What is an Eggmobile? More about our laying hen operation.

This blog posting is almost 3.5 years old. Most of what you will read remains the same however for plans, business model and more you will need to click here. (Angus 12 April 2016)

An Eggmobile is a mobile hen house. Inspired by Joel Salatin who I learnt about reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. We have 15 on our farm with each housing 250 hens. Below is a picture taken in early September 2012 as the girls are heading out for another day of free ranging on our pastures. (This is genuine free range not the theoretical access to the free range that you actually buy when you buy free range. Click here if you want to read more about the fraud that is free range eggs.)

We built our first one (August 2009) on a trailer that we bought. The only good thing about this is that we can paint the sides. The side that you see, below, was painted by the girls. We don’t show the boy’s side to visitors.

My then colleague Christo Kok then did a magnificent job of designing one from scratch that you can see below. It is lighter, it houses 250 hens as opposed to 150 (roosting and nesting space inside the Eggmobiles are more generous than the organic standards), it is easier to collect eggs from and modifying it for winter weather is easy. The only downside is that it is not aesthetically pleasing but the Spier Architectural Arts group are going to try this year to make our Eggmobiles into wandering art pieces.

Another benefit of Christo’s Eggmobile is that we get to make them ourselves. The team is led by Alois who is pictured below. I can email you the plans, which were drawn up by the draftsman William Hammers, if you are interested.

24 out of 25 millions laying hens in this country live in metal battery cages where their “living” space is a little less than an A4 page. The metal mesh floor is sloped so that the egg rolls out. They are artificially stimulated by light to lay. They are debeaked because of cannibalism (of the commercial egg producers, to our knowledge, only ourselves and our neighbours who we have helped get off the ground do not debeak). Below is a picture of a debeaked hen.

Our chicken team got to visit such a factory farm a few weeks ago and it is a shocking experience to see 30,000 hens in one building producing eggs. In the photo below you can see a few things if you look closely. First there are only 4 layers of layers. In Japan they have up to 19 layers of layers with some farms in the Western Cape at 8 layers or is it levels? What is the collective noun? Second the entire process is mechanized from feeding to water to medication to egg “collection”. Third to the left and right of the pyramid of birds the dark stuff is accumulated chicken manure (animals being in close proximity to their manure with the resulting disease pressure is one of the major problems of factory farming). 24 out of 25 million laying hens! You choose the life of the hen by virtue of the egg that you buy.

 

What set us apart from anyone else, bar our neighbour, is that our hens actually get to free range if you will accept the poor language usage. On the same farm where we saw the 30,000 per “henhouse” we also went to their free range section. Here they have 7500 hens in a barn with small popholes for them to go out when the shutters are opened. We counted 500 out of 7500 outside and then there was a big fence about 12 metres from the barn surrounding it. The hens were all debeaked too.

The other reason for having our hens in Eggmobiles and ranging the pasture is that they spread fertility out of their back ends as they go on their merry way. This helps our 16 varieties of grasses and legumes in our pasture grow a dark, luxuriant green as you can see from the photo below. I am standing in a rectangular shape of healthy pasture. Our Eggmobiles are rectangular. We move our Eggmobiles every second day.

The photo below(taken by the photographer Margot Janse, who is also the chef here) gives an excellent vignette of our hens’ daily rhythm. At daybreak, today it was 5am, the nest boxes are opened. They are the wooden construction in the middle of the photo and they are closed by the egg team at 4pm the afternoon before by putting the wooden sticks across the front of the next box. The reason we close the nest box is that we don’t want them roosting in the nest box which will mean that they poop in the box and we don’t get their precious manure on the pasture and the eggs are dirty. The hen in the centre is announcing her delivery and the one behind her is running to go and do what hens do best. You can see that her beak is in tact. We collect eggs three times a day. At dusk we check to see that the hens are safely roosting on the perches which are the poles behind and around the nest boxes and then lock the Eggmobiles.

In addition to the grass, legumes and bugs from the pasture we feed our hens a free range laying ration from Profile Feeds. Our ration is 85% non GMO. More about our drama with non GMO chicken feed is here. A very big thank you to Hannes van der Westhuizen at Profile Feeds.

You can either eat our eggs at hotels or restaurants from Franschhoek to Cape Town. There is a tab on the home page entitled sourcing produce that explains where our eggs are available.

We try to get all our clients to the farm at least once a year for a visit. Below is the entire team from Eight at Spier, chefs and front of house, helping collect eggs and feed the hens.

Our eggs are also available, they are in packaging as per photo below from retailers too.  There is a tab on the home page entitled sourcing produce that explains where our eggs are available.

Finally these eggs taste amazing. If you don’t believe me watch this.

Angus

13 January 2013

 

 

 

The role of the retailer in the farm strikes.

Alternative title “It is not only the farmers fault”

Hello Dear Reader

The recent farm strikes need to be viewed in a wider context. From the farmer right through to the end consumer. We are all farmers by proxy, each and every one of us exercises that vote at least three times a day, and by choosing what food we eat and where we buy it, we choose which farmers we support.

I am not attempting to absolve farmers of responsibility to treat their staff well, pay them well (the ANC government set the minimum wage so their comments are mere political opportunism), treat their animals humanely and ensure safe and comfortable working conditions. I would like to focus on the retailer’s role (the big national chains) as they set the price for most of the farmers.

The old joke about a farmer complaining the least in February because it is the month with the least days alludes to the fact that the farmer is being pressurised from all sides, at all times. The primary pressure comes from the income side where prices and payment terms are driven by retailers. The role of the grain traders in artificially moving prices is a topic of discussion for another day. On the expense side the pressures are the ever increasing input costs such as fuel, chemicals, seed, veterinary costs, soil balancing costs and labour costs. Other pressures include the weather (ZZ2 recently lost 140 hectares of tomatoes in a hail storm) as well as having a mostly uneducated workforce.

The retailer’s greatest pressure is to sustain profitability and if you really want to own its shares then it must continue to grow earnings. The easiest way to do this is to squeeze the suppliers. Lets take the example of milk. A certain retailer pays the farmer R2.50 per litre for the milk and then sells it at R10.00 for that same litre. If the farmer is lucky he gets paid 30 days after statement but that is more likely to be either 60 or 90 days. (Walmart/Massmart being the exception paying every 14 days). I am not trying to trivialise the work of the retailer. However the farmer has taken the risk to produce the milk. He has had to keep the animals healthy, make sure they are fed, his staff are on time every day of the year to do the milking, his cows conceive, his dairy is kept hygienic, once milked that the milk stays chilled until the retailers truck arrives to cart it away yet he only gets ¼ of the price the consumer pays and he has to wait a minimum of 30 days from the statement at month end before he gets money that the retailer received the moment the customer paid for the milk. In no one’s definition is that farming for the future.

A farmer very near me received R6 per kg for beans last week that the supermarket sells on for R25 per kg.

Why does our government not insist on transparency in the food chain? The agricultural group Sekem in Egypt has managed a transparent association chain which satisfies everyone. A transparent food chain will be of benefit to farmers who can share this information with their workers and also be of the benefit of the end consumer who gets to see where his food Rands are being spent.

Our vineyard berm management strategy

The discussion below relates to vineyards that are irrigated. Dryland has its own challenges but weed management is not one of them.

The vineyards on Spier are in their second year of conversion to organic status and then to biodynamic status. I have been managing my dryland Chenin vineyard according to biodynamic principles since 2005. I produce my straw wine from this vineyard.

In my limited viticultural experience the two biggest problems faced by organic/biodynamic vineyard mangers are feeding the plant and weed management. Feeding the plant is a subject for another day. Within weed management the tricky part, in our experience, is the berm or the bankie.

The berm needs to be kept with as little plant material on as possible so as to first allow no competition for the vine and second allow light to penetrate the canopy and and air to move freely. The air flow is almost most important because conditions conducive for fungal diseases need to kept to a minimum as we don’t have the weapon of a systemic fungicide in our arsenal.

With conventional management nothing beats glyphosate (I lie, rye grass does) but organic/biodynamic vineyard managers can’t/won’t/are not allowed to use that tool. Also we don’t want our soils without Zinc, Managanese or Iron (glyphosate chelates these minerals and we have the soil tests to prove it).

Most organic/biodynamic managers use the mechanical method of either using various tractor drawn implements to rid the berm of weeds or use labour to hoe the berm clean. Our problem with this is that the soil is left bare and bare soil is between 8 and 20 Celsius hotter than covered soil so then we need to use more water and the microbes get hurt.

Our biological method was inspired by Nick Kotze of Agricol, improved by Bennie Diedericks (082 452 7263) and is being perfected by my colleague Orlando Filander.

The first thing to do is to clean the berm mechanically. As soon as possible after harvest. Turn on the irrigation to see where the dripline is and then clear a hoe width on that dripline. Then mix Subterranean Clover seed, obtainable from Agricol, and some compost and apply this mix through a 2 litre Coke bottle in your newly created trough. Water regularly to give the clover a chance to get growing before the winter rains stimulate the other weeds to grow. The above photo was taken on the 22nd of May.

Above is one our better examples, taken on the 6th of September, of where the sub clover has established and is covering the berm and not allowing too much competition to grow on the berm. Please don’t forget that clover is a legume that is fixing Nitrogen for plant growth into the soil.

There are some other areas where we have not established the sub clover that well and accordingly there is more competition that has grown through the sub clover and we have had to use weedeaters to cut them back.

The photo above was taken on the 27th of October and shows where we want to get to with all our vineyards. The sub clover has almost entirely died, only after burying it’s seed. So not only did it fix Nitrogen whilst living, it has created a mulch to keep the soil cool and finally it has reseeded itself which absolves us of that duty next year. Every year that subclover blanket gets thicker and fixes more Nitrogen.

 

 

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