Courier staff writer
SAGUACHE — Organic chicken farms now have a place in Saguache County.
On Tuesday, the Saguache County Commissioners (SCC) approved two conditional use permits for organic egg production, welcoming the new business venture and the future possibilities it holds.
David and Candace Toews and Royce and Tamara Nickel will now begin working with the Wisconsin-based Organic Valley Coop (OVC) to produce organic eggs for packing and distribution on the Front Range. The Toews and Nickels will operate similar operations at two different Saguache County locations. The Toews’ farm is located on Saguache County Road E in Del Norte and the Nickels’ on Saguache County Road B.
The farms would be a phased build out of initially 7,500 Bovan Brown hens, up to 10,000, requiring 1.75 square-feet per bird with an additional five square-feet per bird of outdoor access, according to the Saguache County permit applications. Plans include 17,500 square-foot barns with an additional 1.15-acre pasture area, bringing the total barn and pasture footprint to approximately 1.55 acres.
“OVC isn’t interested in a mega-chicken farm business,” David Toews said.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture (USDA) will certify the hen housing and pasture, and it will also meet OVC specifications, according to the Saguache County permit applications. The hens will not be confined to cages, but rather allowed to “free range” inside the barn and outdoors in the pasture comprised of native grasses and alfalfa. During the winter, the hens will only have access to the pasture if weather is conducive, but will have access to natural light due to required barn windows.
At maximum, 10,000 hens should consume 480 gallons of water per day compared to 45 beef cows consuming 525 gallons per day, according to the Saguache County permit applications. Total water use would be less than 1.75 to 2 acre-feet annually. The Toews have already secured a water source through the Department of Water Resources and the Nickels are still negotiating augmentation terms.
The flock will eat certified organic feed, which a semi-truck will deliver from outside of the state, according to the Saguache County permit applications. The SCC were pleased to hear the Toews are interested in one day expanding their egg operation to include organic feed production, which could one day create employment opportunities.
“We would like to be able to find as much organic grain here that we could put into feed,” said Toews, who is also interested in incorporating a mill on his farm. “Same thing with the pullets. I hope OVC would like to see that this can grow and become sustainable.”
Saguache County Commissioner Linda Joseph said she was in support of making local, organic chicken feed a Valley commodity.
“It is important to get organic chicken feed here,” Joseph said in reference to failed attempts to regularly access such feed in Saguache County. “We could never work it out. This could make it work like it hasn’t worked before.”
The SCC were also interested in learning what would happen to eggs that did not make the grade, encouraging Toews and Nickel to take the rejects to the local market.
“I would feel that way, but there are people that sell eggs in the community and we aren’t interested in that business,” Toews said. “Our eggs are being grown in Colorado and are being sold in Colorado. They consider an egg produced in Colorado local production.”
OVC will market the eggs, according to the Saguache County permit applications. The company has an established Denver and Front Range market. Once a week, the company will have a refrigerated truck pick up the eggs and deliver the product to its Denver location. There, the eggs will be processed, graded, washed and packaged for delivery to grocery stores.
Before approving both applications, Saguache County Commissioner Ken Anderson asked about the chicken disposal process, whether chicken feathers would fill the air when being transported or if their manure is spread on fields and how manure smell complaints would be addressed at a country level.
“It (smell problems) would be a blight issue,” Joseph explained. “If the scent travels, it would be a violation.”
Toews said he and Nickel are considering providing Campbell’s Soup or local composting operations with the chickens once they reach their production limit.
The Rio Grande County Commissioners (RGCC) tabled a similar application late last month. Reasons to wait on the decision included its location, which is a five-acre parcel designated residential; use of agricultural chemicals in proximity to an organic operation; manure odors; varmint control; truck traffic; Rio Grande Canal water contamination; flies; dust mitigation and disease control. The RGCC will make a decision on the application on Wednesday, April 24 at 11:15 a.m.