken and the Egg.
The Happy Egg Company puts a lot of effort into enrichment and ranging. They create their own enriched feed and the birds have freedom to range all day from around 7am, with the odd break to lay an egg, before they all go inside the barn later in the day, hop up to a perch and have a well earned nap. Their feeding is ‘ad lib’, meaning they have constant access to feed and water within the barn, whenever they want, and there’s no antibiotics in the feed. In fact, antibiotics are only used when prescribed as a treatment and at the farm, JP said their last quarter’s report shows they’ve used none at all.
The stringent testing and standards required by large scale egg production means that the health of the flock is very good, a fact that has to be evidenced. There’s a hell of a lot of accountability for a large egg producer, meaning they are constantly reporting and being audited, ensuring standards are maintained.
The chickens spend their day flapping around in the field, with wooden shelters to sit under, or they can find a tree or bush to sit around. Inside the barn they have ropes to play with and apparently love things that make noises when they tap them, like traffic cones or watering cans. There are also dust bathing areas where they can kick up the dirt and set out the pecking order, quite literally. Chickens peck at each other as a form of dominance, to determine who the big birds of the flock are.
Within the barn are the laying boxes which are dark inside, where the hens can sneak in for a bit of privacy whilst they lay an egg. After laying, the eggs roll into a central channel along the middle of the barn, then are collected by hand at the end of the barn. They will be of various sizes so need to be graded and stamped with the farm’s code before they get stacked, farm fresh, ready for collection.
The Life and Times of a Laying Hen.
The chicks on the Happy Egg farm are bred specifically to lay eggs, to be sold to UK consumers such as myself, as I was a Happy Egg Company customer prior to this day. The chickens lay eggs for their entire stay on the farm and the Happy Egg Company ensure this is done in the most comfortable, enjoyable and humane way possible.
At a separate rearing farm, also part of the Happy Egg Company, the chicks are born and then transferred to the laying farm at 16 weeks of age. At around 20 weeks of age they reach maturity and start laying eggs, then by 25/26 weeks they reach the peak egg laying stage of their life. They are kept at the farm for nearly another year, over which period their egg laying abilities and egg quality begin to decline. Eventually, the chickens are taken away and slaughtered, to be used in various food products such as chicken soup or dog food.
These chickens are bred as a food source, but are cared for during their life with high standards and they are utilised ‘nose to tail’ when they are taken away from egg laying. This life cycle is typical of all UK egg production and the main difference is the standards to which the birds are kept during their life, such as Free Range or Organic.
An Egg-cellent Day Out.
I couldn’t resist cracking at least one egg based pun!
I really enjoyed my day on the farm, but more than that, I left with no doubt over the genuine nature of the conditions at the farm. I must have seen well over a thousand birds at the fields and barns we visited and the entire farm was very well run and home to some particularly happy Very Important Birds, or VIBs as they call them. Also the transparency with which they talked about all issues surrounding chicken welfare and egg production left me feeling very confident about the standards they keep.
We were treated to an egg based lunch (farm fresh eggs, of course) before heading off home with a box of the aforementioned eggs and a bundle of egg based information about what cooking with eggs, such as:
It leaves me with a practical understanding of why it’s important to choose free-range or organic eggs. The Happy Egg Company chickens have a happy life to range around as a flock, eat good food and be well looked after. If you are able to buy free range eggs or products that only contain free-range eggs, it will help increase the standards of chicken farming across the country, which ultimately, is a good thing.
I’d like to thank The Happy Egg Company for inviting me along to this day, I had great fun and really enjoyed learning about the hidden lives of chickens and how the VIBs are brought up to be such happy birds. As the clouds broke and the sun came out, it ended up being a warm, hazy, enjoyable day on the farm, which has deepened my mental image of that happy life, down on the farm.