A few good eggs

University Farm cracks into poultry business

Chico State student Kelsey Maben shows off the large, mobile chicken coop that serves as a home base to 100 hens.

Chico State student Kelsey Maben shows off the large, mobile chicken coop that serves as a home base to 100 hens.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

Farm fresh: Purchase eggs for $4 a dozen during weekdays at the Farm Office of University Farm, 311 Nicholas C. Schouten Lane (off Hegan Lane). Call 898-6343 for more info. Eggs also can be purchased at Chico State’s on-campus farmers’ market, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays near Meriam Library.

Agriculture student Kelsey Maben skids on the gravel as she makes a sharp turn in a Mule utility vehicle near the University Farm’s beef unit on a recent blazing-hot afternoon. The dust settles around her as she explains that it’s a bit of a walk (and there are lots of cow pies) to the chicken coop out in one of the cattle pastures.

She takes off full speed down a gravel road that separates neatly fenced pastures, and makes quick stops to open and close each gate behind her. When she reaches a far pasture, she confidently winds through small clusters of cows until a red chicken coop on wheels and dozens of plump, shiny black hens appear in the distance.

“Hi, girls,” she says affectionately as she parks near the barn-like coop.

Immediately, the air is filled with the sound of contented-chicken murmur, as the 100 Australorp hens (also known as “black star” chickens) bathe in the dust, munch on grass and walk up and down the ramp that leads into their abode.

Surprisingly, these are the only chickens you’ll find at Chico State’s student-run farm off Hagen Lane.

As Maben casually scoops up a chicken with her bare hands, she explains that Chico State is one of the few ag schools in the state without a poultry program.

“Most ag schools, like [UC] Davis and Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo], have an established poultry unit where they collect eggs and have a processing unit where they can produce poultry products,” says Maben, who also works in the University Farm’s sheep and goat unit. “We have a dairy unit, a meats lab and a crops unit, for example, and a poultry unit is just another one of those areas. We just happen to not have one.”

That detail was somewhat of a deterrent to attending Chico State for Maben, who transferred this fall from Modesto Junior College, which is known for its dairy program. When Maben arrived at Chico State, however, she learned about a new pasture-poultry project that one student (who has since graduated) began in May.

Australorp chickens are known for laying brown, freckled eggs.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

The idea behind the project is simple: raise hens, collect their eggs, and then sell those eggs at the existing meats lab at the farm, where many people already shop for beef raised on the same property.

“Eventually, we would like [the hen project] to be self-sufficient,” Maben said, referring to her and her partner in the project, Breanna Roque. “We’d like it to pay for itself.”

The hens, which were chosen for their dual purpose (meat and eggs), came to the farm as chicks about six months ago and began laying eggs two months ago, Maben said. The project is still in its trial-run phase, she explained, and isn’t likely to begin turning a profit for a little while. Getting the coop up and running wasn’t cheap at about $10,000—due to costs including construction, an egg washer, labor, lights, chicken feed and other supplies—but was made possible through contributions from the Associated Students Sustainability Fund and the University Farm.

A fellow student built the modern chicken coop, which sits on sturdy rubber wheels and can be moved to follow the cattle to different pastures. The cows help with predator control (there were reports of a coyote in the area not long ago) and “watch the chickens’ backs,” Maben said.

Mobile coops are a growing trend and have multiple advantages, she explained. First of all, Maben and Roque don’t have to worry about waste management because the wired floor allows for droppings to fall into the grass and act as fertilizer. The limited amount of waste in the coop also minimizes the amount of nitrogen and ammonia in the air, and the coop’s location in the pasture allows for fresh air to circulate all day long, she said.

Keeping the mobile chicken coop in a pasture with cows protects the hens from predators, such as coyotes.

Photo By Stacey Kennelly

So far, the project has been a learning experience. For example, the women started out by lining the egg-laying cubbies inside the coop with straw and rice hulls, but the hens dug them out and made a mess. They switched to sand, which seems to be working better, Maben said.

“They’re small little glitches,” she said, referring to her trial-and-error efforts.

Pasture chickens also pose other challenges, such as a high mortality rate (mostly due to predators) and increased labor, such as hauling chicken feed out into the pasture. Maben and Roque get help from a Chico State freshman who is in a work-experience class, as well as other people who work at the farm and can check on the chickens mid-day when the women are in class.

However, the quality of life pasture hens enjoy is worth the work, Maben said. Chickens that are raised in cages never get to go outside, and even “free range” chickens are usually kept indoors.

“That’s where it gets really confusing as a consumer,” she said.

However, Maben and Roque’s hens spend their days outside in the sunshine, munching on a combined diet of natural grass and grain chicken feed. Their black feathers shine an iridescent blue-green in the sunshine, and their calm personalities are a contrast to the stereotypical white hens that lay white eggs.

“White eggs come from leghorn chickens, and they’re a nutty chicken. [Farmers have] bred the broodiness out of them,” she said, referring to chicken farmers’ tendency to force hens to overproduce.

In addition to their good personalities, the healthy black hens lay brown eggs that have freckles on the shell and bright-orange yolks inside. The women collect 60 to 80 eggs a day and package them for sale at the farm and at Chico State’s on-campus farmers’ market for $4 a dozen.

“It’s a little more than you’d pay at the grocery store, but they’re so good.”