Chris Hay and his mother Sarah founded Say Hay Farms in 2010. They farm 45 acres of land for certified organic produce and pastured chicken eggs. The chickens they raise are Vega Brown, a breed that features productive egg laying and mild temperaments. They are also well-suited to the climate, which is important for the hot summers in Yolo County. Matching the breed to its surrounding is especially important because chickens stop laying eggs when under stress. If hens aren’t laying, raising eggs becomes economically unviable.
“Our best tool for keeping laying hens productive is reducing stress,” says Chris. The stress management starts day one. Say Hay’s chicks are hatched by a local breeder in Yolo County — as opposed to being mail ordered and shipped, which is the most common way to obtain chicks. Secure housing in mobile coops, safety from predators, and eating quality feed are all way of reducing stress for chickens. Say Hay’s hens are raised on pasture, which allows them to express their natural behaviors. Chickens are naturally curious; they like to roam and take in a diverse forage. Say Hay practices what they call an “integrated operation”, rotating vegetables and animals through the same land. The hens eat the pests and fertilize the fields.
Chris points out that chickens need a breadth and depth of amino acids and they are not vegetarians. It’s important that hens get a high-protein diet, so their forage is supplemented with an organic feed that is custom milled in Modesto to Chris’ specifications. After experimenting with the nutrient content of the feed, Chris and Sarah found that a soy-free mix resulted in better looking eggs with thicker shells. A new batch of feed is milled every three weeks because the nutrients degrade so quickly in storage.
There is some seasonal variability in chicken egg production. In the fall and winter, adult hens molt —dropping their feathers and growing new ones — a process that can take several weeks. During that time, the hens’ energy and nutrients go into producing new feathers, rather than eggs. By controlling stress and providing high-protein feed, Chris is able to limit the egg reduction to about 20 percent over winter. This natural slow down in egg laying is followed by a bump in the spring, when the days get longer and there is more to forage. “This time of year, we collect eggs three times a day,” says Chris. “And, spring is a great time to enjoy eggs from chickens raised on pasture.”
In springtime, chickens forage the abundant plant foods with high green pigment, leading to naturally orange yolks. The yolk color is related to what the chickens are eating, not the nutritional value of the egg. Say Hay does not feed their chickens additives for oranger yolks, which is common in the egg industry.
“Our yolks come in a spectrum of colors —yellow, orange, red, even bluish green— depending on what the chickens are eating,” says Chris. One year, some Say Hay hens roamed through a field of peppers and their yolks came out bright red! Its normal to see paler yolks in June, July and August when green plants dry up. “This variation is the beauty of supporting small-diversified farms.”