Eggs and apples
Jonathan owns half of the family farm near Honiton in Devon. His father Francis started keeping free range hens 30 years ago, but now in semi-retirement he is focusing on his apple orchards for cider production. Jonathan put up house first shed on his 50 acres in 2010. “The flat deck unit houses just over 13K birds and then seven years later I put up a similar capacity multi-tier unit. A Big Dutchman system was installed, and I’ve been very pleased with how it works.”
He has used kept several brown hen breeds but has found that Bovan birds work best in his system, being more active and seeing less floor eggs. “I’ve bought my pullets from Tim Woods for 10 years and as such now work with Humphrey Pullets.” Depopulating between 75 and 80 weeks of age, Jonathan has been keeping the birds for longer, for as long as egg quality is good enough, in order to maximise profitability. “This time the plan is to keep them to 78 weeks, which gives me a four-week turnaround period for our all-in-all-out system. We muck out the houses ourselves and a neighbouring farmer takes the manure to spread on his arable land.”
Jonathan has bought feed from Crediton Milling for six years and is very pleased with the quality. “We have a fairly standard ration but have used probiotics for the first time in this cycle, to support gut health and productivity. However, the biggest change we have made is investing in a water treatment system.”
Water for the birds comes from a bore hole on the farm so by improving water quality Jonathan has seen significant improvements in feather cover and egg quality. “We worked with St David’s Poultry Team and Applied Bacterial Control (ABC) to install and set up the system. It was installed when the birds were 30 weeks of age and we were starting to see a dip in performance. We’ve seen a definite improvement in egg quality and performance of the birds.”
Sophie Edenborough from ABC explained more about the system, how it works and what the benefits are. “It is a fully automated system that administers an acid and chlorine product simultaneously, combining both water sanitation and gut health promotion in one system. The ABC system was developed as part of the ‘Seed, Feed, Weed’ programme designed to aid poultry producers in reducing their antibiotic usage by supporting the bird’s microbiome and promoting good gut health.”
The organic acids administered via the system act to ‘feed’ the gut microbiome, when combined with chlorine it ensures both clean water and optimal bird performance. By lowering the pH of the water with the acid blend the chlorine breakdown equilibrium shifts to generate more hypochlorous acid making it more efficient at controlling bacteria levels. As well as making the chlorine more effective the acid blend lowers the pH and birds seem to prefer their water to be slightly acidic.
“The organic acid blend is designed to support the gut health of the bird enabling it get the most out of the feed and withstand potential disease challenges. The blend aims to ensure that the organic acids enter the lower gut in their un-dissociated form, which helps them to maintain a low gut pH. This makes the gut environment inhospitable to pathogens, as well as promoting beneficial microflora. Organic acids also aid in the conversion of pepsinogen to pepsin increasing protein and amino acid absorption.”
The system is fully adjustable and is therefore suitable for all types of water supplies, including mains, borehole or spring. “It aims to achieve water quality within set parameters (pH and ORP), which can be monitored on farm following training by ABC staff. By using the system this way without set dose rates the system is able to accommodate any fluctuations or changes in the incoming water supply, which is particularly important if using a borehole.” The cost of the system is approximately £1500 to £2000 and a site-specific cost can be determined after an initial site survey. The running cost is dependent on the incoming water quality and can be determined after a water analysis has been carried out.
“Since we installed the ABC system on Jonathan’s farm, the birds have seemed much calmer, less agitated and less intent on feather pecking. Water intakes have improved along with the water hygiene. At approximately 35 weeks of age the birds suffered an attack of spotty liver, which had occurred in previous flocks, but this time the recovery was much quicker. The birds responded to the treatment really well and mortality was greatly minimised. After five days of treatment the birds have made a full recovery with egg numbers returning to 93% production.” Recovery in previous flocks had not been so good. Sophie explained that he has also been able to drop through the diet range a lot quicker. “The birds moved to the second ration at least two weeks earlier than normal because egg size came up much faster, with the hens laying large eggs more quickly than in previous flocks.”
Jonathan has been very pleased with the improved production and egg quality he’s seen since the water treatment system was installed. “This has been a good flock, with no health issues, well feathered at 47 weeks and are now performing well.” He also noted that this flock has ranged particularly well. “They came in at the start of spring, which I think helped. They’ve enjoyed being out and about all summer and into autumn. I think the time of year that they are first let out makes a big difference to the ranging behaviour for the rest of the life of the flock.” To keep them busy when they are inside Jonathan uses pecking blocks and hay nets as well as milk bottles half filled with grit. “I think it’s important to keep adding to and changing the enrichment, so they don’t get bored. My father made some new shelters for the range this year and they’ve been a big hit.”
Performance of current flock
|Flock age||47 weeks|
|Peak||96.5% @ 25 weeks|
|Feed intake||133g per day|
|Seconds||1% factory (1.5% farm)|
|Accreditation||Lion Code & RSPCA Assured|
The eggs from Jonathan’s farm are sold to Fridays, the packer they’ve worked with since they started in egg production. They have a Stallkatt packer in the egg room of each shed. Natasha, Jonathan’s partner manages the hens with him, and they employ one part-timer to help with egg packing. “The kids are with us at the weekends too – helping out where they can. Freya is six and Jessica is four.” They have very few visitors to the farm and follow a strict biosecurity protocol, changing boots and clothing between sheds. “The range was previously pasture, then we planted trees around the shed and the perimeter of the range. Native species including cherry, holly, blackthorn and oak have been used.”
Jonathan has worked closely with Credition milling to improve performance on the farm. These flocks have had the lactic acid bacteria probiotic Bactocell in the diet from day one. Will White, from Crediton Milling explained that the aim was to improve gut health and hence performance. “The probiotic fits into the ‘Feed, Seed, Weed’ strategy discussed in terms water treatment – by seeding the gut with favourable bacteria and creating an optimum gut environment. If you have optimal gut health, you are maximising your chances of getting the production you want.”
He explained how with Jonathan they closely monitored egg weights and although egg size had grown rapidly in the flock the aim was to keep it under control. “He is now on a third-tier ration and is holding at a good egg size. It is obviously important to get the egg size the packer is looking for, but you don’t want to stress them out as you will lose performance in the long-term.” Will went on to say that Jonathan had great attention to detail and record keeping. “When you go into the shed you can see all the figures up on the wall with egg size plotted weekly on a graph. He gets great performance from his birds and the benefits of the water treatment can be clearly seen. It’s a topic I’ve been talking to producers a lot about recently. Jonathan’s experience highlights the importance of water quality and having proactively addressed it, what improvements can be made.” He re-iterated the fact that changes in pH and bacterial levels of water supply can have a significant effect on gut health.
I’ve always been impressed about the quality of the eggs produced on Jonathan’s farm. “He really knows what is going on with his birds. It makes sense that good gut health will lead to good shell quality and that can be clearly seen in very low numbers of seconds produced.
Focus on improvement
In 2014 10kw of solar panel were added to the roof of the older poultry houses, at a time when tariffs were favourable. “We’re producing around 10,00 Kw each year, which offers us significant savings. It wasn’t worth our while at the time to add them to the new shed, but we would consider it for the future.” Jonathan added that they aren’t looking to expand but instead improve what they are doing on site to increase margins. “I’d like to invest in a new packing machine to reduce the time we spend packing. Having the birds fighting fit is the best thing we can do to improve our profitability. To that end I’m trialing a more regular worming programme (every five weeks) and looking at ways to proactively control red mite. I think these are the kind of issues, like water quality, that can be silently taking from producers bottom line.”