Diversifying into free-range egg production has yielded some dramatic, and unexpected, results for brothers Ian and Howard Sinkler, as Olivia Cooper reports

When Ian Sinkler diversified into free-range egg production in 1999, little did he expect to spark the birth of a successful countrywide co-operative and marketing business. But that is exactly what he did, and despite these difficult times the new venture is going from strength to strength.

Ian and his brother, Howard, set up their first free-range flock at Manor House Farm, near Beverley, East Yorkshire, in 1999, to supplement the existing income from 174ha (430 acres) of arable and grassland with 500 head of beef cattle. When Poultry World first visited the farm in 2003, they had added a 16,000-bird house to the original 8000-bird clear span unit.

Careful research and attention to detail ensured a successful entry to the free-range egg industry, with the flocks consistently performing to breed targets. The houses were built with extreme cleanliness in mind, ensuring dust-free environments and quick, 11-day turnaround times.

The brothers even won Deans Foods’ (now Noble Foods) best free-range flock award in the North of England, producing 302.8 eggs to 70 weeks with an average egg weight of 67.67g.

However, further expansion since then has posed problems of its own, says Ian. “It’s very easy to maintain high production on a single-age site, but the challenges are much greater on a multi-age site, which take a lot of getting to grips with. We have had disease issues and have had to alter our vaccination policies.”

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He erected a third, 16,000-bird house in 2005, split the same way as the other large house into two 8000-bird units with a central egg store, housing a farmpacker between them. At its peak, the farm housed 40,000 birds, but since the introduction of the 9 birds/sq m rule, that has dropped to 38,450. Around 18 months ago, Ian and Howard sold the beef herd due to soaring feed prices. Howard now oversees the arable enterprise with Ian specialising in the poultry, although they work together during busy harvest times.

Ian has added some new breeds to the original Hy-Line Brown, to include Lohmann Brown and Bovans Goldline. “We wanted to see what was best, and they all have different characteristics which suit different sheds better.” He has also installed tray stackers at the end of the packing unit, bringing the labour requirement down to a two-man site.

Last year, disillusioned by supplying a major packer for dwindling returns, Ian joined forces with another Yorkshire egg producer, Stewart Elliot, to set up a new egg marketing co-operative. “The [attempted] Deans Foods and Stonegate merger prompted us to think that things were getting a bit big, so we wanted to do something to get a fairer cut back to the producer,” says Ian.

EggSell Producers works alongside sister marketing company, EggSell, which is headed up by managing director Barry Jackson. “We want to see an egg industry where producers and retailers work together in order to sustain our livelihoods and satisfy the consumer’s desire for local produce with exemplary welfare credentials,” says Ian.

The co-operative is growing rapidly, and now has more than 300,000 hens on its books nationwide. “We’re very pleased with how it’s going.” It welcomes both existing producers and new entrants, with a wealth of experience and advice to draw on. “It is hard work at the beginning and we very much want to help newer producers,” he adds.

“The learning curve that is involved with hens is probably the most difficult thing – what appears to be a very simple livestock to rear is in fact very complex, and you need to learn it all in the first two weeks.”

Most of the eggs are sold through packers and into local retailers, to keep food miles down. EggSell has also produced a specialist flock recording programme to aid flock management, and last month launched a salmonella and avian flu insurance policy, which has already attracted considerable interest.

“If somebody had said five years ago that we’d be doing what we’re doing now, I wouldn’t have believed them,” says Ian. “

“These are interesting times – the industry is in a huge state of flux at the moment – who knows what sort of effect the credit crunch will have on us. Hopefully, supermarkets will continue their switch over to free range and the industry will keep going forward. We all need a fair price and we hope that’s what EggSell will deliver.”

Manor House Farm

  • 38,450 free range layers
  • Arable enterprise
  • A founder of egg co-op EggSell
  • Helping new producer enter egg sector