More than a quarter of a century ago, dairy farmer George Jones became one of the first pioneers of the fledgling free-range egg sector in south Herefordshire.

The former Daylay company was advertising for farmers to start a free-range unit, so he set up a shed with 2000 layers. It was a small enterprise, but a highly profitable one.

“Margins were very good,” says Mr Jones. “We were on 74p a dozen then. It was paying really well, and there were very few problems with the birds. The following year we extended the shed, and went to 3400.”

Fast forward 25 years, and George has given up his dairy unit, and moved on to his current holding, where he built a new shed 15 years ago.

Always ready to try something new, he is now one of the Happy Egg producers for Noble Foods.

“They asked if I would put these swings and climbing frames in, which was done free of charge, and hopefully there will be financial benefit later on.”

Today he keeps a flock of 13,000 free range layers, which he admits involves a lot less work than the 3400 birds back in 1985. “You had to go into the shed and physically pick the eggs up.”

But other things are not so easy in today’s industry. Average free-range producer prices are only about 15p higher (in fact three years ago they were still at 74p), his egg output per bird is lower, and performance problems have been steadily building up.

“Back then we would very often get 320-330 eggs a bird. If we didn’t get that, we weren’t very happy.

“We are told that layers are being bred for more eggs, but we haven’t seen any increase.”

His technical adviser from Humphrey Feeds, Anthony Harman, puts a typical figure at about 285-290 eggs, with just the odd flock achieving 320.

Matters eventually reached a point where, after two successive crops where health issues became overriding, he consulted with Mr Harman to try to find a solution.

“We had noticed a decline over the last few years. For the first 6-7 years the birds had done pretty well, and then we started to get problems, including some feather pecking. Different things would appear to set them off, and very often we couldn’t really pin it down. Now, you get rid of one problem and another one comes along.

“In our last two flocks, it was mortality, and we couldn’t seem to do anything. We spent thousands on vets. We tested for brachyspira, but it all came back negative.”

The last flock but one suffered an outbreak of erysipelas, which was treated with a vaccination.

And then the most recent flock was struck by a mystery condition, with rising mortality.

“All they could find was E coli, but they said that it was just the secondary infection, and that something else was causing it.

“In the end they decided that it was the E coli that was killing them, and we never did get to the bottom of it. The vets said we could isolate which one it was and vaccinate, but that was going to cost a lot of money.”

To put things back on track, a programme of measures was arrived at with the help of Mr Harman which centred on giving the shed a three-month rest and disinfecting twice; once at clean out, and then again just before population.

Standing water on the range had become a problem. Where the rain runs off the sloping range toward the house, the drains had become filled in by years of hens’ scratching, so these were cleaned out and the area round the popholes covered in pebbles.

The range area was also treated with an outdoor disinfectant, and the header tank and water lines were replaced.

The new flock arrived in October, and so far there has been a big improvement. Mortality was a little higher than target, and there has been some feather pecking, but this has been put down to the very cold winter and resulting stress.

poultry unit

As with many units this winter, ventilation rates were compromised by the need to keep the birds warm, but the flock has picked up since the weather improved.

Measures are also being taken to reduce egg size – and hence minimise stress – through the lighting regime and by managing food intake and ration specification.

The birds are being fed three times a day and particular attention is being paid to managing the feed levels in the pans, in order to avoid some of the wastage that was experienced last year.

This task has been taken on with great success by George’s grandson Jake, 15, who has been increasingly involved in the day-to-day running of the unit over the last five years.

More and more decisions are now being made jointly, explains George: “We talk it all through. We get on well, and rarely have a cross word.”

More decisions will be have to be made once Jake leaves school this summer, but expansion might be on the cards.

“I’d like to start up another shed with about 13,000 birds,” says Jake. “I’ve got a chance of an apprenticeship in agricultural engineering, just for back-up. But I would really like to do something with poultry because I’ve done it all my life.”