Every summer on the way to our local agricultural show we pass a field dotted with red hens. These have not just escaped their garden run but are the providers for Matt & Avril Bergin’s Granstown Free-Range Eggs, just outside Ballacolla in Co. Laois. Matt & Avril supply a great quality & healthy product to the shops, cafés, restaurants & hotels around Laois, Kilkenny Tipperary & Offaly.
So how does a free-range egg make it’s way onto our breakfast plate?
Operating under Department of Agriculture free-range guidelines, Matt takes delivery of 5,000 Lohman’s hens from a rearing farm in Cork when they are 16 weeks old. The birds will come with detailed paperwork and this must be kept up for the duration of their lives. With regulations for feed & flooring space, outdoor grass & scratching areas, access to water and a prohibition on medication, preparing for the birds arrival is a hectic time – and I didn’t even mention all the cleaning and sanitising of sheds that is required!
For the first four weeks, the priority is to get them settled into their new home so they will be as relaxed as possible. This involves walking through them daily in order for them to become familiar with us humans and training them to go to the nest boxes, food troughs and water drinkers. At the same time, Matt will also be working on building up their weight with a diet high in protein to ensure they are strong and in good condition to lay nourishing eggs for us. As Matt highlighted to me, the hens’ diet and welfare are the two most important aspects of producing free-range eggs. If the hens are in good condition, relaxed and healthy they will lay eggs in abundance. However, if they are under stress at all, this will not only affect the amount of eggs that they can lay, but also the quality of the egg. As we can’t see what the egg looks like until the customer cracks it at home, then it is crucial to be able to identify anything unusual with the birds first!
From when they arrive at 16 weeks, the hens’ are outdoors for daylight hours either in the scratching area next to the shed or pecking around the grass fields, surrounded by an electric fence similar to sheep fencing to keep sly Mr. Fox away.
One month after arriving at Granstown, the hens begin laying eggs. The ability to lay will naturally peak at 25-26 weeks after which they will drop back their output very, very slightly each week. As mentioned previously, the diet the birds are fed will affect the amount of eggs laid and by making sure the flock gets the best possible natural diet, this encourages the hens to lay good quality eggs for as long as possible.
Specialising in free-range eggs for 20 years, Matt is finely tuned into the hens’ needs & recognises that each flock brings it’s own quirks; for example, with this flock, it took longer to train them to lay on the nest boxes in the first four weeks. There will be some intricacy to each flock and it is just about getting to know their ways and what works best within the environment for them.
Like all of us, the hens tend to take it easy in the winter and lay fewer eggs but yet the demand for eggs remains steady year round. So how to get around this? Well, winter isn’t the problem; it’s the lack of light. So in the darker months, lights are left on in the shed after dusk for a few hours and this encourages the hens to continue laying. The hens themselves don’t like stress. They are very curious; they certainly were the day I visited! They like sunlight but not a roasting hot sunny day! They like to scratch and peck and they tend to stick together in larger numbers. It is unusual and not a healthy sign if you see a hen on her own. What hens really like is a mild, overcast day that is not too sunny or windy and all day to scratch outside!
There really is a pecking order among the birds and sadly if a bird may look a bit different, such as a patch of lighter coloured feathers on her, she will usually get picked on. Matt has noticed that unfortunately it is the little lady being picked on who will usually come out the worst; as she will get stressed, not thrive & become sick.
I found myself empathising with the hens’ when I learned they are subjected to weekly weigh-in’s to make sure they are staying at a healthy weight! This is particularly relevant for free-range hens who spend the majority of their days outdoors scavenging around their field, using up more energy and so require more food – a bit like us working up an appetite when we have been outdoors! It is important to Matt that the flock are fed as natural a diet as possible and though there are supplements available to make a yolk more yellow or the shell harder, he does not introduce these to the diet as he feels that if the birds are healthy in the first place they should not need these additional supplements. Their feed is composed of wheat grain with some food-grade limestone grit mixed through which helps their digestion and provides calcium. As the free-range birds are outdoors, exercising, scratching and pecking, they eat more food than caged birds, so their feed costs are higher & all that scratching and pecking around is thirsty work so they drink a lot of water too.
Usually the hen make its way to the nesting box to lay the egg! Under free-range regulations, the eggs cannot be washed or cleaned. So how are their eggs lovely and spick & span compared to ours that may have mucky straw stuck to them when we collect from our little chuckies? Well, there is a nifty little rollaway system in place so that once the egg is laid, it very gently rolls away – you can’t afford many breakages! – into a collecting container and 3 times a day, the eggs are collected from this point… and you thought milking cows twice a day was a commitment!!
The eggs are then brought on trays to the grading room where a machine stamps and sorts them according to their weight. Each stamp will indicate the best before date, the country code, county code, farmer code and whether the egg is free-range, organic or caged, which on this farm they are all free-range. Once graded the eggs are packed into 6-egg boxes and 30-egg trays and are packed up, ready to be delivered either later that day or the next morning. The van is on the road 5 days a week and at the moment, no Granstown Free-Range Egg travels further than 60 km. Eggs that are laid this morning, could be on the shop shelf later that evening or the next morning!
The birds’ time at Granstown comes to an end when they are 74 weeks old. By that stage they have given to us what they can and it is time to get ready for the new arrivals.
Life is busy at Granstown year round where you can find Matt, Avril and their family doing everything from preparing for the birds arrival, to day-to-day care, collecting & delivering eggs and building relationships with long-standing & new customers. Like all farming, the amount of work that is required to produce a healthy, top quality product on a consistent basis would leave many people exhausted even to think about what is involved! I reckon from visiting Matt, Avril and their family that while they are successfully making a positive contribution to their local environment, economy and good health of the people who enjoy cooking with their eggs, it is the combination of taking very good care of these birds while at the same time making a successful business out of it that brings the most satisfaction to this family of food heroes!
Granstown Free-Range Eggs are available from:
Super-Valu & Centra stores in Laois/Kilkenny
Local independent shops in south Laois, north Kilkenny, north Tipperary & Offaly.
Ashbrook Arms & Bowe’s Café, Durrow, Co. Laois.
Also in Grantstown is a lake just 500 metres from the M8 Cork – Dublin motorway. Just across from Manor Stone service station at junction3, making it a perfect stopping off point if you are on a long journey. Read more here: