As the market for free-range eggs continue to grow, more new entrants have been drawn into the sector, tempted by the relatively low start-up costs and potentially good margins.
But they are instantly placing themselves on a steep learning curve, especially in relation to range management.
Stephen Graham of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for Northern Ireland sets out his six top tips:
- As the hens can go outside, wild birds are always a threat to flock health. In spring and summer fill in or drain any puddles, as wild birds will wash and drink in them, as well as birds from the laying flock. This increases the risk of parasites and faecal organisms entering the flock.
- Paddock rotation is also important as it reduces the risk of poaching as well as bacterial and worm build-up. Allowing an area of the range to rest also helps the roots of grasses to recover. However, if the paddock does not recover, plough and reseed before putting back into use.
- Introduce newly placed flocks to an area of the range that had little use at the end of the previous flock. This reduces the likelihood of disease or worm transmission.
Hens on stones
- Course stone placed outside the pop holes for 3-4.5m provides free drainage directly outside the unit. The stones are also heated by the sun, again helping reduce bacterial build-up.
- Shelters and trees placed further out on the range encourage the birds to move out from the house, reducing the overuse of land closer by.
- Fencing around the perimeter of the range is extremely important. It is the only defence against predators such as foxes and also helps keep the majority of birds in the range. Investment in adequate fencing is a must and many farmers are now concreting the base to prevent the birds getting out.
“The range is an area that can take many hours to look after, but keeping on top of range management saves time and more importantly keeps your flock healthy and protects your income,” says Mr Graham.
Biosecurity on laying sites
Good biosecurity is also vital for protecting the health status of your laying flock. The following should help limit the potential spread of disease:
- Limit visitors to only those that are necessary
- Minimise foot traffic between houses
- Keep house-specific boots and overalls in each control room
- Replenish foot-dips twice weekly
- Outdoor foot-dips that do not have a lid may require more frequent changing
- Ensure all vehicles are clean prior to entry to site
- Disinfect all wheels and arches
- Keep the front of the site free from long grass and weeds as these are ideal coverage for rodents
- Maintain a robust rodent control programme
- Keep all areas clean, tidy and free from debris/rubbish