7 May 1999

Making organic sums add up…

Farms considering a new enterprise may find poultry

an attractive option with its muck much in demand. We

start this special looking at an egg system that doesnt

need planning permission. Edited by James Garner

PLANNING permission can be difficult to obtain for poultry production, but mobile huts – as long as they are not fixed – are outside planners jurisdiction.

So could organic egg production offer beleaguered livestock producers a lifeline and additional income in future, and avoid often difficult planning applications?

It could, says retired motor industry consultant and free-range egg producer Tim Howlett, who currently has 24,000 free-range chickens at Potash Farm, Hethel, Norfolk, and is converting some land to organic production for further expansion.

"Organic premiums are 40p/dozen above free-range eggs. Net premiums, minus extra feed costs for organic standard rations, are 20-25% above free range eggs without including labour costs."

However, mobile sheds are not cheap, so start-up costs could remain a problem for the smaller farmer. Six 500 bird sheds, the proposed minimum order, would cost £40,000 to set up.

"But they could yield £3000 profit a shed for organic production, £18,000 in total, or £2000 a shed profit for free range. Both provide good additional income," says Mr Howlett.

This means the enterprise can fit in with family labour. The hoppers are filled twice a week and eggs are collected from nesting boxes regularly but this can be done by one person.

"So it could suit a wife and husband team," he says.

The mobile sheds are built on a steel chassis and hold 500 birds as opposed to some that hold more but Mr Howlett says that these larger sheds are stretching the rules on mobility too far as their size restricts movement.

"We decided to follow the strictest standards for organic production because we felt supermarkets, consumers and government would end up adopting these.

"There arent any determined standards for organic egg production in this country or the EU as yet."

In the UK, the Soil Associations rules are the strictest. "It insists on a lower density of birds a hectare; no more than 500 in a movable house to comply with pasture management. Grass also has to be rotated once every three years."

Currently Mr Howlett is in the process of converting 6.5ha (16 acres) of land to organic, which will site a further six sheds, and will be operational from July.

However, they wont be classified as organic for another year, but will be following organic classifications until converted.

Its important to maintain the public perception of organic egg production, he says. "What the public expects to see is true organic free range chickens."

This means sheds that are small enough to be truly mobile and fit in with all the requirements of the Soil Association and Freedom Foods.

Sheds are naturally ventilated, have nipple water drinkers and a 24-hour water supply for emergencies, as well as feed pans and perching and scratching areas.

Mr Howletts designs sit on a fully movable steel chassis that can have either balloon wheels for wet ground or normal ones for dryer conditions. "Theres no point setting these sheds on concrete as that would require planning permission.

"Also siting over grass is better as it allows water to drain away, reducing any puddling underneath which might cause disease."

To avoid bringing electricity to the houses each has its own mobile wind and solar energy generating system providing power for lights and electric fences around the chickens.

According to Mr Howlett this eco-friendly image is not a gimmick and should help bring organic egg production into the 21st century, providing an improved image for both planners and consumers.

Box pls – ORGANIC EGGS

Good premiums.

Movable sites.

Eco-friendly.

ORGANIC EGGS

&#8226 Good premiums.

&#8226 Movable sites.

&#8226 Eco-friendly.

Home stocks in jeopardy

POULTRYMEAT is under threat from cheap imports which increased last year because of high sterling values, tough UK regulations and a higher cost burden for UK producers.

British Poultry Meat Federation chairman John Williams says there are some worrying developments hampering British poultrymeat production.

"UK chicken imports jumped by 30% last year and it is not hard to see why. Weak currencies in Brazil and Thailand mean average UK chicken import prices were 25% lower than 1997."

Mr Williams blames government policy on sterling, saying that last years UK imports of breast meat, when translated to whole bird production, could have led to an extra 450m chickens being produced in this country.

The federations chief executive Peter Bradnock says that the increase in imported added-value products is an emerging concern. "This is worrying as there are no British inputs into these products at all."

Other issues also contribute to a disadvantaged position for UK producers in respect to overseas competitors, says Mr Williams.

"We have absorbed extra feed costs as a result of the UK-only ban on meat and bone meal in poultry feed because of BSE."

UK producers also face higher regulatory costs, says Mr Bradnock. "The governments policy is full cost recovery in respect to regulation in industry."

This means some charges, such as pollution protection controls, are not regulated by EU legislation, but are implemented in the UK, putting producers at a further disadvantage, he says.

Egg faith in ads

EGG prices could be under increasing pressure this year as Europe and the UK move into a position of oversupply, but the current egg advertising campaign could help.

Stonegate Farmers managing director Max Fellino says the market is hard to forecast. "But there are indications that UK chick placings in February are up, meaning that by the summer we could have more eggs.

"The EU is already in a position of surplus which doesnt make for a rosy picture. But we have to hope that the egg advertising campaign can boost demand."

"Good signs are that the current month-by-month regular decrease in egg consumption is slowing."

Mr Fellino says that this is because the industry is putting across a positive message about eating eggs, after years of receiving bad publicity which was not actively refuted.