by Sabine Rhyne
Although it was a very cold morning, the sun shone brightly over the pastures of Bonvue Farm—which meant that the chickens in the translucent-fronted henhouse were warm and active. Brian McNeice keeps his chickens according to his principles: they eat well, are housed palatially, have plenty of gorgeous Vermont Land Trust pasture to work over, and even play well with others. That’s actually one way you can tell how chickens are kept: if they are bored, they peck on each other. “I make sure they have plenty of scratch grain, which I grind fresh every two days. That’s how they socialize,” explains Brian. In addition, he provides them with plenty of hay, which also entices them to peck, happily.
Of course, these chickens spend most of the year, from May through November, merrily scratching around on the huge pasture that stretches out in front of Brian’s house, with their mobile hen house, an abode that is constantly evolving—they currently dwell in the third or fourth edition that Brian has built. It all began several years ago when Brian started keeping ten laying hens for himself and neighbors. As his flock grew to thirty birds, the BFC egg buyer at the time said that local eggs were needed at the Co-op. The flock grew to between 80 and 100 birds, and he began supplying the Co-op about three years ago.
“Eighty percent of the cost of eggs is the feed,” Brian explained. Organic feed is more than twice as expensive as conventional feed ($850 per ton versus $400), and so local eggs that are fed well predictably cost more. “When we raised our prices to reflect the actual cost of the eggs, sales dropped off for a bit,” he said. “But sales have rebounded now.” Mind you, Brian is not getting rich off these happy chickens. With a flock that now numbers 300 birds, the time and attention devoted to getting just the right feed, monitoring predators on the pasture, and nightly egg-washing and packing, it works out to a bit better than minimum wage. He also gets help from his family—his wife Jennifer and children Senait and Zinabu.
But he has no qualms about how he has chosen to raise his birds, for the quality of his eggs is apparent. “Seven months a year, they are pasture-raised birds, and their yolks are clear evidence of that.” In the winter, they eat well too, with their custom organic feed mix occasionally enhanced with kale, Brussels sprouts, and squash, and he does what he can to make the winter pass comfortably for them. Even on a sub-zero morning, the chicken house is only down to 25 degrees, and it rises quickly up to 60 degrees when the sun comes out. He speaks eloquently about the feed, custom milled to order for him by a mill in upstate New York. “It’s a coarse grind, better for their gizzards, with roasted whole soybeans, corn, mineral mix, and field peas. They love the field peas especially; they pick them out first!” Brian receives one-ton loads, which last about three weeks, so the feed is fresh. He also ensures that they have plenty of bedding, piling it on successively, so that by spring, they are cushioned on 18 inches of bedding. It helps keep things clean in the henhouse and, as mentioned, doubles as occupational therapy.
Brian starts off new flocks early every spring, keeping to a new breed-color system so that he can easily tell the newbies from the others as they grow up. The rhythm of the pasture begins with the cow herd, who eat down the grass to chicken-sized length. Then, the chickens move in to eat the grasses and the grubs. After the season, the flocks get merged in November while they still have plenty of room to work out their cultural differences. This year’s group is largely Black Sex-linked (Barred Rock crossed with Rhode Island Reds), and they are very productive. There are still some “Golden Comets” from last year’s flock (White Rock crossed with Rhode Island Reds). And throughout this colorful and handsome flock, a couple of Amber Link roosters keep everyone in line.
As we look over the winter landscape, which has been a farmstead since the 1790s in the Marlboro hills, we imagine the view in midsummer, with the flocks following the beef cows around the pasture. It’s almost the Easter and Passover season, and eggs may well figure prominently in your family celebrations at the end of this month. As you select your eggs, think about these happy chickens, and we bet that you will indeed see and taste the difference.
Join us on Thursday, March 19, 11am-1:30pm, and meet Brian from Bonvue Farm!