Our laying hens live in mobile coops on pasture surrounded by movable electric net fencing. The coops have nest boxes built right in to them. When the hens have thoroughly picked through an area, we roll the coop forward to a patch of fresh grass and set up the net fence to keep the chickens in and predators out. In this way the chickens always have fresh greens—not necessary for their survival, but an important aspect of good health, akin to humans eating fresh vegetables. The greens are responsible for the production of high quality eggs with deep orange yolks that stand up in the pan. Supermarket eggs look pale and anemic by comparison. The chickens eat a surprisingly large amount of grass along with worms, bugs, and whatever else they can find. Moving the chickens around the field also maintains the health of our pasture. They convert their feed into fertilizer, eliminating the need to purchase soil amendments. And our chickens, when following the cows, will break up and disperse the cow manure and eat insect larvae, helping to reduce the fly population.
We raise a large number of breeds of laying hens, including Silver-laced Wyandottes, Gold-laced Wyandottes, Araucanas (blue egg layers), Buff Orpingtons, Red Sex-links, Delaware, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and Black Australorps. Most of these are “heritage breeds”—breeds common on farms in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They sometimes lay fewer eggs each year, but do well living outside, tolerating weather extremes and proving to be better foragers. These have been replaced in industrial egg operations by high yielding varieties that are bred to thrive indoors under light and temperature-controlled conditions. We never use artificial lights on our hens to ‘convince’ them to lay more