“I adore this way of life and love sharing that with our family”

Kylie Magner, Magners Farm

Kylie Magner grew up on the family farm in New South Wales, Australia, but moved to Ireland after meeting her husband Billy. There, near the village of Moyglass in Fethard County Tipperary, the heart of the Golden Vale Ireland, she bought 10 laying hens. The rest is history.

She calls herself a “soil nerd” and is determined to provide nutritionally dense food with high welfare for the animals and a positive environmental and social impact. Her farm, Magners Farm, grew from a small project including 10 hens to the largest pasture range organic egg producer in Ireland. Having grown up on a mixed farm, however, Kylie knows the importance of diversifying: Magners Farm also grows vegetables, used in the renowned chicken bone broth produced in the farm’s kitchen, and keep heritage Oxford Sandy  and Black Pigs, cattle and sheep to enhance and invigorate soil health on the farm.

2021 Newbie EU Farmer of the Year Kylie Magner is on a mission.

“I grew up on a farm in Central West New South Wales, near a small town called Cumnock, in Australia”, Kylie introduces herself. “The family farm was mixed: we had crops, cattle and sheep. My parents both came from farming families, and dad, who had taken over from his own father, was passionate about soil conservation. I loved being with him and working on the farm.”

Kylie grew up eating farm reared or grown foods from the farm’s own lamb, beef, chicken, vegetables and fruit from a garden where apricots, lemons and mulberries grew. “My love for farming and good food probably comes from my parents. It was lovely growing up on their farm with my sister Deb and brother Stephen.”

 

Racehorses

When Kylie’s father fell ill, the farm was sold and the family had to move into town. Her dad passed away when she was just 12 years old. “It was a major blow, and I missed the farm terribly.” When, two years later, she was introduced to the owner of a Hereford cattle stud and horse breeder, Kylie couldn’t be happier. She spent many holidays on the farm and when she was 17, she was offered a job there preparing yearlings for the sales. One year later, Kylie was working with racehorses in Narita, Japan.

Upon her return home, Kylie started her university degree in Sydney, working towards a Bachelor of Business in Agricultural Commerce. “We studies accounting, commerce, law, marketing, international trade, information systems, communications and practical farming. It was an incredible degree!”

Her jobs in the equestrian industry after obtaining her degree took her to Japan and, eventually, Ireland, where a stud farm in County Fethard offered her a job. For the next 11 years, Kylie would work at Coolmore Stud. “It was such an exciting time and there is absolutely nowhere better to learn about racing, breeding and farming than Coolmore. The farms are run to an exacting standard – everything is done to the highest calibre. I learned so much from my time there!”

 

Magners Farm

If she travelled the world for her job, it was at the local pub in Fethard that she met Billy, the man who would become her husband. The couple were married in 2000 and moved back to Australia in 2009 with their four children Matilda, Tadgh, Imogen and Finn, where Billy was offered a position at Coolmore Australia. They settled in Jerrys Plains, where Kylie started her own advertising company working mostly for companies involved in food and wine or equestrian businesses. Then, in 2016, they made a lifechanging decision: “when Billy’s dad passed away in April 2016 and we went home for the funeral, we agreed it was time to come back to Ireland.”

The couple had bought a small farm near Moyglass village in 2004 and had been leasing it. “We had been paying off the mortgage, but had never actually lived there. The farmstead was small, with a small but cosy house sitting on only 20 acres of very fertile limestone land. Originally, we had planned to board horses, but we decided against it as Billy would keep working full time and it would be challenging for me to combine with the children’s schedules.”

Then, Kylie had an ‘eggcellent’ idea. Why not sell the eggs from the farm’s 10 hens and reinvest the profits?

“With those 10 on the farm, we soon had more eggs than we could eat. We began giving them away at first, and then sell them to our friends and neighbours.” Kylie and Billie started selling their eggs in an honesty box at the side of the road. That ‘egg money’ was kept in a jar under the sink, and when they had accumulated 150€, they bought another 10 hens.

“Demand was growing for our eggs, so we decided to give egg farming a go. We bought 150 hens and at that point had to register with the Department of Agriculture. We converted an old cow shed into a poultry shed, built our own roosting perches and nesting boxes and basically depended on the support of lots of people at the beginning since money was short. A local sawmill filled up the horse trailer with scrap wood when I turned up with 30€ to build my nesting boxes with. We got second hand feeders and drinkers and our egg business was on the road!”

Initially, Kylie and Billy sold their eggs in the front gate, but as the number of eggs grew, they began selling them at the local farmers market. This was a great way for them to learn more about their customers. “The best accolade we could receive was from people telling us our eggs tasted like they remember the eggs they used to eat as a child.”

Today, Magner’s Farm has over 800 hens. Some of them were hatched at the farm and there are all types of different breeds. “We love the diversity of the different breeds and the multicoloured eggs they lay! It’s very satisfying to see the eggs we’ve hatched grow up to be laying hens.”

 

Full time egg farming

The expansion of the egg business meant Billy quit his job to work fulltime on the farm along with Kylie. As on any farm, the days are long and the tasks vary according to the seasons. “I get up at 5 am when I can and like to do clerical jobs first thing, as there are no interruptions and my mind is clearer then. When it’s light, I love to walk the farm: check in on the animals and make sure all is in order.”

“Then, my husband head out and feeds up. We have a lady who comes in and helps us pack twice a week. If she’s not in, we pack eggs ready for deliveries later in the week. In the afternoons we collect eggs and bring them back to our packing shed and pack into cartons or trays.”

“Moving our hens is integral to the health of the soil and the health of the hens. We have mobile hen units which enable us to tow them to different parts of the farm. We move the houses at least twice a week, depending on the grass and weather.”

“We are about two hours from Dublin and we deliver about half our eggs there once a week. We have some very loyal customers who love that they can receive extremely fresh eggs directly from our hens. We love deliveries, it’s a great way to keep in touch with our customers and for them to hear news on the farm!”

Kylie’s philosophy is based on what she has learned during her career in the race horse business: let horses be horses – or chickens be chickens. Let them behave as they would naturally, and they will reward you with their best performance. “Hens love rituals and routines and have a strict social hierarchy”, Kylie explains. “They love to socialise, busy themselves foraging and discovering. As omnivores, they love to eat a varied diet and obtain so much more nutrition by being able to access natural vegetation that is constantly changing”, she explains. The hens at Magners Farm are moved over pastures with temporary electric fencing and the help of guardian dogs to keep them safe from predators.

“It’s very hard to keep up with demand for our eggs. Once people taste a truly fresh pasture range egg, it’s very difficult for them to go back to a barn raised egg!”

Magners Farm being located in a very wet country, the weather can be a big challenge, especially during winters. “Being able to move our hens over the land is always a challenge. The language can be a little blue at times as we try to navigate our hen houses through mud.”

 

Award-winning chicken bone broth

One reality about keeping laying hens is they will not lay forever and as much as you love your animals, you need to keep production up if you want to make a living. Most commercial hens are sent for pet food after 12 months. A practice from the poultry industry Kylie definitely did not want to follow.

“If we did get rid of our hens, we wanted to spare them the indignity of being sent possibly to the UK and being despatched. We wanted them to have a dignified end on the farm, and felt that after such a healthy life and organic diet, they could actually be a nutritious resource that was too good to give away. We wanted to process them and use the hens in an age old tonic: chicken bone broth.”

“In the past, mixed farms would have kept hens for a longer period and then they would have ended up in the pot at the end of their productive life. Those hens had a much better nutritional intake and lifestyle compared to industrial raised chickens grown indoors from chick to chicken in 5 to 6 weeks.”

The hens at Magners Farm were still laying well enough for Kylie and Billie to keep them, so they began raising meat chickens on grass for bone broth. Like the laying hens, the meat chickens were moved from pasture to pasture until ready to process at 16 to 18 weeks old. “The meat and bone quality of these chickens was so incredible and the broth we made from them was an indistinct product, compared to mass produced chicken.”

Kylie’s plan to use the laying hens for the bone broth after a certain time backfired slightly, and at 24 months, she decided to offer the original 150 hens to backyard breeders where they could continue laying eggs. “We sold them for 5€ each to deter anyone buying them for pet food. All 150 of them were successfully rehomed, and we currently have a long waiting list for the next retirees!”

All the bone broth is made in house, meaning there’s a limit to how much of it can be produced without having to use a commercial kitchen. “We kind of like it that way, we know all of our customers personally and can guarantee the ingredients that go into each batch.” The Magners have sourced another chicken farmer who grows chickens slowly and on grass for the bone broth business. “We can’t get the same taste or gelling quality by using inferior chickens, so while it limits our ability to expand this market it also ensures that the final product is nutritionally high in quality.”

Four years ago, the chicken bone broth was awarded the Chef’s Choice at the Irish Food Awards. “At one of the afternoon panel sessions with the chefs the day before the awards, one chef was talking about new products. He said he wanted to find out who had made this incredible new product they were tasting. I remember turning to my son and saying ‘imagine if that was your product they were talking about’. Imagine what a proud moment it was for us when it turned out it was our very own chicken bone broth the chef was referring to!”

“The broth followed up in 2019 with being awarded a gold star at the UK Great Taste award which was another very proud day.”

 

Regenerative farming

At the moment, the Magners are looking into ways to expand their egg production without changing their method of farming. Their hens not only produce eggs but also leave behind a great organic fertiliser on the pastures they forage. “We can see a massive improvement in the land we have where the hens have been grazing over. They improve soil structure by leaving behind organic matter and they also gently disturb the surface of the soil, aerating as they go.”

Magners Farm focuses on regenerative farming based on bioeconomy or biobased economy, a new model for industry and the economy that involves using renewable biological resources sustainably to produce food, energy and industrial goods. It also involves making the best use of biological waste and residual materials, such as… chicken waste. “In the context of our own farm, this means supplying as much of the intake of the hens via our own farm and utilising all of the “waste” products such as manure and “spent” hens in a useful manner to benefit our own farm so that they don’t become a liability – rather another resource to improve our production.”

“I would love to be able to create a sustainable model for other farmers – improving the circular bio economy on our farm is a massive goal of ours and ties in with us becoming accredited with the Irish Organic Association.”

“I absolutely love seeing the difference the hens make to our farm’s soil health. The grass just springs back so well after the hens have been over it. It’s a big plus to seeing our hens looking so happy and healthy. I adore this way of life and love sharing that with our family too!”“It would be great to see more farmers being offered an opportunity to create a weekly cash flow as so often they rely on a yearly income that needs to be distributed across the year. Farmers really do care for the land. They are custodians: it’s our job to leave it more bio diverse and structurally in a better condition than when we started. We’re doing our best to be as closed circular bio economy on our own farm as we can. Biodiversity offers humanity resilience!”

 


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Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csXeOZx5640

 

This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2022-002.

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