Raising grass-fed chickens provides tasty eggs on a family farm.
Chickens are at home roaming the range on Cindy and Brent Rappuhn’s farm near Sultan, Washington. Cindy told Country Woman you can’t beat their eggs!
How did you decide to raise chickens?
Brent and I are the third generation to farm his family’s land in the Skykomish River Valley. First and foremost, we consider ourselves grass farmers. The animals we raise—hogs, cattle and poultry—are our primary helpers in keeping our soil and sod healthy. We play a sort of musical chairs with livestock in our pastures. Pigs are strategically placed in areas we want deeply tilled and rid of weeds. We use cattle as lawn mowers; they eat the paddock grasses to a reasonable length so it can be easily gleaned later by our poultry. We keep our chicken flock to 1,000 and ducks to around 150.
The poultry do a great job cleaning up insects and fertilizing the soil. When the time is right, they hop into their nesting boxes and lay wonderful fresh eggs as a bonus.
What’s special about eggs from pasture-raised chickens?
The eggs our hens lay have bright-orange yolks—thanks to a diet of grasses, legumes and clovers rich with vitamins A, D and E. The protein-heavy whites stand up nice and tall, and look beautiful on the plate.
Customers and chefs tell us our eggs are tasty and excellent for baking and cooking. Believe it or not, when my parents moved to the country in my high school years, they had to buy supermarket eggs for me until I got used to the rich flavor of farm eggs. Now I’d have a hard time eating anything else.
Since you don’t coop up your hens, how do you house them?
Our hens are kept on pasture from April until November, in grass paddocks with space to roam. For shelter, they have portable, open-ended hoop houses with roosts and nesting boxes inside, and electrified netting all around to protect them from predators. The houses are on skids, so we use a tractor to move them to a new patch of pasture every three days or so. That way, no one spot becomes overused.
This time of year, the hens stay in more permanent greenhouses, out of the cold, wet wind. And we increase their rations of grain-based chicken feed. Egg production goes down from the peak season, when each hen lays five eggs per week. That gives our chickens a chance to rejuvenate for spring—kind of a vacation.
What’s your plan for marketing eggs?
We don’t keep them all in one basket! For diversity, we sell at Seattle-area farmers markets, small specialty stores and restaurants, and as part of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares.
One of the best things about farming is meeting our customers, so we have appreciation days a couple of times a year, when we invite families to visit our 40 acres. Recently, Brent and I mentored a young couple thinking of starting a chicken operation. Every three years, when we rotate our flock, we give mature hens to backyard chicken farmers. (Get some advice on raising chickens.)
In spring, we get a new crop of mail-order chicks—usually experimenting with different breeds, such as Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and black-and-white crosses. We keep a couple of Araucana hens, too. Because they lay blue, green and even pink eggs, they’re sometimes called Easter egg chickens.
How are your children involved?
Son David, 21, helps with construction and tractor work, and Anna, 18, assists with chicks and egg collection. They both balance farm chores with college. Our youngest, Robert, 15, pitches in with egg washing and grading, and staffing our farmers market booth.
We feel immeasurably blessed to be caretakers of a small family farm. And we’d recommend it to anyone willing to be a hard worker and a perennial student. You’d be amazed what you can learn from a chicken!