Big may be beautiful, but it is efficiency that counts when it comes to profitable egg production, something that is not lost on even the casual observer turning up at Oakland Farm Eggs at Wem, Shropshire.
The company, run by brothers Elwyn and Gareth Griffiths, operates the biggest in-line unit in Europe, with more than 1.5m layers on site and eggs from another 32 contracted farms – both cage and non-cage – arriving for packing every day.
And when you walk into the packhouse, you get a clear impression of the scale and efficiency of the operation. A massive conveyor belt brings in a tide of eggs from the laying sheds beyond, which are then inspected, cleaned, weighed, stamped and boxed by an array of robotic equipment at the rate of 300,000 eggs/hr.
The unit produces almost 500m eggs a year, which can be out of the hen and onto a lorry in three hours, without ever touching a human hand. This level of technical efficiency is also evident in the laying sheds – especially those containing the new enriched colony systems.
“We saw the new legislation (banning conventional cages) coming and started converting in 2002, putting up four new sheds that were enrichable,” says Elwyn. “Now it’s just a question of rearranging the furniture.”
Obviously, it’s not as simple as that, although Elwyn says it takes as little as eight weeks from destocking a conventional shed to installing the new enriched cages and putting in a new flock – predominately Hy-Line birds all reared on the farm from day-old chicks.
The enriched cages used have been developed by Oaklands in conjunction with manufacturer Tecno and offer extra welfare benefits above European Union requirements. The units house 80 birds each, are larger than standard, with nest boxes at each end and perches that go across rather than along the cage. There are also more scratching plates.
So far, seven sheds have been converted and the farm houses about 1m colony hens. Sheds that used to house 165,000 battery hens now contain 132,000 colony hens. They typically produce 325 eggs per bird, with mortality at just 2% and some hens staying in lay up to 90 weeks.
By 2012, Oaklands will have invested more than £20m in the new units and will have about 1.54m birds at the Wem site alone.
But the brothers have also been keen to help their contracted suppliers convert to colony systems and continue in egg production too, and have invested directly in some units. “We tailor our involvement to meet the needs of the farmer,” says Elwyn. “In some cases, he just rents us the shed and we do the rest, in others we have joint-venture arrangements or we have just helped with funding for new colonies.”
By 2012, the company will be taking colony eggs from another 1m birds out on contracted farms. “We will be the UK’s number one supplier of colony eggs,” he predicts. “This will enable us to provide retailers with their value lines. Without this commitment, they would almost certainly have to source these eggs from abroad.”
New colony cages are not the only investment to have been undertaken at Oaklands in recent times. The brothers have also spent £500,000 on a rainwater harvesting system that collects all the run-off from roofs and yards, purifies it and returns it to the birds – saving about £120,000 a year that they used to pay to the water company.
They are also involved in a major investment in mid-Wales to build a new packing centre specifically for the Welsh egg industry, and are planning to build a £7m anaerobic digester at the Wem site capable of generating £2.5m of green energy a year.
Marketing is also a top priority, with the Oaklands business keen to develop its own branded eggs and egg products, as well as supplying supermarkets’ own label lines. The company has moved to 100% clear plastic packaging for its egg boxes, which allow consumers to see what they are buying, are better for hygiene and reduce transport costs, since the boxes stack much tighter together.
But the Griffiths also have an eye on the consumers of tomorrow and have put both time and money into getting the messages about the versatility and health benefits of eggs into local schools. The farm’s chef has performed numerous demonstrations and Elwyn has also been seen in the classroom on occasion.
“Mainly we tell the children about eggs, but if they ask a question about the process we try and give honest answers. There’s no doubt that a badly run free-range unit has many more welfare issues than a well-run intensive unit.”
In my search for news and information on Hen farming, I came across this article which mentioned a term I’d never heard of: “Colony Hen“. According to a number of websites, a colony hen house described as : “An enriched colony houses 40-60 hens, compared with 7-10 hens in the traditional US cage, and provides 116 sq. in. per hen, 50% more than the 77 sq. in. modern US cages – 76 sq. in. being the midpoint of the 67-87 sq. in. required for the US egg industry’s animal welfare program. An enriched cage also provides perches, nesting and scratching areas and other “enrichments,” allowing hens to exhibit more of their natural behaviours.”