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Flocking ... Brent Craig's free-range hens head towards the fence to see what he's up to. PHOTOS: SALLY BROOKER

Third-generation poultry farmer Brent Craig is fascinated by the behaviour of his birds.

Despite being around them almost all his life, he is still learning more every day – especially since providing state-of-the-art free-range facilities at his family’s Herbert property.

Craig’s Poultry, a business established by Mr Craig’s grandparents and continued by his parents David and Linda Craig, has gone full circle.

Early European settlers had chickens running around their property to provide eggs and meat. Then caged poultry farming was developed as a way of safeguarding the birds in a condition where they would lay eggs regularly.

But criticism of “battery hens” as a form of animal cruelty gained momentum to the point where, in 2012, the national animal welfare advisory committee introduced a code of practice under which caged hens would be phased out by 2022.

Farmers could opt for a colony system, a barn, or free-range.

The Craigs have installed six free-range sheds several kilometres away from their main operation. The doorways open from 10am to 9pm, allowing the hens to roam the surrounding paddocks as much as they like.

“It’s their choice,” Mr Craig said. “They’re like teenagers; they do their own thing.”

Some were quite bold in heading out by themselves as far as they could. Others he described as “shed-huggers”.

Older hens tended to be more “proactive” than younger ones.

Because they were used to humans walking among them in the sheds, where their main food was supplied, they were not shy of people. Having spotted Mr Craig outside their paddock fence, an increasing number walked over, contentedly cooing quietly.

The longer he stayed, the more they migrated towards him.

“They’re curious all the time,” Mr Craig said.

Commercial sensitivity prevented Mr Craig from divulging the sheds’ specifications. The concept was adapted from overseas examples and the Craigs were the only ones using them here.

“It’s a bit of an adventure.”

His father was “a great source of input” and was equally enthralled by the birds’ behaviour.

“In the initial stages we were watching the chickens to see what they were interested in. We want to make life more interesting and fun for them.”

pasture to find worms and insects, and also ate a bit of grass. A pasture management regime ensured it was kept longish but not too long.

Production was similar to that of caged hens, most laying an egg a day, Mr Craig said. The free-range birds were the same breed as those used across the industry.

The Craigs also run a cropping operation that provides all the poultry feed. A paddock of bright yellow oilseed rape alongside State Highway 1 was attracting photographers passing by in vehicles. It would be harvested in January and sent to Pure Oil in Rolleston for processing.

“There’s quite a nice synergy between poultry and cropping,” Mr Craig said.

“We’ve got very good cropping farmers in North Otago. We have excellent arable soils.”

Poultry farming had a history around Herbert, where the cool, dry climate was ideal. It was once known as “feather town”.

When asked when he took over the farm, Mr Craig said it wasn’t like that. It was a family business and members picked up different responsibilities as they could.

After attending Waitaki Boys’ High School he graduated from the University of Otago in economics and spent a couple of years in the police force before returning to Herbert in 1995.

His wife, Bridget, is also actively involved in the business.