Backyard chickens have become more than a hobby for Beverly Robertson of Marble Falls and Lori Greco of Burnet, who have found stress release, feathered friendships, and small businesses in their favorite pastimes.
For Greco, raising laying hens helps her decompress and provides a byproduct she sells to neighbors on the cheap from her front lawn. Through her hens, which she considers pets, she connects with people.
For Robertson, the hobby hatched into Marans Unlimited, a business she operates with her sister, Sandy Siegfried, who lives only 5 miles away. Robertson also breeds birds for chicken and egg competitions in Texas and beyond.
“It’s really just a hobby, but it’s turned into a lot more than that, really,” Robertson said. “They’re kind of like pets. Ours has gotten into a bit of a bigger business, but we’ve definitely gotten attached, especially with the ones that we show. They’re very comforting and fun to watch.”
They also take time and attention.
Robertson and her sister greet the flock at about seven-thirty every morning to clean the pens, let the chickens out to graze free range, and tend to the birds, all of which takes a couple of hours. Throughout the day, Robertson returns to collect eggs. In the evenings, she spends time observing the birds before locking them away to protect them from nocturnal predators.
A pampered passel of poultry, they have plenty of room to roam, even when caged.
“Mine have kind of big enclosures that they can go out in, and they look for bugs and worms and everything they can find,” Robertson said. “That enriches their diet, and it enriches the eggs as well.”
Greco also heads out in the early morn to tend her hens and sit in a well-shaded chair to read a daily devotional. She spreads laying feed, a special blend with the right nutrients for egg laying, but occasionally mixes that with treats such as sunflower seeds, birdseed, lettuce, and other green delicacies.
When her fowl feel foul, she mixes them a concoction of kale, olive oil, yogurt, and garlic.
“I make this big, old soupy stuff and throw it out for them and, man, they eat it up, and then they’re better,” Greco said. “It’s full of antioxidants, and they’re better the next day.”
She fights bird mites with diatomaceous earth and prevents worms by putting vinegar in the water — all natural solutions for hen health issues.
“I don’t have to introduce any foreign needles to them or foreign pills,” she said.
Greco sells her eggs for $3 a dozen to neighbors and passers-by from the front yard of her Burnet home. Careful, all-natural care of her covey of chickens results in eggs far superior to those purchased from a mass-market grocery store, she said.
“It’s a creamier taste,” Greco explained. “It’s more of a sunflower seed taste. You know if you have a good sunflower seed? (A fresh egg is) just a rich taste in your mouth. Kind of like cream, I guess. Especially if you have them as scrambled eggs — oh, my, there’s a huge difference. The yolk is nice and dark yellow like a sunflower.”
Robertson sells her eggs for $4 a dozen at Backbone Valley Nursery in Marble Falls. The hatching eggs, which are sold to breeders and hobbyists, go for much more, between $60 and $75 a dozen. She protects each of those eggs with bubble wrap, double boxes them, and sends them across the United States. This year, she shipped hatching eggs as far away as Puerto Rico.
The most elite eggs compete in shows where they’re judged on color, shape, and sheen. One of her more exotic breeds, Marans, are prized for their dark chocolate-colored eggs, officially termed “russet.” In the fictional world of international spies, when James Bond eats eggs, they must be Marans.
“They’re wonderful, farm-fresh eggs,” Robertson said. “I have customers that come by and buy three dozen at a time. They don’t want any other egg. And sometimes, I run low on eggs, and they have to go buy them at the store, and they say, you know, they’re horrible compared to a farm-fresh egg.”
The russet-colored eggs are what first drew both Greco and Robertson to Marans, an exotic breed named after its town of origin, Marans, France. At the time, Marans were not especially prevalent in the United States.
“They were pretty new,” Robertson said. “So, I got some and I met a friend in Burnet who was showing birds, and she talked me into going to a poultry show. So, we started showing our birds in 2010, and we’ve been showing ever since.”
Like at dog or livestock shows, every inch of the animal is inspected for its aesthetic and physical perfection. An important aspect, color counts considerably in Maran judging. Black copper was the first official color for Marans recognized by the American Poultry Association. Colors have been added as breeders get them approved, a process that takes four to five years.
“We’ve gotten three more colors approved,” Robertson said. “Wheaten, which is a golden color, solid white, and solid black.”
Marans are Robertson’s signature breed. Greco, who does not raise show hens or eggs, has since switched to Buff Orpingtons, Cinnamon Queens, and Rhode Island Reds.
Neither woman raises her chickens for the dinner table, though Marans are prized for their meat as well as their eggs. For them, the birds are pets and companions first and foremost.
“They each have their own personality, and they’re actually pretty smart,” Greco said when asked how it’s possible to become attached to a chicken. “They know their name if you continuously use it. They’ll come to their name. They’re kind of loving, too, and they’re just fun to have.”
Beverly Robertson sells her eggs at her family’s business, Backbone Valley Nursery, 4201 FM 1980 in Marble Falls. Greco sells to friends and neighbors but not to the public at large.