A revolutionary multi-tier system is helping one Nottinghamshire free-range egg producer improve bird welfare, while making production simpler and potentially cheaper.

Patrick Lynn has become the first farmer in England to install a 16,000-bird Vencomatic multi-tier veranda aviary at the 300-acre property he farms with his parents and wife in Southwell.

Developed in the Netherlands, the system currently houses two million birds on the Continent and pledges to make free-range egg production friendlier to birds and producers.

Vencomatic also hopes it will help free-range producers meet any future welfare demands made by retailers and consumers, who are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the provision of verandas to encourage ranging and reduce bird aggression.

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“From the specially designed feed trough which encourages birds to be less selective and reduces food waste, to a tilted floor to allow eggs to gently roll from the nest, every element of the system has been designed with welfare in mind,” says Kevin Howse, Vencomatic sales director.

“The feeders, drinkers and nests are all on one level so if birds get a bit of a challenge, they haven’t got far to go to find food or water.”

Ease of access

Each of the two levels is accessed by a ramp which allows birds to trot up and down to reach food and the nest, rather than having to jump up and risk injury.

“In other systems up to 90% of birds can have fractures in their breastbones, making it a significant welfare problem,” says Mr Howse. “But because they can move up and down the ramps to access all levels of the nest system, it reduces the potential for injury.”

Farm staff can also gain easy access to the nestboxes using a winch system behind the bird areas. This makes it easier to spray for red mite, carry out any repairs and check the birds.

Other features include a scraper system beneath the nests which removes manure, but also encourages birds to scratch and forage, while a veranda running along the outside of the shed gives birds more space to roam and shelter when the weather is poor.

“All of these features affect welfare, which ultimately impact on a producer’s bottom-line,” says Mr Howse.

“Because the welfare is better, they get better feather cover and are expending less energy on keeping warm. And because they don’t have to hop up and down to get to the nest, they are using less energy that way, too.

“In the first system like this we installed in Scotland, the producer estimates he will earn an additional £1 a bird than in his traditional multi-tier system because his feed bills are lower.”

Investment

For Mr Lynn, keeping costs down while driving welfare was behind his decision to invest £250,000 in the shed, a packing system and a 50kW solar panel system on the roof.

“Margins are reducing in free-range so it’s about making efficiencies where we can,” he says. “We can’t control the cost of feed, but we can try to control costs in the other ways, such as energy and labour.

“The ease of management means the system fits with the farm’s labour profile, helping us stick to one full-time person per shed.”

With a pay-back on investment of about 10 years, the unit was a significant purchase for the farm.

But Mr Lynn says potential legislative changes around perching and beak trimming meant that choosing the Vencomatic system made economic sense.

“I think this kind of system is going to become standard in a few years, so it is easier and cheaper to put these things in now than retro-fit them at a later date.

“This is a new system in the UK, but I think it offers clear opportunities to get better welfare for my birds and help my business.”