When Steve Bowen wanted to expand his free-range unit, south of Hereford, he hoped it would be as straightforward as the first shed he set up.
Back in 1999, Mr Bowen converted a good quality sheep shed to a 10,000-bird free-range unit, and the results have been excellent.
The second shed conversion was a completely different story, though, and is a good demonstration of how things can unravel if some aspects are less than ideal.
But he was apprehensive about likely local opposition to another unit, and he sidestepped the planning authorities by avoiding making alterations to the external appearance of the existing building.
“I wanted to expand with a purpose-built chicken shed, but my packer at the time did not like the proposed site, and it was going to put us up against the planners. So we reduced the size of the suckler herd and we lamb outdoors, which freed up a shed to convert.
“However the shed didn’t lend itself to poultry as well as the first, as it was 90ft wide and only had range access on one side of the shed, because it was against the drive.
“Among the problems we faced was being given some bad advice, and if I’m honest, an unwillingness to accept some good advice – such as not putting ventilation in.” The net result was that “we had some very bad results”.
Mortality was the biggest problem, followed by egg numbers and feed wastage. The biggest visible stress factors came from the vehicles going up the drive. “Every time a vehicle went by you could visibly see the birds moving inside the shed as a result of stress. Too much natural daylight in the shed was also causing stress.”
Another major problem was the double-apex roof profile, with one apex 9.1m (30ft) wide and the other 18.3m (60ft) wide.
“It meant we weren’t able to manage the air within the shed effectively. In fairness to the suppliers, they wanted us to put ventilation in, but it was down to my unwillingness to go up against the planners.”
The final problem came with Freedom Foods’ new ruling that no bird should be more than 20m from a pophole at any point in the shed, bearing in mind that his building was 27.4m (90ft) wide with range access on just one side.
Faced with a deteriorating situation, he and Anthony Harman from Hampshire feed supplier Humphrey Feeds came up with a package of measures with the refurbishment carried out by PW Maines.
The first step was to reduce the width by taking the narrower apex out of production and putting up a dividing wall, giving an internal size of 18.3m (60ft) wide with a conventional single apex roof.
That enabled the installation of a tunnel ventilation system with computerised control, so that the house environment could be managed properly for the first time. This avoided the need for fan hoods on the roof.
At the same time the stress from the vehicles on the drive was solved because there was now a storage shed in between.
Finally the pan feeders, which worked well in the first shed, were replaced with track feeders, and the internal layout rearranged with new ramps and drinkers repositioned.
These steps have all paid dividends and the latest flock, now 29 weeks old, is showing better results. Flock size has fallen, from 12,000 to 8800 birds, but the unit is showing signs of being economically viable.
“We’ve got better air quality and better utilisation of feed with the tracks.”
With the previous flock, the arrival of cold weather brought a sharp rise in mortality, but this year it has not been a problem. “Our mortality is 20 birds at 14 weeks after housing, whereas the last flock was 132 at the same stage.
“Egg production is now 94.5% across both sheds, something we have not seen since the conversion of the second shed.
“The only thing that’s slightly letting us down now is the lowered stocking density of 9 birds/sq m. We still can’t change the air as much as we would like in the winter because the birds aren’t creating enough body heat to keep them warm if we change the air too quickly.”
Feed consumption with the Goldlines (now Bovans Brown, see p6) was 10g a day less than this time last year over the two weeks before the visit.