As a digital communications manager, I have a lot more experience behind a keyboard than I do on a farm. So when the chance came to visit an RSPCA Assured egg-laying hen farm, I jumped at it.
Accompanying one of our assessors, I arrived at the Rookery farm in the morning. Rookery Farm is a fairly small, family-run business spread out over two sites. There are seven barns in all with between 700 and 1,800 birds in each, so quite small considering a large barn holds up to 32,000.
First things first, we had to get kitted up in our biosecurity clothing to ensure we didn’t bring any contamination with us into the hens' living areas. This gave a very exciting sci-fi feel to the day and I felt I was only really missing a space helmet to complete my getup.
I’d thought the barns would be much larger but the thing that really shocked me was the noise. Who would have thought that chickens could make such a racket? When I mentioned this to the RSPCA Assured assessor, he smiled and said: “Chickens are noisy creatures. That's nothing, you should hear inside a big barn.”
Rookery Farm is a family-run business with a nice intimate feeling to it. And I really got that sense right from the start. The hens all have plenty of space and things to do. The stocking density of the hens at Rookery Farm is six birds per square metre, they must also have access to enrichment activities, perches to rest on and an area where they can dust bathe.
A lot of the processes were still carried out manually, including egg collection. I was a little surprised to see that it was done by turning the handle to move the conveyor belt and the farmer stood there collecting the eggs by hand as they came out.
On average, the hens produce five or six eggs a week. The best way for them to do this is to enter the laying box, the eggs then roll gently down onto a conveyor belt running the length of each shed and are collected once a day early in the morning.
However, this isn’t where egg collecting ends; there’s still more fun and games to be had. Many of the hens don’t bother going into the nest boxes and just lay their eggs wherever they are. Meaning the busy farmer has to go round and collect them all by hand.
Some of the larger sheds which held up to 1,000 birds had a machine-operated belt but the actual collection was still done by hand. Every shed we visited meant we had to put on extra boot covers and go through a new shoe wash, so by the time we’d seen four or five sheds walking was getting a little difficult.
In order to produce the best eggs, Rookery Farm came to the conclusion: put the hens first. This means they do things slightly differently to other British and EU organic and free-range farms; one of the ways they do this is by having all mobile hen houses. Before a new flock of laying hens arrives, they move their houses to a fresh area of pasture. This allows the land to grow back and ensure that the new birds will always have a fresh and natural environment to live in.
One of the standards to which farms must stick to to be RSPCA Assured is to provide hens with raised perches to improve bone strength and allow them to rest undisturbed. This also meant that the hens were able to surprise me on a few occasions by nestling upon a perch above head height. Of course, I was always a little worried that they would make some unwanted deposit on the stranger who had come to invade their privacy and take photos.
Lucky is a relative concept when talking about the weather and I’m not too sure that blazing sun is exactly the weather you want when visiting a chicken farm but that’s what I got. In fact, it was such a lovely day that most of the hens stayed indoors out of the sun. And in some ways, I envied them as I sweltered away inside my biosecurity suit.
RSPCA Assured farms insist that the birds have outdoor access with ample natural and artificial shade. This has led to the farmer getting quite creative and making what is known as a dead hedge in the centre of one of the hens’ outdoor areas. It seemed to be working fine as the hens who had ventured out under the heat pretty soon made their way over to the shelter of the dead hedge.
Keeping it organic
Rookery Farm is an organic farm. That means they don’t use any chemicals or artificial fertilisers on the land and the hens can enjoy a natural balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs.
Once our visit to the farm was over we headed back to the grader and the shop. Before being graded for size the eggs are sorted. The best ones are loaded onto the conveyor where they are then transported
over to the candling lights. Candling is used to reveal any flaws in the shells, like hairline fractures or other imperfections, things that wouldn’t be noticed by the naked eye.
Any eggs that don’t make the grade are removed while the rest continue on the convey. After the candling process, the eggs are each stamped with a unique code. This can be used later to identify the farm of origin and the size of the egg: x-large, large, medium and small.
Packing the eggs
The eggs are then packed by hand into cartons for transportation or onto trays for kitchens. They are also available at the Rookery Farm shop, where as well as the usual large, medium and small sizes, you can also get the very popular 'misshapes' and extra-large.
Find out more about Rookery Farm