Cheryl Graham on her Myrrhee Valley farm, with her grazing and inquisitive Isa Brown hens. Ms Graham is embarking on the production of truly free-range pastured eggs with her brood of hens spending their days grazing around paddocks and their nights in the ‘chook caravan’ laying their eggs.
CHERYL Graham squats in the greenest of paddocks on the most perfect of autumn days and is mobbed by 399 Isa Brown hens.
They vie for her attention, beaking around her gumboots and jeans and scratching about her feet.
The more timid of them ‘freeze’, as chooks will, and are happy to be picked up and nursed for the camera.
Every creature in the frame seems to bask in the moment.
It is to this 57-hectare piece of rural wonder in the upper Myrrhee Valley – with timber riding up the hills around us and the ranges beetling away towards the alps to the south – which Cheryl, livestock specialist and agricultural consultant, has brought years of passion for farming.
It’s here that she’s embarking on the production of truly free-range pastured eggs from a brood of inquisitive, chestnutfeathered, red-combed birds which roam-graze vivid green pasture by day and congregate in a spanking-new ‘chook caravan’ by night and to lay their eggs.
“If I use my logic I’d say ‘No, this is going to be a seven-day-a-week job’, and I think of all the sensible things about why I shouldn’t do it but I just couldn’t let it go,” Cheryl says.
As a child growing up in Sydney’s suburbs she kept bees, raised chooks and bred budgerigars.
“We lived on a pretty busy road and I was able to sell honey and budgies,” Cheryl says.
“It took me about five years to convince mum and dad to let me have a cow.
“I got a jersey heifer – there was a spare block of land next to us – when I suppose I was about 15 or 16.
“From four months of age I reared it and later got her inseminated. She had a calf and I milked her and made cheese.
“I tell this story and my girls say ‘Mum, you were a very weird teenager,’but that’s how it all began.”
Cheryl also went to a then-new Sydney high school with a small farm that only encouraged her drive to know all things about farming and farm production.
It led to Hawkesbury Agricultural College, a career as a government-employed livestock specialist and later an agricultural consultant, a marriage to one – husbandTim Ekberg – and the development of their business, ‘Farming answers’.
About three years ago, living in Milawa, Cheryl took a group of farming women to the National Environment Centre alternative farm at Thurgoona, near Albury.
“They had a ‘chicken tractor’ (chook caravan) and pigs in the paddock and I thought ‘Right, that’s it’, and from there I began trialling it on a small scale,” she says.
“Again, the next door neighbor had a spare block and I asked if we could put our chooks there.
“We supplied her with eggs, we learned the ins and outs of production and began to sell free-range eggs to the Milawa Cheese factory and Wangaratta health food shop.”
The dream remained. Early last year Cheryl and Tim bought their Myrrhee Valley property and – after “many budgets and much research” – took delivery of their first ‘chook caravan’.
Six weeks ago the first hens arrived from a Boho South breeder and within the next year Cheryl plans to triple the brood to 1200.
“We worked out that on this (present) scale there’s no money in it when you account for the capital costs of the caravan, cool room for the eggs and all those expenses that need to be spread over a larger volume of product,” Cheryl says.
Come autumn 2015 and she expects to have three caravans in the paddock and to be producing almost 600 dozen eggs per week.
Cheryl has already scouted the market in the North East and in Melbourne for what will be labelled ‘Wild Hen Farm’ eggs.
These will be certified as truly free-range by Australian and New Zealand animal welfare accreditation organisation Humane Choice.
In the meantime her first gaggle of inquisitive, sociable pullets with their myriad personalities continues to grow on their mix of grass and pelletsupplement diet, as does the size of their eggs.
Cheryl breaks three into a bowl on her kitchen bench – mandarin-colored yolks in pert, opaque whites.
“They’re grass-fed – you can taste the difference,” Cheryl says.
And there’s no doubting her opinion when you know that a long-held childhood dream, worked hard and smart, is about to be brought to fruition.
ROOM TO MOVE: Hens roam freely in the green pasture while their mobile home takes pride in the majestic Myrrhee Valley.