AMONG the green hills of the Far North West of the state, the Gunningham family have been successfully introducing a quite unique component to their dairy’s rotational grazing schedule. Chooks.
Spread across Mawbanna to Montumana, Matthew and Pippa Gunningham have been running their certified organic dairies in the region with their family for the best part of two decades.
The most recent addition to their Gunningham Family Farms portfolio – which consist of two dairy farms and around 1400 head of cattle – are the 2500 mostly-Hyline chickens that roam freely in their pastures, producing their newest farm export, Shakespeare Hills Eggs.
“We’d always had the hens on the farm, but it’s only been more recently that they’ve become a commercial enterprise,” said Ms Gunningham.
This egg-laying enterprise started from just 100 hens, housed in a converted horse float and laying eggs which were sold from a roadside stall alongside an honesty box.
However, an increase in demand meant ingenuity had to be stepped up in turn.
Early on, it was with the help of the Rocky Cape Christian Community that they built their first mobile coop, capable of housing and transporting around 500 chickens.
Today, that flock has expanded to around 2500 chickens spread over a number of coops, which are a marvel in their own right.
With winged sides opening and closing at dawn and dusk, the chickens are provided with shade, protection and shelter.
Inside the coops, rows of stacked shelves floored by artificial grass provide a comfortable nest of sorts and a safe place for the chickens to lay their eggs, though a lack of straw encourages them to roost outside, keeping the coop clean.
The rear wall of these shelves has an opening at the bottom, roughly the same height as a chicken’s egg.
Incorporating the slight slope these shelves are on, leaning towards the centre of the coop, and the coops become their own egg-gathering machine.
When the chickens lay their eggs, they roll to the middle of the coop and on to a soft-belted conveyer.
When the coops are moved in the morning, it becomes the task of Pippa, Matthew or any of their kids to simply flick the switch to turn the conveyor belt on and gather the eggs as the gently roll towards them.
What makes the egg-making and chicken-rearing process of the Gunningham family unique is their co-existence with the property’s other enterprises.
“We move the chickens and the coops daily, following the cattle’s rotational grazing patterns,” said Ms Gunningham.
“We think it mimics nature. If you see wildebeest in the wild, they’re constantly grazing, pooing and moving on.
You then see the flocks of birds are coming after the poo, spreading it and scratching around, eating the fly larvae.
“Eventually they all come around again.
“It’s rotational grazing for our cows and for the chickens too.”
Ms Gunningham said alongside their egg production, the chickens are providing benefits to the health of their pastures and, in turn, benefiting their dairy operations.
“These girls are cleaning up the mess and fertilising the soil, and at the end of it all they lay this little nutritional powerpack which we can sell as a premium product.”
All the while, Pippa continues to raise, replace and expand new flocks of organically raised chickens, a testament to the sustainability of the operation.
The Shakespeare Hills eggs are now finding their way into groceries across Tasmania as some of the state’s only truly organic eggs