Chickens can form the ideal diversification for those looking for another enterprise to add to a livestock unit.

Spreading your workload and having a regular cashflow are just two of the benefits of adding free-range hens to a mixed farm, says a producer.

When Neville Ward went into free-range eggs three years ago he admits he saw a bright outlook for the sector. But he had other reasons for wanting to diversify his 170-acre mixed Nottinghamshire farm.

“It wasn’t a decision we took lightly,” says Mr Ward, who farms in partnership with his wife Pat and son Nev. “As well as the initial investment, we needed to be certain it would fit into our mixed farming system.”

Bull beef, sheep and arable have been the mix at Woodside Farm, Hockerton, Southwell, for the past 10 years. In 2006 their first flock of 16,000 hens were added to the mix.

One big advantage of free-range was the even workload and regular cash flow. “The 600 bull beef reared each year give a fairly even workload, but the peak at lambing was getting harder to manage we’d already scaled down to just a small flock of pedigree Bluefaced Leicester,” says Mr Ward.

“We also wanted to provide an additional business for our son, who liked poultry and the time was right for him to take more responsibility.”

It took a year from getting plans approved to getting hens in. Newcomers to poultry, the Wards had a lot of technical help and advice from Noble’s John Holt on planning, building choice and management systems.

So far the hens have taken over 16ha (40 acres) of grassland at Woodside Farm, but with more free-range on the agenda, this will increase, all being well.

“We’ve put in for planning permission for a second house and if everything goes to plan we will have two flocks by the end of the year,” adds Mr Ward.

“We are planning to have split ages, rather than all one age, which would mean both houses would be empty and restocked at the same time. Turnaround time is busy, cleaning out the shed then training the new birds. We prefer not to double this peak workload, it would be like returning to lambing 1000 commercial ewes and would defeat one of our objectives.”

Leading egg packer and supplier Noble Foods’ contract supplies manager John Holt says free-range egg production is attractive for those looking to diversify or expand their current free-range business.

“I see a lot of cases where free-range is considered when the next generation wants to join the business,” says Mr Holt. “Or for those looking to diversify. Free-range can also be one of the few options for new entrants into farming.”

Mr Holt and his colleagues around the country offer support to new suppliers. “We are in contact every week in the early days and we visit regularly until all parties are happy and confident. So no one needs experience of poultry to get started.

“Expanding with a second or third flock does not present the same challenges. But we encourage producers to look at the housing and equipment options, as there are lots of new developments, and also to think carefully about the time required.”

And despite significant increases in the retail price of free-range eggs in the past 12 months, demand has continued to increase.

In the first three months of 2008 growth in the sector has been at least 15%, helped in part by the Jamie Oliver effect. Noble Foods predicts an overall growth of 10% for the year.

To support this growth the company has invested £3.5m in the sector and £4.5m in a state-of-the-art packing centre in the past 12 months, a commitment that chief executive Michael Kent believes is essential to stay ahead of the game in brand development and innovation. The company has developed number-one and leading brands including Sainsbury’s Woodland Eggs and Goldenlay Omega 3.