Multi-tier units for free-range hens can divide opinions. Philip Clarke finds out why one Norfolk producer thinks they are the business
Jason Cooper put his first multi-tier unit up in early 2008 and has just completed his second flock. It’s been a steep learning curve, but one that has convinced him that multi-tier is the future for free range.
“If anything, East Anglia is a very traditional area,” says Mr Cooper, whose Norfolk Egg business is based between Downham Market and Thetford. “Producers around here are generally pro-conventional, flat-bed systems.”
But as a new entrant to egg production Mr Cooper wanted to be at the technological forefront.
Having located a 30-acre field to rent and got the necessary planning permission, he opted for a Big Dutchman Natura 230 system from NewQuip, suitable for 12,000 birds.
“I went for the Natura 230 because of the build quality and the fact that it is very user friendly,” he says. “Inspection and bird management is far easier than on some tower systems. I also got a good price.”
If he has one complaint, it is that the slats are made of plastic and this has provided a haven for red mites. “We did not have a single red mite in the first flock, and the second flock was clear until last February, but then they arrived and now they are everywhere.”
With this in mind, Mr Cooper says he will go for a Natura 260 when his second shed is built next year, as this comes with wire slats, which will provide fewer harbouring places for the blood-sucking parasites.
But, red mites aside, how has he got on with multi-tier?
Encouraging multi-tier birds to range can be a problem on some units, especially as birds are shut in for the first few weeks to get them used to the new system.
But Mr Cooper says this has never been an issue with his birds. “We’ve had very good ranging to all four corners of the fields, though this is partly due to the fact that our shed is just 8.8m wide.”
Range enrichment is also important and, while the unit currently meets the basic RSPCA Freedom Foods standards for shelter and shade, there is more to be done.
“When the new shed goes up, we will have to carry out range enrichment anyway, as we will be doubling our stocking rate to 2000 birds/ha,” says Mr Cooper. “But we have already completed a range enrichment management plan with Freedom Foods and will put this into effect before we expand.”
Getting birds to perch can also be an issue – especially in the early stages – but again Mr Cooper says his two flocks have so far got the hang of it instantly.
“All the pullets we’ve taken have been reared on a jump-up system,” says Mr Cooper. “This makes all the difference, and Freedom Foods now stipulates it as a requirement for multi-tier.”
As eastern region sales manager for Country Fresh Pullets, he says he has come across scenarios where pullets reared in conventional systems have gone into multi-tier and it has been disastrous. “They don’t feed, they don’t drink, they don’t perch. It’s a nightmare!”
Nesting is another issue that comes easier to birds that have been reared on jump-up systems.
The Natura 230 provides two tiers of nest boxes and Mr Copper says they work well. “If anything they worked too well with our first flock,” he recalls. “That flock had very even body weight – about 94% even – so they all came into lay at the same time. There was some smothering and associated mortality.”
Another issue was the lighting. “We had lights in the passage at the back of the nest boxes and this encouraged the birds to poke their heads through to investigate, rather than leaving the nest box. For the second flock, we took the lights out and it worked better.”
With both nesting and perching, Mr Cooper says it is essential to have feeding and watering points well up the system – and certainly nowhere near the floor. The pop holes should also be closed and the floor space under the unit shut off for the first couple of weeks.
Overall, Mr Cooper is convinced that the multi-tier system is better for bird welfare – despite the higher stocking rate of nine birds per m sq of floor space and 15 birds per m sq of slatted area – as they have more to do.
“The feeders and drinkers are at different levels, so they get to move around the system, as well as going outside. It also makes it easier for submissive birds to get away from aggressive birds.”
Also, the sheds are cleaned automatically twice a week, leading to much lower ammonia levels.
Evidence of the improved welfare is shown by better feather retention compared with birds in other systems. “The birds are busier and therefore less stressed,” says Mr Cooper. “The flock I just cleared out in late July at 71 weeks looked more like 45-week birds.”
As for physical performance, Mr Cooper says there is no doubt the multi-tier system outperforms conventional systems.
His first flock, which was depleted at 72 weeks of age in May 2009, produced 317 eggs a bird, with eggs weighing 66.2g on average.
The next flock did even better, being depleted in late July 2010, having produced 316 eggs at just 71 weeks, with the final eggs weighing over 67g.
Mr Cooper says the push to heavier eggs was a deliberate ploy, as the market wanted larger eggs. So rather than extending the lighting from the standard 10 hours at 1.475kg body weight, he waited until the birds reached 1.55kg before stepping it up by an hour a week until it reached 16 hours.
“As the birds come into lay, we inevitably get a few floor eggs – about 7.5% in the first few weeks. But by about 30 weeks it’s down to 1.1% – in other words, almost nothing.”
The birds are fed six times a day and floor inspections are carried out at this time. Mortality stands at about 5%.
Mr Cooper has experimented with a number of different breeds in his multi-tier unit, with a particular eye on feed intakes.
The first flock of 12,000 birds were all ISA Warrens, though these were replaced with Shaver Browns for the second flock. The next flock will be ISA Browns.
Mr Cooper says there is little to choose between any of the main commercial breeds – despite suggestions that some birds are “lazier” than others – since they all have the same potential to lay eggs in a multi-tier environment.
“All the breeds available in the UK will do the job,” he says. “My job is to unlock the genetic potential, and that is about management, not breed.”
Clearly Mr Cooper has been achieving some good physical performances. But how do the economics stack up?
In total, he has invested more than £350,000 in infrastructure, including access roads, a turning area, powered ventilation, feed bins, a standby generator, a small packing unit and a cold store. That works out at about £30 a bird.
Running costs are higher with a multi-tier system, in particular due to the energy requirements for the ventilation system.
But Mr Cooper says this is compensated for by the fact it is far quicker to clean out and restock the unit at turnaround, so creating extra production potential.
The fact that every egg is harvested mechanically also generates more revenue than in some conventional systems, where there are higher numbers of floor eggs.
And while the fans work harder in summer, the extra number of housed birds means the sheds stay warmer for longer in winter. There is also less temperature variation.
But the biggest saving, says Mr Cooper, is in feed. “My second flock ate, on average, 120g a day. That compares with about 135g-140g a day in conventional units with natural ventilation. Over 12,000 birds, that amounts to a huge amount of feed – and a huge amount of money.”
In his first year, when feed averaged £145/t and eggs were fetching £1.14/doz, Mr Cooper estimates that his flock achieved a margin over feed and pullets of £10 a bird – enough to cover debts and pay an income.
The second flock was tighter, with feed at £180/t, eggs at £1/doz and the margin over feed and pullets at £5-£6 a bird.
The third flock will do well to break even, with feed now budgeted at £240/t and the egg price around 80p/doz. “This will be a year of survival,” he says.
Against this background, Mr Cooper has taken the decision to postpone the erection of his second shed.
“We were all set to expand to 24,000 birds. But the exchange rate last year meant the imported building and equipment was going to cost a lot more money, and the drop in the market this year means we will be earning less.”
But Mr Cooper is optimistic that both will be better in the second half of 2011, and hopes his expansion plans will get back on track then.
For the wider industry, he sees a continuing move into multi-tier – both for the economic and welfare advantages the system can offer.
Mr Cooper says he is not too concerned about the prospect of a two-tier market developing – even though some conventional free-range producers may like to portray their products as somehow superior.
“My answer to that is ‘why?’ There is no doubt that a well-run flat-bed system is better for the birds than a badly run multi-tier. But equally, a well-run multi-tier is far better than a badly run flat-bed. Ultimately, it’s about getting the management right.”