By Toni W. Riley
A glossy, fat Rhode Island Red hen sits on her nest and clucks as she lays an egg, all while another hen chases a grasshopper. These hens and 150 other hens, along with a few roosters and 200 broilers are part of the pasture-raised poultry at the Nolt Homestead near Honey Grove.
James and Louise Nolt, who moved from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Honey Grove 20 years ago, expertly explain their process. James, who describes himself as an avid reader, is well versed in environmentally-friendly agriculture. He read about pasture-raised poultry in publications and began the operation as a way to feed his family of 10 children about five years ago.
The production has worked so well that Nolt Homestead now has a booth at the Downtown Farmers Market. On Wednesdays, customers meet oldest daughter Sarah and her two younger brothers — whom she retorts are not helpers — and on Saturday, mother Louise will be at the stand.
Their eggs sell for $3.50 per dozen, and the fresh fryers sell for $3.50 per pound.
The layers are a mixture of predominately Rhode Island Reds with a few Buff Orpingtons and some game birds. The pasture layers are there to follow the farm’s herd of Jersey cows that provide milk and calves, which James sells as pasture-raised beef.
The hens are housed in a mobile laying and roost house about every two to three weeks as the cows move around the 140-acre pasture farm. During the day, the hens forage in the field, eating crickets, grasshoppers and scratching in the manure piles for fly larve.
“Just think,” James noted, “that if each hen ate 200 fly larve and 25 crickets a day how much that would cut down on the insect population.”
He also noted how when the hens scratch in the manure they “spread” the pile out and there is not the usual tall spot of grass from the fertilization of the manure.
The hens are managed by sons James Jr. and Jacob. Each night, the boys go out to the pasture and close the hens in, and each morning, come and let them out. They feed the hens a mixture of corn, oats and wheat, and provide a mineral mix. They also gather the 20 dozen eggs the hens lay each week. The hens produce light-brown eggs that when cracked provide a dark-orange yellow, indicative of the high percentage of corn in their diet.
The broilers are American Cornish Rock chickens, and this operation consists of three simple “houses” on a clover alfalfa pasture. James’s daughter, Martha, manages the houses, and each morning, rides her bicycle with two 5-gallon buckets of feed hanging from the handlebars to the broiler pasture a quarter mile from the house.
The houses sit tightly to the ground and are reinforced with chicken wire to keep out predators. Just in case the houses sit on a hump and leave a space at the bottom, an additional board fills the hole a skunk could use to sneak in and wreck havoc.
Martha feeds the broilers the same mixture of corn, wheat and oats as the hens and utilizes the left over milk from the cows. James said he allows the milk to set over night and become the consistency of yogurt. He adds the milk to the grain to increase the protein. He also said the birds eat the “wet” feed better than just the grain.
The houses are moved twice a day to new pasture. The Nolts run water lines throughout the farm so Martha only has to walk a few yards to a water source. It takes about 10 weeks on the pasture for the birds to get to market size.
The Holts also raise pasture raised poultry and rabbits. James emphasized how important pasture-raised animals are to the environment.
It’s the best stewardship of the land, he said, since the soil is always covered with grass.
Farm-raised vs. store-bought
In a conversation with Dr. Jacquie Jacob, extension project manager for the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky, Jacob noted research is not definitive on whether farm-raised eggs have increased nutritional value compared to eggs bought in the grocery.
“The nutritional value of the egg comes from what the hens are fed, not from just being outside,” Jacob said.
She also said that while many people think farm-raised eggs taste better, research has shown that in blind taste tests, there has been no significant difference in the panel results of grocery eggs and farm eggs when it comes to flavor.