115 acres in Ione, 110 miles from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
Charlie and Liz became egg producers by accident. The couple raised pastured cattle on their ranch while running a feed and tack store. When a customer wasn’t able to take home the chicks she had ordered, they took the flock home. Now they have 1,900 laying hens, along with around 25 cows, in addition to the feed store. The hens are out on pasture all day and sleep indoors at night. Charlie moves their portable barns around a couple times per week, as needed. He supplements the hens’ diets with feed made entirely from US-grown grains.
The pasture is kept alive in the dry months using sprinkler irrigation.
Rolling Oaks Ranch’s Ameraucana hens lay green and blue eggs, giving them the nickname “Easter Egg hens.”
On April 13, 2014, CUESA visited Rolling Oaks Ranch to see how their egg-laying hens are raised on pasture, as part of our “Spring Frittata Farm Tour.”
Charlie Sowell and Elizabeth Sorrow of Rolling Oaks Ranch raise pastured hens, cattle, and horses on 115 acres in Ione, California, about 110 miles northeast of San Francisco.
Elizabeth and Charlie also run a feed store in town. They fell into the egg business when they started caring for some chicks that a customer at their store couldn’t take home.
Charlie’s chickens (or “the girls,” as he likes to call them) are raised outdoors on pasture, where they eat grass, worms, and other insects, supplemented with grain feed.
When we visited the ranch, the fields were lushly green and the pond was full after a recent spell of rain—deceptively so, as the ranch has been hit hard by the drought. Charlie depends primarily on the local water district for drinking water for his cattle and hens. He recently sold all but six of his cattle, anticipating a reduced water allotment this summer.
The hens and cattle are alternated through the fields in rotation. The cattle graze on clover, alfalfa, ryegrass, and other grasses, while the hens’ manure adds fertility back to the soil.
At night, about a half hour after the sun sets, the chickens roost in movable houses, where they lay their eggs and sleep. The houses offer protection from the cold and from the many predators on the land, such as black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes.
Charlie showed us the inside of a newly constructed coop. The hens lay their eggs in wooden boxes cushioned with wood shavings. Charlie has eight hen houses, which house about 300 birds each.
One-year-old hens lay about one egg a day in peak season. As they get older, they lay fewer but larger eggs. Egg production is dependent on the amount of sunlight. The number of eggs peaks in the summer, and it reduces by about 75 percent in the winter.
Charlie explained the difference between eggs marketed as “free-range” or “cage-free" versus “pasture-raised.” Many industrially raised “free-range” and “cage-free” birds spend their whole lives inside warehouses, where the light and temperature may be controlled to force egg production year-round. Charlie’s truly pasture-raised chickens are raised outdoors throughout their adult lives.
Charlie showed us the brooder house, containing 3½-week-old chicks. During the first few months of their lives, they are very vulnerable and require a lot of care and attention. Charlie and Elizabeth must check up on them once every hour or two. The brooder is temperature-controlled with lights and fans to maintain a steady 95 to 98 degrees. This is the only time the birds will be around electricity during their lives, befor they go outside to be raised on pasture with the other hens.
Charlie raises a variety of breeds, including Ameracauna, Plymouth Barred Rock, Rhode Island Red, Black Sex-Link, Golden Sex-Link, and Production Red. Charlie said that variety helps to ensure overall hardiness in his flock through various weather conditions.
Barred Plymouth Rock hens
Raising a variety of breeds also means a rainbow of egg colors, in all shades of creamy white and tan. Ameracauna hens produce greenish blue eggs, giving them an Easter egg appearance.
Our group bought freshly laid eggs from Rolling Oaks Ranch to take home.
We also enjoyed a delicious barbecue lunch overlooking the ranch. The meats were generously shared by Rolling Oaks Ranch and prepared by Charlie and Elizabeth’s family. Thank you, Charlie and Elizabeth!
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »