* For Somerset dairy farmer Andrew Gazard, free-range egg production has fitted in well with his existing dairy enterprise of 100 milking cows. He currently runs a 12,000 free-range hen unit on 12ha (30 acres) and has submitted planning for two further units, set to go into production next year.

It all started four years ago, following a suggestion from the farm’s consultant, when Mr Gazard attended an open day at a demonstration unit. “After visiting the farm, we realised how it would work for us because of the management flexibility of free-range production and how it works around the dairy routine.”

After the open day, an adviser from the franchise group, John Bowler, provided guidance on starting up. “They gave us key advice on where to position the shed and how many birds the farm could support,” explains Mr Gazard. “In addition, they helped prepare cash-flow projections so we could identify what the theoretical borrowings and profitability would be.”

The initial site, including buildings, fencing, electricity supply and access required an investment of £250,000, which Mr Gazard has chosen to pay back over 15 years. However, he points out that, as extra milk quota was bought at the same time, this has perhaps distorted the overall pay-back period.

“The investment for the two further units will be repaid at a faster rate, as the other free-range enterprise is already turning over a considerable profit.” And at a little under £3 a bird, the investment amounts to a cash injection of £35,500 every 14 months – but Mr Gazard believes it to be easily manageable.

The decision to expand has come for a number of reasons, but not even the recent upturn in milk prices has convinced Mr Gazard that dairying alone can promise sufficient income. “The expansion to a 36,000-bird enterprise will increase both farm income and land value, as once planning is obtained this includes permission for a mobile home, which later has the potential to be adapted for housing.”

The initial time to start up was a relatively long process, particularly as the farm is located near the River Severn. Relevant planning criteria had to be met, including gaining flood reports, flora and fauna reports and archaeological appraisals, explains Mr Gazard. “From making the application in the spring, we didn’t have hens on the ground until the following January.”

A month before hens were due to enter housing, advisers once again visited the premises to ensure everything was in place for a successful transmission period into the 14-month egg production cycle.

“Hens arrive at 16 weeks from a specialist breeding unit and have already been checked by vets and John Bowler officers to ensure they meet necessary health requirements,” he says.

Laying starts at 20 weeks, and continues until hens reach 13 months, when the unit is restocked after a four-week period while the units remain empty for disinfection. “This means there is a two-month period with no income from egg sales. This is something that will be alleviated once the other two units are up and running, as we plan to stagger the laying period.”

Fortunately the situation at Naite Farm allows this, as the two new units are to be located at a completely separate site from the original enterprise. “All units located on the same site should be restocked at the same time for biosecurity reasons, as dust from houses when they are cleaned could potentially contaminate the other shed.”

Once birds arrive at the site, a field officer is assigned to visit the unit weekly during the peak laying period, explains Mr Gazard. “We record information such as mortality, weekly weights and number of eggs remotely so that field officers can monitor progress frequently.” For out of hours concerns, there is a 24-hour helpline which producers have access to as well as a specialist designated to their farm.

Although Mr Gazard is on a contract where most eggs are bought back by John Bowler, 5% can be sold privately and the farm has recently gained status as a registered packing station, allowing eggs to be sold privately to local shops and customers. “Expanding with the other two units will allow this percentage to increase, giving us a larger outlet for sales.”


FREE-RANGE EGG FRANCHISE
  • Planning application service
  • 24-hour expertise on-hand
  • Eggs bought on contract
  • Supply of all equipment

Dairy Event 2007