Did you know that hens could catch colds too? I didn’t till I visited S. Umapathy’s farm at Ammapalayam, managed by his sons. Ram Mohan and Ram Prasad.
About a year ago, the brothers started thinking about a more ethical form of egg-farming. Earlier, their layer farms had hens cooped up in cages and fed so that they would lay eggs. Though they did not use steroids or antibiotics to increase the yield, their hens were not allowed to roam free either.
And so they began raising free-range hens on a plot of land that their father owned.
Now, they say, they have learnt a lot: which type of native bird will thrive in this environment; how to deal with illnesses in a natural way; how changing seasons affect the birds; why they should stick to the same water source when feeding the birds and much more.
The two-acre grove is home to dwarf coconut palms, fig, moringa and other trees. In the cool shade are 750 plump, brownish-red country hens. A team of youngsters who come from a traditional agrarian background have been employed to help with the daily chores.
The first thing that struck me was how fearless these hens are. Some even decide to leave the worms alone and peck us instead. I’m not sure if they preferred my toes to their owner’s slippers but there was no way I was standing still enough to find out.
Wired enclosures separate the younger hens from the older ones, as they still need to develop immunity and get comfortable with laying. The eggs are not fertilised due to customer preferences. The farm has a separate enclosure for the roosters.
Ram Mohan points out that the eggs’ colour depends entirely on that of the breed. Native breeds tend to be of a certain colour and that’s why consumers think that brown eggs are better.
There are large patches of native greens for the hens to feed on when they tire of worms. At one patch, I saw a hen jump up and down like a little child trying to reach spinach leaves that were dangling from a coconut frond.
In an open space in the middle, there are rustic wooden structures filled with a layer of fine sawdust that allow the birds some respite from the heat. The interiors are clean and odourless.
Many hens prefer to lay their eggs in quiet corners in these huts.
Surprisingly the birds didn’t panic or start fluttering when I entered. They were quite comfortable and calm even when picked up. The one that Ram Prasad carried allowed itself to be stroked like a pet.
Inside the enclosure, the workers scatter a variety of grains like corn, paddy and millets just in case the hens haven’t been able to find adequate food.
The brothers shy away from using the word ‘organic’. Though the grains they buy from smaller farms are free from chemicals and pesticides, they are not organically certified. What they do promise, however, is proudly announced on their beautifully packaged egg-case. “Free-range, happy hens, happy eggs, no pesticides, natural feed”. All the things that define wellness.
Oh! And hens with a cold that I mentioned at the start. The remedy is to mix turmeric powder in their drinking water.
Where it is available
Chennai: Amma Nana; Terra Earth Foods; Gormei Market; Organic Paradise
Coimbatore: Natrinai Organic Store(Saravanampatti); Nilgiris (R.S. Puram); Vaiyagam Store (Trichy Road)
Tirupur: Vaiyagam Organic Store