Free-range egg production can be seen as something of a farming panacea, but get the slightest thing wrong and you could be pouring money away.
Fortunately, there is a plethora of information available – the most difficult thing can be deciding which advice to take.
The first consideration is whether you have a suitable site for the poultry housing and range, says Alasdair McGregor, from housing manufacturer McGregor Polytunnels of Hampshire.
“You need a well-drained site that is reasonably flat, with sufficient space, and preferably a good layer of established grass.”
Heavy land may require concrete or hardcore footings for the houses and care should be taken to avoid poaching by the chickens on the range, he adds.
All permanent houses and many mobile sheds are likely to require planning permission, although the details vary from council to council.
It is therefore important to speak to local planners from an early stage to find out what permission is needed.
Mobile buildings are much easier to get through than static buildings – although it always depends on location and proximity to residential houses.
Typically, farmers should allow six to eight weeks for planning permission to go through..
It is also possible to convert existing buildings, but care must be taken to meet welfare guidelines and strict biosecurity measures.
For all buildings, allow plenty of time between finishing the unit and delivery of the birds – don’t leave it until the last minute.
Mobile or static?
Mobile buildings tend to be kinder on ranges, as moving the hens after each crop keeps the pasture fresh and minimises disease build-up, says Richard Kempsey, agricultural director at egg packer Stonegate.
Stonegate only accepts mobile houses for its premium Waitrose scheme, which pays 8p/egg more than conventional free range eggs.
Mr Kempsey reckons set-up costs for mobile units average about £22 a bird, against around £30 a bird for organic mobile sheds and £23 a bird for large-scale static housing with an automatic egg packer.
If you are opting for static housing, then 10,000 birds plus would be suitable, with a farm packer for optimum labour efficiency.
Look for a clearspan building which has a residual value should you decide to go out of poultry production in the future.
Ideally buildings should be accessible to lorries for feed deliveries, egg collection, and initial construction.
However, mobile sheds can be sited away from such regular access to retain a greenfield site and minimise disease risk.
Any housing must have access to water and electricity, with sufficient water storage and back-up electricity in case of frozen pipes or blackouts, says Mr Kempsey.
Many producers extend single phase electricity from existing buildings to mobile units, but Stonegate insists on wind and solar power for its Waitrose premium eggs, which can give 100% recovery.
When choosing housing and equipment producers should read poultry magazines, go to shows, and speak to suppers of feed, buildings, equipment and pullets, says Mr McGregor.
Get all the information you can and talk to people that are doing it already.
Free-range houses require two-thirds of the area to be slatted, with one-third as a designated scratching area, usually bedded with chopped straw or sawdust.
Perches and nesting boxes are essential and organic sheds must be split 50:50 slats to scratching area.
Good ventilation is absolutely critical to healthy birds and production.
Stocking rates vary according to production type, but must be carefully adhered to. Freedom food guidelines are very helpful for healthy birds.
Producers must thoroughly clean and disinfect houses between flocks, and beware red mite lurking in wooden nooks and crannies.
Poultry units often attract rodents and flies, so it is important to keep areas around the buildings free of rubbish and clutter.
Bait boxes are essential to keep track of, and minimise, rodent activity, and producers should check litter weekly for signs of fly larvae, as populations can explode in warm weather.
The key to successful flocks is attention to detail and good husbandry, says Mr Kempsey. “The vast majority of people that we take on have got previous livestock experience – the skills transfer across.”
However, people with no poultry experience could benefit from working on a poultry unit and undertaking some training.
Pullets are delivered fully vaccinated and should be weighed on arrival to ensure accurate feeding before bringing them into lay.
Lighting regimes should be continued to ensure a smooth transfer between farms, and producers should adjust lighting and feeding according to breed guidelines.
The birds should continue to be weighed throughout the cycle, and feed formulated based on suppliers’ advice.
Careful monitoring of the birds on a daily basis will reveal any disease threats, and producers should work closely with vets to ensure optimum flock health.
Contracts and red tape
Prospective egg producers should speak to packers before spending any money, to ensure contracts are available.
Anyone wanting to market their eggs direct should undertake careful market research first.
Producers also have to adhere to a raft of legislation and voluntary standards, including Lion Egg, RSPCA Freedom Foods, as well as food hygiene regulations and health and safety protocols.
Full details will be available from your packer or DEFRA.
Case study: Rachel and Edward FitzRoy, Devon
Rachel and Edward FitzRoy started keeping free-range hens at Venn Farm, Morchard Bishop, Devon, in 2007, after converting their 61ha (150 acres) of pasture and woodland to organic.
“We always had our own poultry, and we were looking for an enterprise to suit our system,” says Mrs FitzRoy.
They secured a Waitrose contract with Stonegate, and erected six 1000-bird mobile sheds from McGregors.
“They fit in nicely and the chickens seem to like them.” Using local businesses they ran an electric cable to the sheds to trickle feed 24 volt batteries.
Total set-up costs, including fencing, averaged £25-£30/bird, and payback should take about three years.
“We have had so much advice from people, it has helped a lot – everyone has looked after us very well,” says Mrs FitzRoy.
The Columbian Blacktail hens have proven very docile and good at ranging, as well as extremely productive.
Since Stonegate started benchmarking about 18 months ago, the FitzRoys have been consistently near or at the top of the table.
Each hen has laid 295 eggs over the year with an overall split of 75% very large and large to 25% medium, small and seconds.
The couple take delivery of the pullets at 16 weeks old, and keep them until 72-76 weeks, when they move the houses to fresh ground.
“I was terribly worried about the move, but everything fitted back very easily,” says Rachel. They use local feed suppliers Crediton Milling, who weigh the birds every two weeks until they come into lay.
“It’s critical to get them up to weight before they start laying,” says Mr FitzRoy.
So far the flocks haven’t had any disease problems, with less than 5% mortality. They operate an all-in, all-out system, which is good for disease prevention, but not so good for cash-flow, he adds.
They have encouraged the birds to range by providing shelter and shade in the form of old trailers and corrugated sheeting, but plan to plant some trees this year.
They may also motorise the egg belt to reduce labour. “Once you’re up and running the hens take about half a day’s work.
We are enjoying doing it but it’s seven days a week – getting away is not easy,” says Mrs FitzRoy.
Walking the sheds at 5am at the start of lay, to collect floor eggs and move laying hens into nest boxes is similarly tiring – although selling a few eggs through farmers markets is very rewarding, she adds.
“The important thing is to work with something you enjoy; you have to like chickens or it could be a real bind.”