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Polyface Pastured Poultry: Laying Hens

written by

Hannah Hale

posted on

April 8, 2024

All Polyface chicks begin their idyllic life on Polyface at about 1-2 days old. Our laying hens are custom-hatched from a breed we've developed over the last decade. They contain bloodlines from Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, and Black Australorops. 

After incubation and hatching, the chicks go directly into our "brooder". This brooder houses the chicks and provides a warm, safe, comfortable haven for them until they are big enough to live outside. 

After the brooder, they go directly to a grass shelter where they continue growing and are moved every 1-3 days to completely new fresh pasture. 

Chickens begin laying at about 5 months of age. At that time, we give them access to cozy nest boxes with plenty of hay and allow them to make their own nests. We do not use industry-standard roll-away nesting boxes. We want to foster the instinct of the hens to lay, protect, and warm their eggsAfter all, that's what makes them unique - it's their glory - their chickenness. 

We have two types of shelters for these pastured hens. One we call an "egg-mobile". This is a mobile shelter built on house trailer axles and able to move anywhere we choose to put them. This is a land-extensive model. The hens are 100% free-range. Once a day, they get a little...urge...(that mother-hen instinct) that tells them to go back to their nest to lay their egg. They return to the shelter, lay, eat a bite, and they're back off to graze, scratch, run, and bathe. These chickens follow our cows and also act as our pasture sanitation and fly control. 

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Our other model we call a "Millenium Feathernet". This is a land-intensive model for pastured poultry. These birds are protected and guided by an electric net fence. This fence and the structure are moved several times a week. This model keeps the chickens flocked closer together so that they really focus on ground disturbance. (Remember, things need disturbance to grow.) These hens also act as pasture fertilization.

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We still collect all of our eggs by hand every single day. We don't 'grade' our eggs, but we do separate them by size - small (peewee), medium, and large. Because we allow our hens to make their own nests, our eggs are rarely dirty and seldom require real washing. Here you can see one of our team members weighing an egg - she has a carton for medium eggs to her left and a carton for large eggs to her right. 

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All laying hens' egg production drops off substantially after about two years.  Once a laying hen quits laying enough eggs to pay for her food and upkeep, she goes in the stewpot. 

"Stewing hens" are our egg-laying hens who have passed their laying days.  Because they are too tough to fry or broil, historically they went into stews to be cooked long and slow (hence the name).  Crock pots and instant pots today work extremely well.  Their attraction is the rich taste and exceptional broth.

Amino acids are complex and take time to develop fully.  The reason stewing hens have such a rich taste is through their long life their amino acid chains finish developing and your taste buds understand that full complexity. 

Among our team, you'll find several favorite cooking methods for these amazing birds. Joel and his wife Teresa put several at a time in a large roaster pan at about 350 degrees for 4 hours, then pick the meat off. Some of us use crock pots: put the bird into your favorite crockpot, cover it with water, add seasonings, and cook on low for 6-8 hours. For instant pot lovers, we prep the bird in the same way, but cook it on high pressure for about 2 hours, then allow a slow natural pressure release.We then chop the meat into chunks and freeze it in quart containers as precooked chicken, a true convenience food when you need meat salad or casserole quickly on a busy day. We freeze the broth and it is golden rich; truly exceptional. (Learn more in Susan's blog post "More than sustenance".) 

Here's a kitchen hack: Keep a bag in your freezer with trimmings from all your veggies! When the bag is full, it's time to make broth. The nutrients in the peels, skins, tops, and odd pieces will power your chicken stock to the next level.

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