10 May 2002

Farmer-designed hen house fits the bill…

EVERYTHING you could need to keep 3000 layers is included in Freedom Farm Mobiles hen house, which allows litter to be left behind when it is towed to a new site.

Farmer and farm buildings engineer Ken Ford and his brother Colin, based at East Moortown, Chawleigh, Devon, have developed a completely self-contained house, using standard feeding, watering and egg collection equipment.

But by basing its structure on five sturdy galvanised skids, they made it possible to winch it to a new site without dismantling it, leaving manure and litter behind. A simple drawbar is bolted to lugs on two of the skids and a tractor-mounted winch is used to pull it. Hinged flaps across the back of the house are unbolted before winching starts, so it rides over piles of litter.

A section at the front of the building serves as egg packing room and accommodates 24 volt batteries kept charged by a wind turbine and a solar power unit. "When there isnt enough wind here, its usually sunny," says Ken Ford. They also keep a generator on site in case of emergency.

Walls and roof are made of 60mm (2.4in) composite panels with good insulation properties – U-value 0.33, equivalent to 200mm (8in) of fibreglass. They have a weatherproof outer coatings, available in a range of colours and a smooth, easily cleaned inside finish.

Despite having no fans, the house has effective ventilation. The Fords believe the designs success results from the combination of a steeper-than-normal roof pitch and a ceiling surface clear of anything to obstruct airflow. This includes a patented airflow system, designed to draw stale air out using the wind or breeze outside.

Although the Fords were warned by experts that they would never keep litter dry in the indoor scratching areas down each side of the house – because it has an earth floor – they have so far proved them wrong.

All the internal equipment is standard issue. Slats, nests and electrically-operated, automatic egg collection system are from the Dutch company Jansen. Automatic watering and feed systems are also standard equipment, so is the lighting – a combination of tungstens and fluorescents which make the transition from darkness to light gradually over a 17-minute period.

Roof water is taken well away from the building by flexible pipes, and the overhanging roof provides a dry verandah area.

The house was stocked with 3000 Hubbard Isa Browns on Jan 28 and by late April they were producing about 2600 eggs/day.

They designed the house for 3000 birds at the new standard of nine/m sq, though Mr Ford points out that existing egg producers are permitted to stick with the previous standard of 11.7 birds/sq m. He calculated that it was advisable to go to at least the 3000-bird size house to ensure adequate return on capital and labour. Because the unit is mobile it does not need planning permission, says Mr Ford.

At £18.33/bird place, they reckon the house is competitively priced and will allow a margin to be made. The Fords have confirmed that finance will be available to suitable applicants. "Representatives of NFU Mutual have seen this unit and said that in principle they would consider lending on it to suitable farmers," says Mr Ford.

"I feel it could be a good investment for the many of those struggling to survive, but who want to continue to farm. Farming was going down the pan long before foot-and-mouth and with an engineering business mainly dependent on farm customers, I was getting worried about our future.

"I felt poultry would be a good alternative for many farms and it seemed that free range would be a growth area and battery cage systems would remain under pressure. So, we formed a company, Freedom Farm Mobiles. We did a lot of research to develop what we consider is a very workable unit and we are now proving it, by using it."

The unit can be inspected at an open day at the farm on May 17 (01769-580629). &#42

John Burns

The Fords are proving their mobile, self-contained hen house design works by using it themselves.

&#8226 Easy to move design.

&#8226 Includes packing room.

&#8226 Wind and solar powered.