The Happy Egg Co has a simple, yet logical philosophy at its farms: happy hens produce happy eggs.
It may sound slightly clichéd, but focusing on improving welfare and management has paid dividends.
“Welfare and production go hand-in-hand,” explains Jean-Paul Michalski, national production manager for parent company Noble Foods. “A healthier flock of birds will produce more eggs and, as managing skills have got better, we have seen an increase in production and a reduction in problem flocks.”
Research has been a driving force in helping to improve hen welfare on the farms and ensures managers keep a strong emphasis on developing best practice.
“By trying to understand what birds like and how they behave has helped us to improve the way we look after our birds,” says Mr Michalski.
Research conducted by Bristol University on behalf The Happy Egg Co into ranging habits showed that 75% of free-range birds use popholes on at least half of the days available to them.
Scientists used radio-frequency identification (RFID) transponders to examine the proportion of four flocks that used the popholes. They found that only a small percentage ventured outside for less than 10% of the available days.
Traditionally it has been believed that hens are disinclined to range, so the findings came as something of a surprise. “It was a lot more than we expected. There were only 7.7% that never went out,” explains Steve Horton, marketing director at the company.
On the farm
Bulbourne Farm in Hertfordshire is one of the company’s platinum farms and boasts the company’s highest welfare standards, which is one of the reasons why it was chosen to host The Happy Egg Co’s famous quad-bike riding advert.
With rolling fields of lush green grass, blues skies overhead and hens scattered across the range, it is a picture-perfect scene of tranquillity.
But it’s taken hard work and attention to detail to create this desired environment.
Making birds feel protected has been key in the design of the range, explains Mr Michalski, who is also farm manager at Bulbourne. “You need to make the birds feel happy to go outside by giving them an area where they feel protected from extremes in weather.”
Trees have been one of the most important features and on Happy Egg farms there is a minimum requirement of 10% tree coverage on the range.
Selecting the right species is crucial, Mr Michalski explains. “Some species will do better than others. So talk to your local tree surgeon to get some idea of what they suggest would be best.
“We try to have a mix of species and different sizes, which gives the range much more of a natural feel and it gives the birds an option.”
Mr Michalski says the bigger tree species act as a canopy, while the birds enjoy getting underneath the smaller bushes and shrubs, which affords them protection.
“Trees are great, but unfortunately they don’t grow very fast,” he explains. One way of overcoming this is to plant a mixture of species.
“The problem with indigenous species is that they will grow very slowly, so the best thing to do is to plant fast-growing poplars and willows. That will afford you a bit of shade early on and will allow the more natural species to grow.”
Research has also revealed that temperature has a large effect on the activity of birds, with pophole use decreasing as the temperature and number of hours of sunshine rise.
“Birds don’t like sunshine and high temperatures, which is why it’s important to give them a lot of shelter,” says Mr Michalski.
Providing birds with enough artificial shelter while the trees are still growing is important and encourages birds to range further afield.
“Equipment can be used to encourage birds to go into areas where there’s not a lot of tree cover,” he adds. At Happy Egg farms this has been achieved by enriching the range with play apparatus. The “Happy Egg kit” consists of a raised platform, sandpit with a lid and a perching apparatus, and has been developed through best practice.
“If it works on one farm, we look at rolling it out to others,” says Mr Michalski. Already the raised platform has been lowered to make it more easily accessible.
Land management is often a term associated with arable and livestock farmers, but Mr Michalski says it is also paramount for poultry producers. “It is very important to reduce the impact of stress and poaching on the range.
“Poultry farmers are very good at managing the inside of a house, but if you haven’t worked on the area outside, the minute you open the popholes you are exposing the birds to disease problems, which will increase flock on flock.”
He says it is vital to rest the range and give the grass time to grow back by fencing off damaged areas.
“Chickens like to paddle the ground, which can cause problems with drainage, so if you can rest the range it allows the soil to recover and it will drain a lot better.”
But timing is essential. “If birds eat too far down to the root they can damage the sward and it may not grow back properly, so the trick is knowing when to rest the ley.”
This summer has presented particularly poor conditions on ranges, with heavy rainfall over much of the UK and at Bulbourne they haven’t escaped the wet weather.
“This year has been extremely challenging, especially as chickens love damp, drizzly days. Even now the range is still quite wet.”
But taking simple steps to reduce the impact of waterlogged areas has enabled Mr Michalski to maintain the condition of the range and reduce the threat of disease.
“We’ve stoned areas immediately outside the popholes and then we woodchip areas if we get poaching in the middle of the range, which helps to stop the birds from paddling too much.
“Just making sure the guttering and drainage is in good condition ensures the water can get away.”
Grass varieties and sward length
Spring and autumn is the time when many producers will be looking to re-seed their fields, but before they do, individuals should consider which grass variety to use very carefully, says Mr Michalski.
“You should look for grass varieties with a deep root system and short sward length. Fast-growing varieties are designed for forage and grow really well, but long grass can cuase digestive problems in chickens.”
Key to this process is managing the length of grass, which can be effectively controlled by rotational grazing, he adds.
Looking to the future, The Happy Egg Co is planning more research into grass varieties and is currently in the process of filming its eagerly anticipated new television advert.