Later this month, Lohmann GB will hatch its 100 millionth chick at the Millennium Hatchery near Henley-in-Arden.
Identifying the actual chick as it emerges from its shell will, of course, be impossible – a little like trying to identify the seven billionth person on the planet when he or she was born this time last year.
But, whichever basket the bird pops out into in the incubators at the state-of-the-art Warwickshire facility, its arrival will be a landmark for the company, and a symbol of the rapid expansion Lohmann GB has enjoyed in recent years.
Formed as a partnership between Poultry First (formerly Ross Poultry), and German breeder Lohmann Tierzucht in 2001, the company had sole responsibility for marketing Lohmann layers in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
But then, in 2008, Poultry First’s shares in Lohmann GB were bought out by current director David Scott, and the result was a more integrated layer production and distribution outfit.
At that stage, the company’s two main breeds – the Lohmann Brown Classic and the Lohmann Brown Lite – took a 27% share of the UK market, with 8.4m day-old chicks sold that year.
But that figure has grown steadily, hitting 11.6m in 2010 and reaching 12.8m this year, equivalent to a 40% market share, claims the company.
“This sales growth is a reflection of the performance of our birds and the level of technical support we offer our customers,” says Mr Scott. “None of our field staff are salesmen as such – they all come from production backgrounds.”
Lohmann birds offer both shell quality and persistency, says Mr Scott.
“Maximising the number of saleable eggs is our mantra, not just maximising the total number of eggs. So shell quality really is the key. And with the birds often achieving 85% at 60-65 weeks, then the producer can expect longer laying cycles too.”
The birds have also been bred to achieve good feed intake.
“The trend towards more free-range production systems means laying hens are also exposed to more challenges,” says Mr Scott. “If they are able to take in more feed, then they will be more robust. That does not mean you have to be using that feed intake capacity to the full at all times – but it’s there if needed.”
Over the past four years, there has been a steady growth in sales of Lohmann Brown Lites, but with some drop in sales of Classics (see graph).
“The Lite was brought in in 2008 with a view to supplying medium eggs for the colony market,” says Mr Scott. “But the breed has been popular on free-range units, too, and now over a third of our chick sales are Lites.”
The Lite produces an egg about 1.5g lighter than the Classic, and also gives three to four more eggs a bird. This fits the current market requirement, with value and medium eggs more in demand as a result of the double-dip recession.
“You can change egg size easily enough by adjusting lighting or nutrition, but you are always battling against the bird. It’s better to use a breed that is designed for smaller eggs.”
All Lohmann GB birds come in as day-old parent stock – having been hatched from grandparent stock by Lohmann Tierzucht in northern Germany.
They are placed on breeding farms throughout the Midlands and southern England, some rented, some owned and some on contract. “Having a mix of farms gives us flexibility – if order volumes change, it is easier to make adjustments on our own breeder units.”
The fertile eggs are then transported to the Millennium Hatchery where Lohmann GB has a custom hatching agreement.
The day-old chicks are then dispatched to commercial layer units, having been IRBT beak treated and vaccinated for infectious bronchitis and Marek’s disease. “We may administer further vaccines, depending on the individual customer’s requirements,” explains Mr Scott.
Lohmann GB operates as a franchise for Lohmann Tierzucht, covering the whole of the UK and Ireland.
Topical issues for David Scott
What are the breeding priorities for Lohmann GB?
Shell quality and persistency remain our top priorities, but we are also looking at nest selection traits to minimise floor eggs, and behavioural traits to produce calmer birds. Disease resistance is also important, especially in relation to E coli.
All breeding is carried out by Lohmann Tierzucht and their approach is to take things steady. It’s not a question of what we can do with the genetics, but a question of what the customer wants.
Should we be concerned that poultry breeding is concentrated in so few hands?
Consolidation is a trend that is happening throughout agriculture. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Now that scientists have unravelled the chicken genome, genetic progress is increasingly about indentifying specific markers. It’s an incredibly expensive process and only the largest companies can afford it, but it does deliver greater choice.
As for disease issues, our company has elite stock in Germany, Canada and Japan, so we are well spread out in respect of any disease risk.
What are your thoughts on the 2016 ban on beak trimming?
I can understand the politics behind it, but we have to be practical. Behavioural traits are not as heritable or predictable as things like egg weight or feather colour. Much work has already been done with management systems, site enrichments and feeding regimes, but with limited success. Breeders are working to address the issue, but 2016 is going to be too soon and we will see serious welfare problems if the government goes ahead with the ban.
How do you see the current market for eggs and chicks?
Volatility has been more extreme in the past two years than I’ve ever known it, which is concerning. Eggs have had some good publicity as a food source and there is lots of scope to grow demand in the UK market.
But the supply of eggs goes up and down, and we are currently heading for a surplus at a time when feed costs are also spiralling. The feed cost rise affects us too as chick producers, so our prices need to go up.