Starting a Free Range Egg Farm

Concepts of animal welfare are becoming more popular in Australia, as people start to become more interest in the conditions that agricultural animals are raised in. Although caged hens are still allowed in Australia, meat and eggs from Free Range hens are becoming more and more common as people realise that they have been raised in far more humane conditions. Large sections of society are now boycotting caged hens in favour of free range chickens. This has led to some major chains refusing to stock eggs or meat which has been produced in caged conditions. More and more free range farms are starting up to help to meet the demand for hens which have been raised in better conditions. It has never been a better time to try your hand at running a free range chicken business.

Why is Free Range better than Caged?

Caged chickens are given very little room to move about. In fact, some caged chickens are unable to even turn around properly once they are fully grown. This means that the chickens are not able to exhibit any of their natural behaviour at all. Barn raised chickens are given slightly more room to move about, and the shed in which they are housed is likely to have more than one level. However these chickens are still not given enough space to move about. They are not normally given access to the outdoors. Free-range chickens in Australia are allowed access to the outdoors and given an outdoors range in which to move about. They are housed overnight in static sheds or mobile chicken coops. Being able to move and play in the grass and dirt outside allows chickens to exhibit their natural behaviours. This means that the chickens grow up happier and healthier, and in turn they produce better quality meat and eggs. If you want to sell your produce as free range, then it is important that you meet all of the conditions which are set out by national legislation.

Time Constraints

If you want to be a free range chicken farmer, it is vital that you have enough time on your hands. Running a medium sized poultry business is not a part time occupation, and is not suitable for those who wish to be “absentee” farmers. To give your chickens a happy and healthy life, and to ensure that you continue to meet the required welfare standards, you will be required to put in long hours, including working overnight on occasions. However, if you are prepared to make the required time commitments, then you will find free range chicken farming to be rewarding experience.

Know the Market and the Trading Laws

Before you set up any business, it is important that you know (and understand) and agricultural and trading laws which might apply to you. Failing to meet these laws could end up being very costly for you and may mean that all of your hard work has been for nothing. Many areas of Australia have business advisors available (some of which have government support or subsidy) to help people who are considering starting a business. If you are interested in setting up as a chicken farmer you should talk to an advisor first to make sure you know exactly what criteria you need to meet. Likewise, you should know (and understand) the marketplace where you intend to start selling in. A new farmer is unlikely to do well in a saturated market, so make sure that you have selling strategies in mind before you invest time and money into building up a business. If there are a lot of other free range sellers in your area then you might need to find a unique selling point (USP) to make your produce more desirable than the produce of other farmers in the area. You may also need to consider selling your produce with an undesirable profit margin at first so that you can break into the market.

Pasture

Most free range producers will need to supplement their chicken with additional feed, however choosing a perfect pasture can reduce the level of supplementary feed that the chickens require. A good pasture will be full of perennials, such as ryegrass and clover. To get the most out of the pastures that you use, you will have to use clever pasture management techniques. For the best results you should only let your chickens roam in a pasture during the middle third of the growth period. If you allow your chickens to graze in a pasture too early then the pasture will take a lot longer to regrow or may regrow as a substandard area. If you leave your pasture too long then the growth will be past its best and your animals will not be able to get as much out of it as they should. For the most effective grazing strategy, you are advised to have multiple pastures which can be used on a rotation. A mobile chicken coop such as a Transcoop will allow you to move your animals from one pasture to another with ease. This will give unused pastures the chance to regrow without the stresses that live chickens would put on the area. Clever pasture management will minimise the amount of supplementary feed that you need provide to your birds.

Housing

The more comfortable that a bird feels in its environment, the more eggs that it will produce. These birds are likely to produce a better quality of egg and they are likely to maintain their maximum yield for much longer. Maintaining a high yield from each chicken for as long as possible makes financial sense for a free range egg grower. For free range chickens you will need to provide an area which has nesting facilities for when your chickens want to lay, and then adequate perches for all of your animals to rest safely. Free range animals in Australia need a minimum amount of space for perching, or they may be declassified. Although they do not necessarily have to be completely impenetrable, your chicken housing should be hard for predators to get in to. In addition to minimising stock loss, reducing the threat of predators can also reduce the stress level on your flock. Stressed birds do not create good produce, so it is in your business interest to keep your chickens calm. In addition to secure housing, you should consider other strategies to reduce the threat from natural predators. Larger farmers normally want static chicken sheds, but medium sized farmers have other options available to them. One of the most innovate options currently available is a mobile chicken coop. These coops (such as the ones which are produced by Transcoop) offer new farmers a lot more flexibility than static coops do. This is in part because there are fewer restrictions around the siting on mobile coops, as they can be moved far more easily. For example, static sheds normally need a different type of planning permission and costly foundations will have to be laid. Mobile chicken coops have almost all of the same features that static coops have, but these features have been adapted slightly to make them more suitable for a mobile environment. An additional benefit of mobile coops is that it is much easier to practice clever pasture management techniques when you can move your birds around with ease. If you choose a Transcoop to house your chickens, you will find that they have been designed to maximise egg production and to make it as easy as possible for you to collect your eggs. These mobile chicken caravans also utilise special hygiene technology which is designed to reduce the risk of cross-contamination and bacteria problems. Other options such as a series of mini barns are also a possibility for farmers with small to medium sized flocks.

Choosing Your Chickens

If you are intending to farm eggs, then it is important to take the time to choose the right chickens. Certain breeds of chicken in Australia are highly-regarded for their meat, whilst others are bred specifically for egg production. There are certain breeds which are adapted for both, although many farmers (and consumers) believe that these birds do not excel as either. When you are acquiring your chickens, you need to make sure that you get the right breed for your needs. You also need to consider where in the country you live, because some chickens are better at dealing with the heat, whilst other chickens don’t mind if the temperature starts falling. If you live in a hotter part of the country and you want egg layers, the best breeds to choose are probably Rhode Island Reds or Leghorns, whereas Australorps, Plymouth Rocks and Sussex chickens are better if you live in an area which tends to get cooler at night. The breed that you choose will also affect the colour of the eggs that you produce. Sussex chickens will lay creamy coloured eggs, whereas Plymouth Rocks birds lay pinkish brown eggs. Australorps and Plymouth Rocks birds are normally considered to have enough meat on them that they are fit for dual purpose birds.

When you are acquiring your birds you will also need to decide whether you want to get point of lay birds or whether you would prefer to get hatchlings. Point of lay birds are birds which are at an age (or which will soon reach an age) at which they will start producing eggs. These birds will normally be more expensive than hatchlings would be, however they should start producing eggs within a short space of time, meaning that you will have the opportunity to get a return on your investment much sooner. If you are new to chicken rearing, ask a vet to ascertain the birds true age before you start to encourage them to lay, because birds which are too young to lay will do themselves serious damage if they are encouraged to do so when they are not ready. Alternatively, raising birds from hatchlings will give you greater knowledge and control of your flock. Hatchlings tend to have a lower initial cost than point of lay birds do; however you will have to put a lot of time, energy and money into getting them into a position where they are ready to produce eggs for you. This means that the time from investment to return on investment could be longer, so this is worth considering when you are working out your expected cash flow for your business. One of the main advantages of raising your chickens from hatchlings is that you have more control over how the birds have been raised, so you will know what they have been fed and how they have been treated. This can help you to forge a USP for your egg sales.

Nutrition

It is important for laying hens to get enough protein, vitamins and minerals to sustain egg production. The chicken’s body actually expends quite a lot of energy in creating the egg, and laying can be strenuous. Pastures will offer about 20% of the nutrients that they needs if you have been practicing clever pasture management techniques, but you will have to supplement the rest of their diet. Amino Acid rich protein should make up about 16% of the chickens’ diets, and this is vital for healthy egg production. You should also make sure that the chickens are getting enough calcium. Shell grit (piece of broken egg shell) can help chickens to regain some of the nutrients lost during egg production. It is vital that you provide an adequate supply of clean, fresh water for your chickens, as this will help to prevent them from suffering from heat stress.

Health Concerns

In warmer area, heat stress is one of the major concerns for free range egg farmers. Heat stress will reduce egg production and can ultimately kill birds. In additional to fresh water, supplementary vitamin C can reduce the impact of heat. Adequate shade is required for all birds. A Transcoop provides an area of shade for chickens to rest in during the hottest periods of the day, but your pastures should have some areas of natural shade too.

Young chickens should also receive a schedule of vaccinations to protect them from some of the most common types of chicken outbreak. Disease is likely to spread quickly through unvaccinated chickens. If you are buying point of lay chickens, ask to see certificates of vaccination for all of the birds that you buy. One of the benefits of raising chickens from hatchlings is that you will know that the birds are being vaccinated according to the correct schedule, and you will not have to rely on the honest of another vendor.

You should watch out for metabolic diseases in your chickens, which can affect almost any aspect of the birds. These illnesses are usually caused by the chicken not eating the right diet. Examples of metabolic problems include Fatty Liver Disease and weak bones causing deformities. Making changes to the birds’ diet can help to reduce the occurrences of metabolic diseases.

You should also watch out for behavioural problems amongst your birds, as these issues tend to be indicative of the fact that something is wrong. Chickens are normally friendly birds which would not show aggression to other animals unless there was a reason to. Behavioural issues can include aggressive feather pecking and cannibalism. Stressed birds are also more likely to produce fewer eggs and eggs which are malformed. The best way to prevent behavioural issues in chickens is to find and address the problem which is causing the stress amongst the chickens.

Reducing Predator Risk

Free range hens are more at risk from predators than barn hens or cages hens are, because free range hens spend time outdoors. For a predator to get to a ban hen, the animal must break into the barn with the chickens, and then get back out again without itself being killed. However, outdoor birds are accessible by far more creatures. Potential predators for your hens can include; dogs, foxes, coyotes, snakes, hawks, dingos and other animals.  One strategy that you may want to consider to reduce the threat from predators is to obtain and train a livestock guardian dog. Livestock guardian dogs, such as Maremma Sheepdogs, can be trained to protect animals from predators. You may need to spend time introducing the dog and flock to one another in a controlled environment, but once they are familiar with each other, you will be able to leave the flock alone with the dog without the birds feeling stressed. These dogs will not normally engage in physical fights with predators, but their size and vocal presence are normally enough to scare away traditional threats. The barking of the dog will also make your flock more vigilant about predators which are nearby, which means that they can take some of the necessary steps to save themselves. Whilst livestock guardian dogs can be an excellent investment, you must be able to, and be prepared to, put a lot of time and effort into their training. Fencing is another option for keeping land-based predators out of your pastures. Simple wire fencing is a good way to keep your chickens off of areas which need to recover, but electric fencing is better for the perimeter of the pasture. Your chickens will soon learn not to go near to the fencing, and it will act as a real deterrent to any predators which attempt to get into the pasture. However, electric fencing is more costly than regular fencing is, as you will have to ensure that an electric current is flowing through it constantly in order for it to be effective. This also means that it requires more maintenance than regular fencing takes. If you do decide to put electric fencing around your pasture to deter predators, you must make sure that it is clearly marked, so that humans do not get a shock from the fencing without warning.

Collecting Your Eggs

Although there are relatively low levels of salmonella in Australia, adequate collection and storage strategies need to be put into place to prevent salmonella growth where the microbes are present. Creating comfortable nesting facilities will mean that your free range birds lay where you want them to, rather than laying at random around the pasture. These facilities will protect the eggs from damage whilst allowing you to collect them quickly and easily. Transcoop chicken caravans include special antimicrobial technology to reduce the risks of infection to your chickens and the risk of bacteria affecting your eggs. Once the eggs have been collected, you will need to ensure that they are safely packaged and stored until they can be sold. Incorrect storage can lead to bacterial growth which will spoil your eggs. Poor storage can also result in breakages. Remember that each egg which is broken or spoiled in any other way represents a decrease in your return on investment. Therefore, it is essential that you treat each egg with respect.

Starting a free range egg business can be a very worthwhile experience, especially if you form a respectful bond with your animals. Free range eggs are experiencing a huge boom in popularity across the country, and therefore free range animals mean big business. The nature of free range production means that it is better for a larger number of farmers to work with a smaller number of birds each. This means that more and more opportunities are opening up for smaller business people and new farmers to begin to work with free range flocks. With all of the new resources available, including the rise in popularity of the TransCoop range of products, it is now easier than ever to start a medium free range egg business.

 

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