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Free-range chickens lay millions of eggs in Howard County

Pat Roll, Editor Emeritus
Posted 4/9/24

Sheldon Mast was running about 20 minutes late for my appointment to visit his farm. He had a good reason. As part of his job, he was picking up 1,264 eggs that his hens laid on his barn floor …

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Free-range chickens lay millions of eggs in Howard County


Sheldon Mast was running about 20 minutes late for my appointment to visit his farm. He had a good reason. As part of his job, he was picking up 1,264 eggs that his hens laid on his barn floor overnight. Mast and his wife Katie, along with three sons, Hudson (5 years old), Blake (3 years old), and Tanner (1.5 years old), own and operate Lone Pine Egg Company. The barn is located south of Fayette on Highway 5 and houses 21,000 laying hens. 

   Mast grew up in Virginia and moved to Kirksville with his family in 2012. The family operated a locker plant in Virginia. He and his dad purchased the locker plant in Queen City after moving to Missouri. The family sold the locker plant in February 2022. Mast had a good idea of what he was going to do after selling the locker plant. He wanted to get into the egg business. 

   Kendall Miller, a friend from the Kirksville area, and his family have been in the egg business for 40 years. Mast and Miller started the process of finding land for barns to house laying hens. The land Joe Davis had for sale south of Fayette on Highway 5 was ideal for their egg business. Miller bought 60 acres, and Mast bought 58 acres from Davis. Miller’s barn is south of Mast’s barn. After meeting with Howard County supervisors to make sure all regulations were followed and approved for construction, dirt work started on the farm.    

Mast contracted with Vital Farms to buy his eggs. Vital Farms is run by mission-minded people working together to bring ethically produced food from family farms to families’ tables. As pasture-raising pioneers, they’ve grown from a single farm in Austin, Texas, to the leading U.S. brand of pasture-raised eggs in the country.  

Dirt work started on the farm in June of 2022. Construction of the barn began in July. Thirty days later, the barn was finished. Mast commented that “there were workers everywhere. They know exactly what they are doing.” Mast and his family moved to the farm in August 2022. The barn is 55’ wide and 580’ long. The front 30’ of the barn is the egg room with the cooler. The next 10’ houses the three-scraper system that runs three times a day cleaning the barn. The bird area is 500’. The back of the barn is 40’ and houses the litter pit.

Mast’s first flock arrived at 16 weeks of age in October 2022. Some hens start laying eggs at 20 weeks of age. By 28 weeks old, the hens are in full production. The hens are kept for 14 months. After 14 months, the hens start eating more and are less efficient, laying bigger eggs. Hens eat a quarter pound of feed a day. The flock eats about 5,400 pounds of feed a day. That’s 37,800 pounds of feed weekly. The feed is bought from the MFA in Fayette. On May 1, Mast’s second flock of 21,000 16-week hens will arrive at the farm. 

To be classified as pasture-raised eggs, you need to have 108.9 square feet of pasture per bird. There are eight different paddocks in which to rotate the hens. Mast’s 58 acres are fenced with two-inch square fencing. 

The barn doors automatically open three hours after sunrise so the birds can go to their pasture. With sunset approaching, the hens make their way back to the barn before the door closes when the sun sets. “The hens make their way back to the barn by themselves,” Mast said. “It wouldn’t be much fun to herd them into the barn. You’ll have a few that do not make it into the barn occasionally. You’ll find some eggs outside occasionally.” 

Currently, the Missouri Department of Agriculture has mandated that all hens stay in the barn during the goose migration because of the Avian flu.

Mast processes his eggs twice a day, at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. It takes about 45 minutes to process around 15,000 to 16,000 eggs in the morning and 10 to 15 minutes to process the evening run. On the morning of my visit, Mast processed more than 15,200 eggs in 40 minutes. That includes me being in the way and asking questions. Mast starts the conveyor belt, and eggs start to appear in the egg room.

The eggs are grabbed and placed on flats that are then stacked on pallets. There are 10,800 eggs on a pallet. Every two weeks, Mast sends 24 pallets of eggs to the Vital Farms processing plant in Springfield. To date, the farm has produced 529 pallets of eggs. That’s 5,713,200 eggs total! The ideal weight for a case of eggs is between 47 pounds and 52 pounds. On the day of my visit, the case weighed 50 pounds.

Lone Pine Egg Co. is truly a family operation. While processing the morning egg run, Katie showed up in the barn with Mast’s breakfast.

They didn’t even shut the line down as Katie stepped in and continued placing flats on the pallet while Sheldon ate his breakfast. The boys also helped. Hudson helped place the flats on the pallet, and Tanner helped load them. 

Howard County is the winner by having the Mast’s egg business. Hopefully, in the future, Howard County will be able to have more large-scale farm operations go into business.


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