In 2014 Ryan Kingsnorth returned home to his family’s eighty-acre property on Tamborine Mountain, on a secluded green shelf with wonderful views looking west over the valleys to the ridges of the Scenic Rim. When he noticed the passion the mountain community has for local food, he decided to farm free-range laying hens. His chickens roam the lush pastures of the property and reside in a purpose-built caravan. When the chooks are done foraging on a patch of land, he simply hooks the caravan to his ute and moves them to another location, leaving behind the newly fertilised patch to regenerate. Watching over his girls is Luna, a young maremma sheepdog, who protects the flock from wedge-tailed eagles and foxes. Before Luna, Ryan sometimes lost chickens to predators; now, with their snowy-white bodyguard, the hens are safe and sound. Ryan sells his eggs to retail shops and market stalls on the mountain. (www.facebook.com/kingsnorthcattle)
You told us you’ve been living in this area for thirty years. You don’t actually look that old.
I’m twenty-eight. So, close to. I’ve lived on this shelf a long time. My parents bought the property thirty-three years ago. At the moment, the family has about eighty acres. I did twelve years of schooling up here.
Ryan, why the chickens? Why the eggs?
I travelled around a bit for work and I grew sick of it. I love it here. I wanted to start something local and close to home, and there seemed to be a want for local food up here … and this happened. It just happened.
Can you tell us a little about the caravan?
It started off with a shed. It was always free-range and the doors were never locked — the chickens loved it. But the caravan is a much better idea because you can move it around your paddocks, fertilising as you go, and they always have a brand-new, fresh area to eat. So, once they’ve finished in an area, I hook the caravan to the back of the ute and move it to the other side of the farm. For me, it was just a no-brainer; it had to be done this way.
I have to say, the hens have an awesome view.
Yes, they do. And plenty of space.
Can you tell us about Luna?
Luna is a maremma guard dog. She is bred to bond with whatever you want her to bond with. It could be goats, it could be cattle, it could be sheep, it could be chickens or it could be children. They are very highly protective once the bonding process is finished, and she will basically just live with them and never want to go anywhere else. She’ll protect them.
You were saying you have a bother with eagles …
Yes, wedge-tailed eagles, particularly. But the maremma will scare off foxes, dingoes, anything. Even people. I really want to breed with her; she’s from a champion line from a breeder down in Orange. They’ve been doing it since 1993, so before the whole maremma thing became quite popular in Australia.
Who inspires you?
I’d say my brother had a big influence on me, definitely. He’s pretty much stayed here and done the cattle, and I’ve helped him out where I can. I’ve always loved it. Coming home was a holiday. But my father is probably the biggest role model in my life. He has always been a self-employed man, a self-made man, and I’m very lucky because of him. That’s why I can pretty much do what I do.
What does a typical day look like?
Two coffees. Don’t talk to me before, which is fine cause I’m the first one up. I’ve got to unlock the layer belt. I get up right on sunrise, at first light. This morning it was five. The chickens, they wake up and I wake up to that. They stroll to their feet and … [Ryan impersonates the chickens, making quiet clucking noises] I can hear them from the bedroom, so that’s when I get up and unlock the layer belt. Then, there’s my two coffees. And I just start grading some eggs from the day before, then I eat eggs, then after that I’m out in the paddock doing whatever I can.
How many hens do you have? Do you plan to expand the business?
At the moment, I have eleven-hundred hens. It is pretty much going to stay like this. It probably grew a bit too fast for its own good, and now I have to pull the reins back so I can catch up. But, yes, it is going well. I just want to keep it that way. I don’t like having stock left over. I like getting the eggs through so I can get them out the next day. Two days and they are on the shelf, which nobody else can do. No other producer.
What do you feed the chickens?
Well, I’ve shifted the feed twice and I’ve just found the best you can get. It is high energy, so even in the heat of day they just want to run around. It contains no restricted animal material, so if cattle get into it there’s no risk of any problem there. It is basically a high-protein, vegetarian, high-energy grain product. They love it. It is especially produced for free-range hens, where the chickens are always outside. It is hard to get.
Most feeds these days contain a synthetic carotenoid that turns the yolk bright orange. So when you crack an egg and it is bright orange, it is not often it is genuine free-range. It is just because it has that synthetic dye. People eat with their eyes, so when my eggs first came out and the yolks were a little pale, people thought there was something wrong, but when they tasted them they were amazed. Still, some people just don’t see it that way — they are pale, there must be something wrong. But as you’ve seen they have plenty of room for grass and that sort of thing. The new feed has no synthetic dyes — that was what sold me on it — and it is 100% natural. What you see is what you get.
With yolk colours, you always get a variation. There aren’t any pale ones anymore because the new feed contains an extract from a flower that makes them a nicer colour, but still allows room for the chicken to decide what colour the yolks are going to be. They might be yellow; they might be orange. The orange means they are not simply hammering that grain; they really are free-range girls. And then the yellow ones are the lazy eaters — they just sit there and hammer the grain, then sit under the shade for a bit, then go get a drink and have a bit more of the same. Then there’s the ones that just get out and get into it. So, chickens really do have personalities. It is hard to see — you can’t stick a tag on each one and document it — but you generally know. You know from the yolk, anyway.
How do you feel about the lifestyle?
I love it. I walk a hundred metres and I’m at work. I get to eat at home. I have my lunch at home. I can have a cup of tea whenever I want one. I am my own boss and I love working. I am completely self-motivated, so I don’t need someone standing over me, telling me to move faster or anything.
What is your favourite egg dish?
Just fried. Fried eggs on toast. Two toast, four eggs and I’m done. Very simple man, that’s me. But I love them every way. Quiche — I love quiche. Any little cracked eggs I can’t sell, I do a thirty-six-egg quiche. That’s the way to go. You can’t waste them. They’re so good.