Written by Trish Hollenbeck, OFN Contributor
With an eye to a more informed consumer, organic egg producer Michael Cox wants to focus on pastured egg layers.
“I look forward to some growth potential on that side of it,” said Michael.
That means continuing to provide outdoor space for chickens.
As president of Arkansas Egg Company Inc. near Summers, Ark., Michael runs two kinds of operations: A commercial organic one that meets USDA guidelines for certified organic eggs; and the pastured hen set-up. The latter allows birds to graze on pasture during the day.
The company has about 18,000 of these pastured hens; 2,000 per house. Rotational grazing is used in a wagon wheel method around the houses. Birds come and go from the house to the pasture during the day and the focus is for all of them to spend time outdoors. They drink water under shaded areas. Feeders are available, but about one-third of their diet consists of forage, explained Michael.
Each bird has about 25 square feet of space. Eggs from these chickens are sold to Whole Foods, which is the largest natural foods chain in the country; Michael has partnered with Vital Farms of Austin, Texas, to market the eggs.
Eggs from the commercial organic chickens, which are not caged but live in chicken houses where they nest, roost and have access to the outdoors, are sold to major grocery retailers throughout the country.
The Arkansas Egg Company has about 150,000 of these commercial organic hens, with 16,000 to 20,000 per house.
What is organic?
Organic hens are fed with feed from plants that have not been treated by herbicides or pesticides; the hens are not given growth hormones or antibiotics. Pullets, which are young hens, receive vaccinations for E. coli and salmonella as well as other diseases, but that is before they become layers.
Pastured hens meet organic guidelines and go beyond those guidelines because of the increased freedom to roam outside.
Michael got into the pastured hen business this past year as a result of working on a model for a large-scale operation. He got together with Matt O'Hayer, owner of Vital Farms, before deciding to go that direction.
Michael has been raising commercial organic hens for about four years, since he was approached to enter that part of the business. At the time, he had been thinking about a way to exit the conventional egg business before going organic.
His father, Gary, got started in conventional egg production working for Cargill in the 1980s after he got out of the U.S. Air Force. He later went independent and grew the business into one of the biggest egg operations in the country.
Michael took over farms in the Summers area in 2001, and raises the organic hens on those farms, as well as one south of Prairie Grove, Ark. About 75,000 pullets at any given time are raised in Piney, Okla., until they are ready to lay eggs. The farm receives its chicks at one day old, buying them from Centurion Poultry of Lexington, Ga.
There are two reasons consumers like the idea of organic eggs, said Michael, one being the welfare of the birds. The other is health-related, because hens are not receiving antibiotics or any growth hormone, and the idea that the lack of herbicides and pesticides used to produce their feed carries over to the bird is another part of it.
“There's a pasture movement in the country,” said Michael, adding that some of the more informed consumers prefer eggs from pastured hens.
Having seen the pastured approach, Michael says he would never go back to a caged operation.
“You can really tell the difference in the birds,” said Michael.
He says there also is a difference in the quality of the egg yolks and whites with pastured hens.
Because there are higher inputs, eggs from pastured hens bring more money, said Michael, and there is a lot of demand.
“I would like to focus growth on the pastured production,” said Michael.
“That's what I feel is the most rewarding part of the farm.”
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