WHERE EGGS GET LAID
Story by Margaret Jensen photos by Earl Bloor
The road to the Lazy 69 Ranch is a good match for its name: slow, sinuous, with unexpected views. Off Highway 299E in the lower elevations of Round Mountain, Lazy 69 is tucked back behind some oak-studded hills. No one is going to just drop by after spotting the ranch from the road. That’s just fine with Dan and Malinda Martin, owners of the Lazy 69, since for much of every day, they’re too busy for unscheduled visitors. They care for around 2,800 layer hens.
A morning visitor doesn’t at first feel the forces of egg production at this magnitude, but rather, feels hilly quietude. Four small buildings sit in clearings on a gentle hillside, and no chickens are evident, since they haven’t yet been set free for the day. Instead, a handful of long-horned cattle wander under the oaks off to one side, and—wait, is that an emu? Yes, three emus. Then two dogs and two young children tumble out the front door of the ranch house, followed by Malinda. Dan emerges out of a small barn surrounded by a corral, and a phalanx of chickens follow him, about seven hundred young Cinnamon Queen sex-link hens just fourteen weeks old. They’ve been maturing in this brooder house since they arrived at two days old. When Dan raises the doors of the barn, the chickens head out into the corral and the brush around it, fluffing themselves in the sunshine. It’s a bit before 10 am, and morning rounds have begun.
Only the second family to ranch this 131 acre property, the Martins developed their poultry ranch gradually. The first owners built the house and barn in—yes—1969 and sold it to the Martins in 2001. Like much of the land in Round Mountain, it had been badly burned in the Fountain Fire of 1992, and brush had regrown unchecked except around the buildings. Dan saw potential in the property’s two good springs. Plus, there were signs: the name of the ranch, the street number ending in sixty-nine, and the 1969 penny they found on the ground when they first visited. Dan and Malinda, who were sixth grade sweethearts in southern California, were both born in 1969, so it felt like fate was directing them to the ranch.
For the first few years, Malinda headed west to Redding and Dan east to Burney for fulltime jobs. On evenings and weekends they cleared brush, expanded the first barn, and began running some cattle and raising some chickens. Finally, the birth of their first child, Wyatt, in 2004, brought Malinda onto the ranch full time, and Dan joined her in 2008. Dan takes most of the blame/credit for convincing Malinda that a family ranch was the right way to earn their livelihoods. As a hydrologist for PG&E, Dan interacted with ranchers and farmers who impressed him with their intimate connections to the land and their hard work producing cattle and crops. During the same period, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and, as a result, studied and educated the rest of the family about the value of organics and non-industrial meats. By the time Dan and Malinda left their backyard garden and chickens in Redding for the wilds of the ranch, Dan’s family and friends were ready to be their first, best customers for organically-raised beef, eggs, and chickens.
The Martins first concentrated on beef and succeeded in selling their meat to local stores and over the internet. However, their property did not provide year-round pasture, and Dan realized it was unsustainable to haul in organic hay. The Martins got to know Henry and Pam Giacomini of Hat Creek Ranch, about forty miles away in the mountains to the east. Henry, “an expert in the art of raising grass-fed cattle,” according to Dan, worked with the Hat Creek herd to breed short-framed cattle who can “marble fat just from pasture.” Now, the two outfits have an evolving partnership: Hat Creek provides the stock, and the Lazy 69 provides the transportation for the herds to the winter grazing in Oak Run, as well as to the slaughterhouse. Cooperation works “much better than competition” for outfits of their size, Dan notes.
As the Martins moved cattle off their property, they began building “small” henhouses (small, in this case, meaning structures that could house 250 to 600 hens), improving their model with each new house. The oldest model is now their “sick bay,” where they isolate any hen that may have become injured or needs watching for another reason. They now have five separate, spacious hen houses, each with flocks of different ages, so that the majority of hens lay at full production, while young ones get up to speed and older ones—the eighteen to twenty-four month olds—begin slowing down. They’ve chosen to raise just the one breed, since the Cinnamon Queen are sociable and relatively small, and they reliably produce large or extra-large sized, medium-brown eggs.
After freeing the pullets from the overnight safety of their henhouse, the Martins move to the next and the next house. At each barn, the rusty-colored hens cackle loudly, anticipating the moment when Dan and Malinda raise the barn doors. The hens stream out into large, unfenced areas where small and medium-size oak trees alternate with manzanita and other scrub plants. Each henhouse seems set in its own little oak forest. The hens have cleared all the grass and weeds, and they peck at insects and rocks and dust themselves with great enthusiasm. As one after the other henhouse empties, the air fills with a louder and louder constant and happy hum of hens clucking.
FREE RANGE ORGANIC
The Martins have followed organic practices since they began raising chickens, but have moved through various terms in choosing how to market their eggs to catch customers’ attention. These days, the Lazy 69 egg carton reads “Free Range Organic.” Use of both terms, free range and organic, requires by law compliance with specified USDA standards.
“Free range” certainly best describes what a visitor sees at Lazy 69 Ranch. But, says Malinda, “There’s a big difference for the hens and the flavor of the eggs. When someone uses ‘free range’ to describe a situation where one little door opens out of a huge hen house into a bare, fenced yard—an exit the chickens might not even use—those aren’t really free range, even though they meet the legal definition.” The USDA requires only that “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” At Lazy 69 Ranch, the hens roam large, unfenced areas, where they behave like hens. Dan estimates that in good weather, their hens get about 30 percent of their food from foraging, as measured by the greater amount he needs to provide when they prefer to remain under roof in bad weather.
Malinda and Dan take every opportunity to educate people about the differences between their eggs and the various types sold in grocery stores. “People are just amazed when we crack one of our eggs into a glass bowl. They see the rich orange color of the yolk and how high it stands up, compared to the pale yellow and almost flat yolk of a conventional egg.”
Their commitment to sustainable egg production makes them proud of the practices behind their “free range” and their “organic” status. The two most difficult questions as they embody their values are “What happens to the hens when they’re too old to lay for production?” and “What about all the chicken poop?” The Martins keep their hens about two years. While the hens no longer produce at a rate that can sustain the Ranch operations, they have many
additional years of egg-laying before them,that can sustain the Ranch operations, they have many additional years of egg-laying before them,and backyard chicken keepers love the breed’s sociability. The Martins used to work to find good homes for the retirees, advertising at feed stores, in weekly classified newspapers, etc. Recently, they have forged a relationship with a non-profit animal rescue organization. This group will take all of Lazy 69’s retired hens. They plan to place the hens in good homes after an adoption screening process. Interested backyard chicken keepers can contact Animal Place through their website, animalplace.org.
Now expert in what he refers to as “poopology,” Dan is happy to answer the question he characterizes as “What’s the scoop on the poop?” He points out, “Manure management begins with quality organic feed. What goes in will indeed come out.” The Martins manage what comes out both on the lands where the chickens forage and indoors in the barns. The range manure is managed by a buffer zone of perennial grasses that serve to filter any runoff prior to entering the waterway. The hens leave most of their manure inside the barns where they take in two-thirds of their feed. On the barn floors are milled pine shavings that create a deep litter system and add carbon. The chickens continuously turn over the litter, and they thus aerate it. Reducing or eliminating anaerobic action (lacking oxygen) avoids a “fowl” (Dan’s pun) manure odor when the levels of nitrates and ammonia remain low because aerobic bacteria do not produce those compounds. Instead, aerobic bacteria tie up the nitrogen. Manure from the barns is transported to a collection pile where it is contained from entering the watershed until sold. Fresh chicken manure is about 70% water, so most of it evaporates. Without their own pasture or farm crops needing fertilizer, the Lazy 69 loads chicken manure up into the pickup trucks of local farmers who are willing to come and haul it away in trade for some produce later in the season.
The hens lay in the mornings, and the Martins leave them in the henhouses until the ladies deposit their eggs in the nesting boxes. While most of the hens are ready to move outdoors when given the chance, plenty still set in the nesting boxes or choose to remain in the barn to eat and drink in a little more peace once the crowd has left the room. Not that these hens are crowded. Every coop has at least two square feet of floor space per bird, which doesn’t sound like much, but since most of a hen’s time is spent above the floor, roosting on the numerous perches or contributing to production in the nesting boxes, even the full coops seem spacious.
The five longhorn cattle follow the Martins as they travel around the property. They—like the emus, whose bulky feathery presence deters raptors—think that nothing tastes better than the chicken feed inside the henhouses, and if the Martins forget to roll doors down to just a hen-sized entrance before they leave a barn, the cattle will enter and wreak havoc. Dan just shakes his head about moving longhorns out of a coop when they don’t want to leave. “It’s not pretty, and it’s not fast.”
Thousands of hens wander around the four, emptied henhouses. The last, largest hen house, a converted pole barn that Dan calls “the penthouse” (photo below) sits just up a rise behind the house. Several days ago, in the dust on top of the nesting boxes, Dan had seen little footprints and had set a trap. Today, there’s a young ring-tailed cat inside. The little nocturnal guy blinks sleepily, and Dan decides he represents no threat to the hens, so he opens the trap and the animal is out in a flash, running across beams and up to an invisible hole in the rafters of the two-story high roof. The hens take no notice, too busy scurrying out to the wooded edges of the plateau.
In addition to freeing the hens, the Martins have been gathering the eggs from the nest boxes. By the time Dan and Malinda enter, some of the nesting boxes hold five or six eggs, while others are empty. “The birds just like to lay in some boxes better than in others, for no reason we can tell,” comments Malinda. Before Dan joined Malinda to work fulltime, Malinda did almost all the egg collection herself, with Wyatt and younger sister Ivy accompanying her in various stages of baby- and toddler-hood. Because she needed to keep an eye on the children, the nest boxes are housed in an enclosed area at one end of the building, separated by a door from the hens’ area. Malinda could safely leave babies and dogs there, while she slipped through the door to check the hens’ water and food. Between the row of nest boxes and the outside wall, there is plenty of space to lift nest box doors, pluck out eggs, fill big blue wire egg baskets, and later store the empty baskets.
By noon, the chickens roam free while the eggs are all corralled. After a number of years washing eggs in the kitchen and transporting them back across the yard to the cooler, the Martins invested in a commercial sink and egg washing machine. It is housed in the same, spotless building holding their converted ice cream truck, used both for deliveries and as a cooler, since they can power the refrigeration unit independently. Malinda begins rinsing the eggs in the baskets, then setting them onto the feeder belt of the washer. On the other end, Dan quickly sorts into cartons, setting aside the few eggs that don’t fall into the “large” weight category. Broken eggs are saved for “the Pigerator,” a 500-pound belted Hampshire sow. Every carton is date-stamped, loaded into crates, and put into the back of the chilled truck. From opening the first coop in the morning, two people take about five hours (one person, eight hours) seven days a week, to see the whole process through to storing the packed eggs in the truck. That’s not including the bookkeeping and deliveries and all the miscellaneous tasks like replacing straw in nest boxes or repairing the solar-powered lighting systems in the hen houses.
The Martins sell a large portion of their eggs to Orchard Nutrition in Redding and some to a few Holiday Markets, to Kent’s and Sunset Market, and to Country Organics. In addition, the wholesale price for free range eggs is high enough in several San Francisco outlets to make the long trip worthwhile two to three times per month. The Martins praise Orchard Nutrition, their first significant outlet, for their willingness to support local farmers and carry the eggs as more of a “courtesy item” for customers, rather than as a big money-maker, since the Martins must seek a fair wholesale price to make their operation financially viable. Orchard also takes the too-large or too-small eggs and uses them in their bakery. Many Lazy 69 customers at Orchard are fiercely loyal, so the store and the Martins hear about it promptly if supplies are gone. Much of the Lazy 69 beef is sold there, too, and Holiday Market now features it in some of their stores as well.
The Lazy 69, like many small, family-run operations, runs on a razor-thin profit margin. The demands of daily egg production take their toll. Though they occasionally employ a neighbor for a few hours a week, the Martins haven’t taken a family vacation together in five years, and, with a rueful laugh, Malinda notes that even a recent dinner out as a family was a rare event. The children aren’t old enough to take on any serious chores, so when either Dan or Malinda must be gone during the day, the other one feels the absence. Rising gas prices, rising feed prices . . . egg production doesn’t suffer from seasonal weather changes like other agricultural crops do, but from plenty of other forces. Their finances might improve if they expanded, but this would clearly require adding an employee, with all the complications that brings. The Martins have experience in planning for careful expansions, though, so they will keep looking at their data and make changes when—or if—it feels right.
By mid-afternoon, when the eggs are packed into the refrigerated truck, most of the hens rest or scratch in the shade of the scrub. The cattle, too, are resting, and the children are ready for a nap. Dan and Malinda will have a late lunch, do more chores, and then at dusk return to all the hen houses. Before dusk the hens return to the particular henhouse where each imprinted when, as chicks, they were kept in their coop for four or five weeks before being allowed out, to keep them safe from predators and impress on them the need to roost inside that particular house every night. Dan and Malinda will make the rounds to assure that none of the ladies has decided to roost in the trees for the night, check that the waterers haven’t clogged, and shut the coop doors. The occasional bear, coyote, fox, or bobcat has sometimes gone after a loose hen, though in spring such a visit is unlikely. But you never can tell who might decide to stalk the property after dark, leaving tell-tale paw prints in the dust for the Martins to find in the morning, before the hens again surge out and sweep all signs away in their rush to range free.
Margaret Jensen runs Good Work Organic Farm in Round Mountain along with husband Gerry Long and son Ian. Longtime produce vendors at Redding’s Saturday Farmers’ Market, they also raise a few dozen hens who would probaly love to leave their “average” coop for the palaces of The Lazy 69.