C.W. Harting Farm is part of a new era in free-range eggs

By Heather Hetterick and Matt Reese

cw-hartingWhen one imagines free-range chickens, C.W. Harting’s chicken barns near Convoy in Van Wert County certainly don’t come to mind.

After all, the chickens are contracted, kept mostly indoors and raised on a large scale.  But, there are no cages involved and the chickens are fed an organic diet and that is enough to satisfy retailers that have customers looking for free-range produced eggs.

When the now 27-year-old graduated from the University of Northwestern Ohio, he wanted to add livestock to the family’s grain operation.

“Getting into livestock allowed us to add cash flow and we’re helping out the grain side with labor by being here and with the resources. We built one hog building in 2005 and another in 2006 for my brother to operate. Then, we decided to start another venture with chickens to allow room for my cousin to be a part of the farm,” Harting said.

They also knew the poultry litter from the chicken barns would be a valuable resource, significantly cutting down the fertilizer cost in the grain operation. But, ultimately, the decision to produce free-range eggs over conventional came down to what made the most sense for their operation and the environment at the time.

“We looked at the choices and a cage house was a bigger investment than the free-range building,” he said. “They were trying to push Issue Two in Ohio right when this barn was being built and that is when we geared more for the free-range. With all of the regulations they are making, it opens up the door to this new era. We looked into it and we were able to get a contract. We liked what we saw with the free-range with the smaller bird numbers too.”

They ended up contracting with Egg Innovations in Indiana that provides the organic feed and the birds and markets the eggs. There are significant requirements for documentation and record keeping through the program, but ultimately, Harting said is pays off in the end because of the higher premium he receives.

He built two Big Dutchman barns with the Colony 2+ Alternative Layer System that are  specifically designed for the free-range application.

Colony 2+ from Big Dutchman on Vimeo. (This is Harting’s actual barn that’s featured.)

“The birds are running around everywhere. We have 22,000 birds in a 50-foot by 520-foot building. They can roam anywhere and there is interaction between all of the birds,” he said. “They can fly and run and start at one end of the barn and go to the other if they want to. And, it’s a more multipurpose long pole building that we can use for something else if something happens with the chickens. With the cage house, you have to have a pit and that is a lot more concrete. With the free range, it is around a half million dollars for the facility verses over a million dollars for the cage house.”

The barns are large, open buildings featuring some high tech amenities that promote efficiency and meet the more stringent requirements of those interested in how the eggs are produced. The automatic group-laying nest features a central egg belt and a divided tilting nest floor. The birds lay eggs during the day and then naturally move up to roost at night after the lights go out.

“The belt runs the whole length of the barn. The birds go inside the nests and lay their eggs. The nests open up a half hour before the lights come on and they open a half hour before the lights go out at night,” Harting said.

The eggs roll off backwards from the nest onto the egg belt with the tilting floor, which prevents eggs from remaining in the nest and improves hygiene. The nest box system and facility design also minimize bird-on-bird injury and mite problems.

From the outside, the barns may resemble a conventional poultry barn, but one of the requirements of his contract is that the birds go outside when weather permits, so each barn has access outside to a 50-foot by 520-foot pasture.

cw-harting-12“Basically, from October until April, or so, we leave them inside. They can go out anytime when it is 55 to 90 degrees. The certification for the free range and organic requires this access. We have to log when they are in or out and the temperature,” Harting said. “We had to put more doors in for outside access. I think that hurt the ventilation and it causes more headaches with cold air leakage. I have to heat my barn to 75 degrees, but they want me to let the birds out at 55 degrees. I disagree with a lot of the organic rules referring to outside access, but there are management changes that Egg Innovations are letting us do.”

The birds arrive at the farm several weeks before they start laying eggs.

“The birds are anywhere from 13 to 16 weeks old with an average of 15 weeks old when we get them. We will start seeing our first few eggs around 18-20 weeks old. When they come in, we’ll have them for 15 to 22 months depending on when they molt,” Harting said. “When they come in they have lower feed needs, but we are already starting the management practices. The feed is lower to the ground and you adjust them higher as you go. They are on eight hours of light or a little better when they get here. They get all the way up to 16 hours of light when they are up to full production. With them being free-range, we put up fencing to get them started and keep the birds where their feed and water are. Then, after a week, we take the fences down and they can get to where they roost. The scratch area is about 10 feet of concrete on the side where they go and play.”

The bulk of the manure is deposited in the raised roosting area where it can fall through the floor. The tilting nest boxes also serve to keep them clean and free of manure.

cw-haritng-5“After the birds are moved out, we come in and tear out all of the flooring and scoop out all of the litter — which is about 400 tons — and then we hire out the power washing,” he said. “We plan for spreading it on about 200 acres for each barn and that has helped to get our nutrients where we want them to be for the crops.”

The birds eat from a moving drag chain with a consistent feed supply and drink from waterers with a cup to catch drips and minimize excess moisture in the barns. The eggs are collected twice daily.

“On average, I spend 2 to 4 hours out here a day every day. Some days it is more than that when you have something like mechanical breakage. We are collecting eggs at 7 o’ clock for an hour in the morning and we’ll come back in the afternoon around 2 and collect for another hour,” Harting said. “It depends on the flock, but twice a day we are collecting at least an hour per barn. We pack them and put them in flats, and put those on a skid. A skid holds 10,800 eggs and they go into a cooler here until a truck comes once a week and picks them up. With both houses, I am getting three-and-a-half to four skids a day.”

Many of the eggs go to Costco, which even sent a representative and consumers to look at Harting’s operation.

“They know where they are getting the eggs from but they also like to see first-hand where they are coming from.”

One challenge of the future is the ever-changing definition of organic.

“I would like to add a third building, but don’t feel completely comfortable doing it yet. Organic standards have really changed since we started and seem to constantly change. For instance, I had to go back in and install more access doors in the barn as a result of a certification that has changed along with adding perches and more paperwork that needs to be done,” Harting said.

For Harting this is something they got into at the right time and it is going to work for their operation.

“I wouldn’t go to the grocery and buy free-range eggs myself, that doesn’t mean anything to me morally, but there is a market out there for these kind of eggs and people are willing to pay for the extra work we do.”

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