Good grass pays dividends for free-range egg producer

Combining mixed growth rates with durability has led to better ranges for one free-range egg producer, as Philip Clarke discovers.

As a farmer who runs a grass seed business, as well as free-range laying hens, Phillip Whittal might be expected to keep his ranges in tip-top condition.

And that is certainly the impression one gets from the swathe of green pasture that greets the eye approaching the chicken part of his Bowling Green Farm to the west of Hereford.

It’s been something of a learning curve, however, to develop a grass seed mix that provides rapid establishment with durability, and has involved a good deal of trial and error.

See also: Pros and cons of free-range egg production

“The chicken shed was built beside an old cherry orchard,” explains Mr Whittal. “This provides plenty of natural cover and our birds have always had the confidence to range well.

“But the grass growth was not good – partly because of the shade from the trees and their demands on the soil, but also because we used to keep suckler cows there, which had damaged the ground.

“The first few flocks we had stripped the grass off in no time. And then, one summer, we had a massive rainstorm, which turned it into a mud bath. More worryingly, water then started to flood away towards a neighbouring house.”

The experience convinced Mr Whittal of the need to maintain good grass cover and a policy of reseeding at every turnaround was embarked upon.

The focus also shifted to improving the quality of the grass, providing a range of different species each with different attributes. “Even with reseeding, if everything grows at the same rate, the hens will pick it clean in a matter of weeks.”

So the mix he now uses – developed over three successive flocks – combines three species of perennial ryegrass, together with a harder wearing amenity species and sideways-spreading fescues.

Premium poultry range grass mix (20kg for 1 acre)

  • 4kg hybrid ryegrass
  • 3kg intermediate diploid ryegrass
  • 3kg late diploid ryegrass
  • 5kg turf perennial ryegrass
  • 5kg strong creeping red fescue

As well as supplying premium grass mixes, Whittal Seeds has also started producing a wildflower mix, based on 80% low growing cover grasses and 20% perennial wildflowers and field poppies.

“The three ryegrass species each grow at a different rate,” says Mr Whittal. “When the chickens first go out, the fastest-growing hybrid variety is there for them to peck at. That usually lasts about four weeks, by which time the medium- and then the slower-growing ryegrasses are established.

“The turf perennial ryegrass provides extra durability to the mix, while the fescues, which are very dense and grow out sideways, protect the topsoil and ensure there is green cover throughout the year, except perhaps on the first 10m outside the shed.”

Maintenance

Reseeding is carried out on the same day as the old flock of hens leaves the farm, to maximise the growing period. With a four-week turnaround and then another four weeks before the newly arrived pullets are let out, there is effectively an eight-week establishment window.

Range management  – the long and the short of it

grass1

Fast-growing perennial ryegrasses (above) ensure the birds have something to peck at when they first go out on the range. But sideways-growing fescues (beow) ensure there is good ground cover going on underneath, that will keep the ranges green through to flock depletion.

grass2

The seed is simply spun out on to the ground and left to germinate. The ideal time to sow would be from March to September – but with depletion happening every 13 months, the date creeps forward a month every year.

But even sowing the seed in December or January is not a major problem, explains Mr Whittal, and so long as there is some moisture, the grass can still grow.

Establishing the range requires an application rate of 20kg/acre, which would cost a farmer £60 in seed. But now that the mix is established at Bowling Green Farm, the range is just topped up with a lesser quantity of seed after each flock.

“Investing time and money in developing the mix had been very worthwhile,” says Mr Whittal. “It has given a real boost to our range management and our last flock ranged phenomenally.”

Having good grass also pays dividends in reducing the number of seconds, as there is less mud coming into the house. “You don’t want dirty ranges – we’ve been there.”

With the grass also expected to keep growing for at least 10 years, Mr Whittal is convinced he has developed something that will work well for other producers, too.

Mixing herbage seed with poultry

Philip Whittal’s family has been in the grass seed business for the past 80 years.

His grandfather Sidney Whittal started growing grass seed in 1935 at the behest of George Stapledon, Professor of Agricultural Botany at Aberystwyth University, who was the pioneer of perennial ryegrasses.

The family moved into drying and processing grass seed in 1965, and more recently – in 2011 – set up Whittal Seeds, selling direct to farmers and other “amenity” customers.

philip whittal

Currently about 140ha of perennial ryegrass is grown at the 300ha Bowling Green Farm in rotation with potatoes, wheat and oilseed rape. Another 100ha is grown on contract by other farmers in the area. The seed is planted in September, harvested in August, and yields 200-240kg/ha.

In total there are some eight different varieties grown, and the company also buys in turf seed and fescue seed – either grown elsewhere in the UK or imported from Denmark – to add to its amenity mixes.

The move into free-range egg production came in 2004. “Arable farming was struggling a bit at the time, so I was looking for a diversification,” Mr Whittal recalls. “A friend of mine was doing free range for Deans, so I rang them up and arranged for a fieldsman to visit. The numbers stacked up and we decided to give it a go.”

The shed went up – a Moorspan building equipped by Potters Poultry, based on a flat deck system for 12,000 birds, with a two-tier centre belt – and the first flock arrived on 5 December 2004.

“We’re now into our ninth flock, and it has been a really good diversification for us. I have a good man looking after the unit, which enables me to focus on the main seed business – it fits in easily with what else we are doing on the farm.”

The birds have generally performed well, with the latest flock achieving 92% eggs at 44 weeks of age. Mortality has been higher than normal, as the pullets arrived underweight and have suffered some feather loss, but the proportion of seconds is low at about 2%.

The 12,000 birds are subdivided into four flocks of 3,000, each given a quarter of the shed space, with four ranges surrounding the building.

Given its natural tree cover, the farm was initially entered into Noble Foods’ woodland egg scheme for Sainsbury’s, to earn a premium. “We only had to plant an additional 25% of the area with new trees.” But that has changed and the farm is now a member of the Happy Egg group.