Vets know a lot about preventing disease. So combining the surgery with running a free-range poultry unit has to be the right solution for healthy hens.

Full-time vet Ian Jones compares the quality and performance of his 12,000 free-range laying hens, at his unit in Mid-Wales, to that of Olympic athletes.

Mr Jones is a partner at Hafren Veterinary Group in Newtown, Powys, specialising in large animals plus poultry. And he has been an egg farmer for more than two years.

His 30-week-old flock provides about 80,000 eggs a week to John Bowler Eggs under a franchise agreement, and eggs are supplied to Sainsbury’s Woodland Eggs brand.

“We wanted to do something with the 80 acres we have. We bought the farm 14 years ago and, having spoken to several farmers who have Bowlers units in the area, we decided to opt for a franchise with them,” he said.

Fascinated by the genetics of the birds, Mr Jones says the hens produce their bodyweight in eggs every 30 days.

“At peak lay, hens are eating 125g of feed a day, but are also producing 70g of eggs a day and weigh about 2kg.

“The birds are using more than half of their food for production and are using very little to maintain body weight. This means there is nothing to spare.

“They are just like Olympic athletes, every little bit of food and resources is being used up, so we can’t afford to let them become stressed in any way,” he adds.

“And just like an athlete, a high-quality breed is needed to perform in this manner,” he says.

Mr Jones checks his birds early every morning before he goes to the surgery and his wife, Helen, collects the eggs on the unit and carries out routine jobs with two members of staff.

He believes in managing birds to prevent disease before it occurs, a policy echoed by John Bowlers’ Eggs. Data are provided by the company every week, giving a constant assessment of how the birds are performing. Figures include egg size, number and bird weight.

“You can easily see what is happening with bird health by checking growth, egg size and how near production targets you are,” says Mr Jones. “Our second flock were producing more than 90% at 66 weeks of age and any sudden drop will be an early indicator of any problem,” he says.

As the birds are running at maximum capacity, if they catch disease they can just about hold it off. But further outbreaks will cause them to quickly deteriorate, he says.

Incorrect feeding, air quality, temperature or the stress of disease throughout their peak laying period can affect them. And like an Olympic athlete they are unable to cope, he says.

Underlining the value of preventing disease is that treating disease is difficult, says Mr Jones, as many of the drugs are not always that useful and have long egg-withdrawal periods.

“Once you have the vet in to treat disease, things have already started to go wrong. Ideally, you have to avoid getting to this stage,” he says.

But with free-range flocks there is always an element of disease risk, as they are outside. And there are a number of harmful diseases affecting poultry flocks, such as mycoplasma, erysipelas and infectious bronchitis, he adds.

Mycoplasma has been almost eliminated from grandparent flocks and, therefore, shouldn’t come through the parents. But it is easily spread from one shed to another, so good biosecurity and thorough cleanouts are important. With a good clearout and rest period, it will disappear from a poultry site, but can still live in multi-age sites.

“Germs don’t like the dry concrete of an empty shed, but the disease can still live on multi-age sites,” he warns.

Infectious bronchitis has many variants and is a main reason for good biosecurity. It has been a particular problem this summer due to the warm, damp conditions, he adds.

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Rats and mice carry salmonella and it can also be passed to flocks from people, shoes and vehicles. Strict biosecurity measures such as keeping visitors to a minimum and protecting against vermin will prevent it.

Pasteurella is also spread by vermin and there is no vaccine for it, so good biosecurity is again important, he says.

Another disease that lives in the soil is erysipelas and has often been associated with pigs and sheep. It affects certain farms in specific areas. “If it exists near you, you should vaccinate for it, as it can cause catastrophic loses.”

If these diseases get into a poultry flock, they will never recover back into full production, he says.

Moving from disease to pests, red mite is top of the list. They live in the building and then come out at night to feed on hens, causing anaemia and irritation. “It’s a big problem, as it knocks the bird’s immunity.”

Mrs Jones and her team check weekly for red mite to keep on top of it.

As well as infectious bronchitis, worms have been a particular problem this summer due to the warm, damp conditions. But routine treatments may well lead to the rise of resistance. If you get worm resistance, you may not be able to keep birds in the site for some time, as it will be riddled with them, he says.

Mr Jones recommends John Bowlers’ paddock system, where the ground gets rotated every four weeks to try to prevent worms rather than just treating them strategically.

“Our flocks have only ever received one treatment each and our current flock hasn’t needed to be treated.”

Mr Jones has his own theory about the benefits of free-ranging flocks. He says, like humans, to encourage calcium, vitamin D is produced by sunlight on our skin. So encouraging the birds to range outside as much as possible in the daylight will promote a vital source of the vitamin and increase the quality of their eggs.

This is particularly the case with the older hens, where shell quality tends to decline, he says. “We collect eggs early in the morning, and then the chickens can range in the fields in the afternoons.”

With the second flock producing 327 eggs per pullet in 72 weeks, Mr Jones’s preventative approach to disease is clearly paying off.

Expansion plans are in the pipeline for 12,000 more layers. His only regret is not investing in eggs sooner. “We wish we had gone into it 10 years ago.”

Keeping free-range flocks disease free

  • Top-quality pullets are essential and should arrive at the unit disease free
  • Pullets should have been vaccinated before they arrive
  • A clean out and an all-in, all-out rest period at the end of production will kill most diseases
  • Strict biosecurity measures
  • Red mite control
  • Encourage ranging to boost natural vitamin D production