Kobus Venter loves soil. “He’s always out there, digging around in it,” smiles his wife, Julie. So much so that their two children, Jack aged 11 and Anna 2, have also become mesmerised by it asking, 'How’s the grass Dad?'”
As an enthusiastic egg consumer, I’m excited to learn about their pasture raised egg business. But before we get anywhere near a chicken, Kobus encourages me to kneel in the long, lush grass in order to closely examine what lies below it.
“See all the earthworm castings? They’re getting air into the soil and all the litter has broken down already. You can see all the new plants. We haven’t put a single seed in this paddock. With so much mulch on the ground, the evaporation is a hell of a lot less. Because you’ve got that cover, any rain that does fall has got time to soak into the ground rather than run off.”
FROM ZIMBABWE TO CANTERBURY
Originally from Zimbabwe, Kobus and Julie spent time in several different parts of the world, finally settling in Canterbury six and a half years ago. With an extensive background in agriculture, Kobus worked locally in various crop and farm management positions before they decided to go into business for themselves 18 months ago.
“We only rent one and half hectares here but the whole farm is 40 odd hectares. The landlord has his own sheep and beef on it but we’ll slowly, as we expand, take on more of that. He’s pretty happy for us to carry on. At the moment we’re bringing in 10 tonnes of feed. That turns into chicken manure and goes onto the pasture which is a win win for both of us.”
“We’ve always been really interested in Allan Savory’s holistic management principles,” says Julie, “especially since living in New Zealand.”
“It’s about growing nutrient dense food and pasture,” says Kobus. “We don’t own land so the easiest way for us to get into it was to have chickens. To farm beef or sheep you need a lot more land and all that goes with it.”
JACK AND HIS CHICKENS
Growing up in Africa, like most families, they always had chickens. It was the kids’ job to take care of them and they made a little pocket money as well.
“That’s what we wanted to do for Jack,” says Julie. Jack, the namesake of Jack’s Eggs has downs syndrome so his nutrition has always been a priority for them.
“He first got two chickens from his schoolteacher which slowly increased to four, then six. Now we’ve got 250. In October we will have about 600 and we’ll just keep on doubling as we find the demand for eggs.
“Our long, long term goal for the project is to move into a social enterprise for Jack when he gets older, but he’s still at school so we’re not looking at that angle just yet.” Julie turns to Jack. “Isn’t that right Jack? We could have some of your friends here, couldn’t we?”
Jack beams and excitedly warns me of the dangers of chickens biting your fingers!
“Taking the regenerative approach,” Kobus explains, “we don’t put any fertilisers or chemicals on the pastures at all. We don’t use antibiotics or deworming stuff on the chickens unless we get to a point where we have to. We haven’t reached that point so far. We’re always thinking, ‘How do we do things more naturally?’ For intestinal worms, for instance, they’ve got a life cycle and if the birds are on that patch of ground for the whole life cycle to complete itself, your birds are going to get reinfected. Whereas if you keep moving them around and give the life cycle a break, it can’t continue and the birds can’t get reinfected. It’s extremely simple.
“When the birds get onto a certain bit of pasture, they eat some of it, trample some of it then you move on and let it recover. At the same time you’ve got a bit of good mulch there so the chances of getting a good crop is a lot greater than having bare soil.
“Just before lockdown we had a very dry spell and with my conventional farmers background, I looked at the bare ground we had and thought, ‘Oh no, we’re going to have to drill some seed in there.’ But with regenerative agriculture there’s a seed bank there already. You just need the right conditions. I’d say about 90% of the grass you can see now regenerated from the first lot of rain we had. The stuff just comes.”
NUTRITION FROM GRASS
The chickens are moved every four days or so and are fed layer pellets and mash. But Kobus estimates up to 30% of their diet comes from eating grass.
“The commercial producers will say this is nonsense. They’ll tell you chickens won’t eat grass,” laughs Kobus. “Look, here they are, eating grass right now. You can actually see it in their droppings. There’s no weeds here because they love them. They’ll eat them first.”
Sure enough, we’re surrounded by chickens happily snipping of blades of grass with their beaks and eating them. This is not what I expect from chickens. It’s fascinating to watch.
CAFES, RESTAURANTS AND FARMERS MARKETS
Kobus and Julie sell their eggs at two farmers markets – Amberley and Kaikoura. Once they got through the complicated process of accreditation with MPI, they were able to sell to local cafés and restaurants. But with the onset of Covid 19 and Level 4 lockdown, they needed to quickly
find outlets for their 180 eggs a day.
“Ninety per cent of our stock was going to cafes and restaurants,” says Kobus, “and we were retailing some through Harris Meats as well – our little local butchery. All the cafes closed, of course, but we thought Harris Meats may be able to stay open, but they were told to shut down as well. So I ran across the road to 4 Square straight away to sort something out with them. We had to reduce our price but we managed to move some stock through them so that was good. We home delivered to our farmers markets customers but it was expensive when you add in the delivery costs. We were driving to Kaikoura and Amberley. Quite a distance.”
Lockdown forced them to put a hold on their expansion plans, but also helped to open new avenues as well, as people became very focused on small, local producers. With the cafés and restaurants now coming back online things are almost back to normal for the couple.
SUPERIOR QUALITY OF PASTURE RAISED EGGS
With no official MPI recognition of pasture raised eggs, Jack’s Eggs are audited as a free range farm. But what they do is far beyond free range. The quality of the eggs is something local chefs are prepared to pay a premium for.
“They just hold together a lot better,” Julie says. “When the chefs are really busy, making poached eggs, for instance, they’re cracking away and tell us it’s brilliant. They aren’t wasting any eggs because the yolks hold together so well and the whites don’t spread through the water. They’re willing to pay a higher price for that.”
THE CHICKEN COOPS
Two mobile chicken coops sit in a nearby paddock with a backdrop of snowy mountains looking like a couple of alien craft that have just landed there. The chickens sleep inside and lay their eggs in nesting boxes above the perches. A mat inside each nesting box is on a slight slope which moves the egg away quickly as it is laid. No straw or sawdust, so 95% of the eggs remain exceptionally clean and do not need any harsh chemical cleaning which would reduce shelf life. Any eggs that do end up dirty are fed to their pigs. The others are simply dry buffed and boxed straight up.
The coops are attached to a trailer which Kobus can move around using a quad bike. Both sides open up automatically during the day and close down when the sun goes down, powered by a solar panel on the roof. They also automatically close down by degrees should any harsh Canterbury nor-westers hit, then open themselves up again later. There are two watering systems in case one fails for any reason and water is harvested from the roofs.
Kobus explains the process of training chickens to use their new, foreign home.
“It is hard work,” he laughs. “When they first come to the farm we put them in a smaller area so they can’t wander too far then as the sun goes down they start looking around for a building. There are a few who will go in themselves and realise there is a place for them to perch but mostly you just have to literally pick up every single chicken and show them this is where you sleep. For some once is enough, others may take up to three days to learn.”
These two coops were imported from Australia and modified by Kobus to suit their needs. He has just put in an order for steel to make some new coops which will be an impressive four times the size of the originals.
“They will be a similar design. I’m using the same computer system as in these, but the new ones will be using a double decker system with four doors instead of just two. They will hold 600 birds.”
Kobus and Julie spent some time living in Zambia where Kobus was voted Barley Grower of the Year. Future plans involve a move
towards growing their own grains for chicken feed and raising their own birds to point of lay.
“There are lots of opportunities but it all takes money,” says Julie. “When we’ve looked at it, it’s all about growing the market. It’s really intense when you’re so small to do everything yourself. Once you get bigger, with economy of scale you can justify doing more.”
RARE BREED CHICKENS
Julie adores rare breed chickens. “That’s my pet project,” she says. “Maybe we’ll keep them separate in these smaller trailers, maybe mix them when we get more confident about how they produce. It’s always a numbers game. You have to figure out what is most efficient. We have owned a few rare breeds in the past and I’d love to have them again. It’s the pretty pictures you see on Instagram that steal my heart.”
She dreams of selling ‘rainbow eggs’ with a few coloured eggs mixed with the brown red
“What we’d like to do eventually if we can get hold of more land is have our own beef animals. Flies lay their eggs in the cow pats and in a week or so the eggs hatch into larvae then the chickens can move in and get free protein.”
Kobus is currently studying Holistic Management and hopes to draw on his years of experience to help others as a consultant for regenerative agriculture.
“Importing or buying the right equipment and dealing with MPI are not easy and if you don’t have anyone to help you out it’s really hard work.
“Our methods may be innovative now, but we would love all eggs to be produced this way.”