As featured in One Farm Day … stories from beyond the farm gate
Story and images by Sophie Hanson. Monday 8 October 2012
For Todd Fergusson there’s no doubt – the cow comes before the chicken which comes before the egg.
Todd and his wife Sara live near Dunedoo in western NSW. And while they have been running cattle here for many years, began grazing (yes grazing) chickens 12 months ago. The Fergussons are one of a few farming families in Australia producing ‘pastured’ eggs on a commercial scale. This means the chickens graze in open paddocks playing a key role in a cycle of rotational farming that results not only in a daily harvest of beautiful eggs but also richer natural pastures to feed the cattle herd.
Sold under the Farmer Brown label, “we have made a point of distancing ourselves from the label ‘free range’,” Todd says, “because some eggs that are branded as such come from chickens who are locked up, for up to 23 hours a day and aren’t free to scratch for bugs and insects”. In contrast, Todd’s chickens are free to roam in an open paddock all day (and night if they like).
The Fergusson’s farm, Moreton Bay South, was never intended for chickens. It had been operating solely as a shorthorn cattle stud since 1949. And while Todd grew up here, he hadn’t planned to make a career of farming. Instead he went to university in Armidale and then moved to Sydney where he worked in finance. He and Sara met at a country picnic race meeting and decided to move back to the farm when Todd’s parents retired in 2008. The couple had begun their own family and a move to the country seemed like a good idea both for professional and lifestyle reasons.
Todd became interested in rotational grazing systems and this led to the idea of bringing in chickens to naturally fertilise the paddocks and replenish the soil. Twelve months on and the egg business is breaking even but, he says, “the real profit is in our improved pastures. We don’t buy any fertiliser these days and you can really see a difference in the paddocks with richer natural pastures where the chickens have been.”
The 1200 chickens are moved about 30 metres every week and it will take almost one year for them to cover a 200-acre paddock. Divided amongst five portable sheds, the chickens are protected by maremma sheep dogs which are, Todd says, “indispensable and really quite amazing.”
“Sometimes they wander around and find each other during the day but always gravitate back to their own chickens and constantly have one eye trained on them”. As night falls the dogs herd their wards back into the portable sheds at night and of course take care of any foxes that are hanging around.
So the cattle are happy because they have improved pastures to graze, Todd is happy because he has lovely eggs to sell and lower farm input costs and their customers are happy because the eggs are something quite special. But that’s not to say that it’s not all smooth sailing.
‘The eggs are labour intensive and not hugely profitable,” Todd says, “we spend about 4-5 hours a day with the chickens, moving their ‘caravans’, checking water, then collecting eggs then grading and packing them.”
But it seems that all this work is well worth it. Diversifying into eggs has given the family a lifestyle angle to their farming that not only Todd and Sara but also their two children Fergus 7, and Alice 5, are loving. “It’s great to see the kids walking through the paddocks, checking the chickens, their water and eggs,” Todd says, “I love how involved they are from such an early age.”
The Fergusson family is now a popular fixture at the monthly Mudgee farmers market where they sell not only eggs but also bacon, egg and rocket rolls which are for many, a market essential. Other stockists include food stores in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and of course Dunedoo.
So it’s clear that Farmer Brown’s eggs come from very lucky chooks but what about the quality of the eggs themselves? Todd explains that pastured eggs can contain up to 20 times more Omega-3 than eggs from caged chickens, “but statistics aside, they honestly do taste better and even when you crack one of our eggs in a bowl you can tell they are special.”