A GREAT LAY
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of a Dormy full English or the chef’s signature apple-infused soufflé in the garden room, you’ll know that the eggs we use are something else. Muddy Boots caught up with the man responsible and talked chickens with Billy Howard, who runs Billy’s Eggs at his farm just outside Stow-on-the-Wold…
How did you get started? Or rather, what came first, the chickens or the eggs?
I first started keeping chickens six years ago because my wife was making cakes for the local coffee shop. Eggs were the most expensive ingredients so we bought 20 hens. Then my neighbour, who did roadside egg sales, offered me his hens and their houses. So I took on his 90 or so hens to see if selling eggs from the farm would work. It did, and I now have 3,500 hens going straight to the consumer via pubs, restaurants and pre-pack sales.
What makes Billy’s Eggs special?
They are practically day-fresh to the consumer – at the end of delivery day the egg store is empty. At three-to-four days an egg is at its best: that’s why I deliver twice a week to keep them fresh for the customer.
Tell us about your chickens…
My chickens are all hybrid laying hens; I have Lohmann Browns, Bovan Browns, and some Hy-Lines. I’ve found Lohmann Browns are a stronger, hardier hybrid and suit the farm better.
How long is the laying life of a chicken? And what happens to them afterwards?
I buy the chickens at 16-weeks old and they start laying at around 20 weeks; small eggs at first, then as the chicks start to mature the egg size increases through medium into large eggs. Once the chickens reach 30 weeks, I reduce their protein ration to control the egg size – forcing too many large eggs from the hens can cause problems for them in later life. Having sheds for sets of different ages is quite difficult to manage at times, but it enables me to provide a good quality egg all year round. When the birds reach around 80 weeks they have to be replaced because it’s not financially viable to keep them. I sell a good percentage of the birds to smallholders as they will continue to lay for a few more years, but the eggshell and albumen (egg white) quality is poorer at this age. One of the other benefits of having a multi-age site is the double-yolked eggs that the birds lay as their bodies develop from around 21 to 31 weeks. Some customers have mentioned getting whole trays of double-yolkers at a time. [Dormy can testify to that!]
What are the benefits of raising your hens in woodland?
Keeping chickens in the woods makes loads of difference to the quality of the egg and the welfare of the bird. It is true what they say about happy chickens laying good eggs. The birds are jungle fowl and like tree cover to hide from predators in the air and on the ground. I have planted 200+ trees in the last 12 months around the existing sheds to make it even more exciting – it’s like a big playpen for them. Chickens are very stressful creatures. If you limit the stress, you maximize production: you keep them happy; they keep you happy.
Tell us about your average day…
I start work around 7.30am: collecting eggs, and checking all auto-feeders and drinkers are working correctly. The eggs are then brought down to the egg room where they are all graded, stamped and sorted into small medium and large – about 3,150 a day. This takes until around 2pm. Then there are pre-packs to box – around 500 a week. As I do all my own maintenance on the farm there are always things to do. I do the delivering too. At 9.30pm I have to shut the chickens in so Mr Fox doesn’t come calling for a chicken dinner. Once a year each shed is completely dismantled, cleaned out and disinfected to prevent any possible disease spreading into the new flock – I do that bit too.
Finally, what’s your favourite egg recipe?
You can’t beat a good six-egg omelette…
Ryan Swift’s Anytime Omelette
We asked the Dormy House chef what his favourite recipe for Billy’s produce was. Quick as a flash, he replied:
“Whisk up six eggs, season with salt and pepper, crumble in a handful of goat’s cheese (leaving some big chunks), slices of two or three roasted red peppers, and a punnet’s worth of chopped field mushrooms. Fry in a pan full of melted butter and serve it to four very grateful people (yourself included).”