A first generation farming family sustainably producing pasture-raised hens and eggs on the Darling Downs
Just a stones’ throw from the heart of Warwick, lies ‘Naldham’, home to an enterprising young family building an egg empire from pasture raised hens. Hayley and Matt Watson, along with their young sons Cooper (7) and Charlie (4), have a contagious passion and energy for their livestock. What started with 20 chickens and two dogs, back in 2016, has now grown into a farm built upon regeneration of the soil and land upon which Naldham lies. But as first generation farmers who commenced operations on the eve of one of the most devastating droughts Australia has ever seen, Watson Family Produce have had to navigate a business landscape ruled by weather.
In 2016, with a then 14-month-old Cooper in tow, Hayley, with a background in horticulture, and Matt, hailing from mountainous Tasmanian country, looked out onto a block of land on the Darling Downs, characterized by sandy soils and ironbark trees, and saw business potential where many may not have. They picked up tools and occupied an existing chook run with just 20 hens. In a clever approach to the foundations of their pasture-raised hen operation, they began by training their Maremma Guardian dogs on those 20 hens to protect them from potential predators, whilst Matt set to work building their first movable chook house.
The Maremmas are a cornerstone of life at Naldham. Hayley and Matt breed their own dogs, ensuring they have just the right nature to suit the unique combination of chook protector and family life on the farm. They needed dogs that would spread their scent to warn away predators and would be scary enough to engage in protecting the chickens should a fox approach, but a dog that had no predator drive themselves. Maremmas seemed the natural choice. As you walk through the paddocks at Naldham you are greeted by at least one of the six dogs protecting flocks across the property. Holly (mum to three litters bred at Naldham) stands out as her lip lifts into what we are reassured is a smile! As with any dog training, not all the pups are suited to flock protection, with some finding their way back to the house to mind the two boisterous boys in residence rather than the chickens.
Every aspect of operations at Naldham is built from Hayley and Matt’s vision for their business, their farm, and their home. Before long, fences sprung up across the 110 acre property, sectioning the land into 5-acre paddocks which would come to house up to 650 hens each, half the number recommended by industry guidelines. The packing shed took shape, starting out with a hand inspection, cleaning, and packing process. Just three days after giving birth to their second son, Charlie, Hayley was back in the packing shed as the quickest packing machine they had, now with a baby strapped to her chest.
Just 12 months into their start-up business, one of the worst droughts in Australian history began to bite. The family quickly realised that their operations had to adapt if their new business was to survive the dry times. Maintaining ground cover became a priority. Hayley identified four paddocks which they were willing to sacrifice.
In the end this equated to less than 15 acres of the property. That meant that when the rains did eventually fall on the Downs, the ground cover on the remaining parts of the property minimised run off and the surrounding paddocks quickly sprang back to life.
Today, their conservative operations through the drought have inspired regenerative practices across all operations on farm. Naldham is now home to 5000 hens, 50 sheep, 6 Meremmas and 4 pet goats. Ground cover is maintained by moving the hen houses small distances as regularly as possible, usually at night so as not to disturb the hens. Paddocks are also rotationally grazed by stock to help sustain even ground cover. For every paddock housing livestock, one is rested meaning the ground is rested for 14 months at a time. With an abundance of fertiliser available from the residence chickens, the native seed and pasture reintroduced at Naldham thrives.
Hayley and Matt highlighted on many occasions throughout our discussion that their aim is to;
“leave the land better than what they found it.”
Every aspect of their business is driven by Hayley and Matt, from caring for their hens, egg collection, inspection and packaging (now completed by a state of the art machine, much to Hayley’s delight), through to marketing and distribution. Watson Family Produce eggs are available at 50 stockists including leading supermarkets on the Darling Downs and into Brisbane, as well as independent green grocers and cafés.
Hayley and Matt fit the energy and chaos of a young family into life on a working farm. At Naldam, the children are as free range as the chooks who roam under the protection of Maremma Guardian dogs. A first-generation farming family who are ploughing forward with drive and enthusiasm for their business, for regenerative farming and their pasture raised hens.
You can follow the Watson family and their journey via their social media channels;
Facebook – @watsonfamilyproduce
Instagram – @watson_our_family