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Free range enquiries steady up

by 5m Editor
23 May 2006, at 12:00am

UK - While BFREPA’s stand at this year’s Pig & Poultry Fair received a continuous flow of visitors throughout the two-day show, there was a noticeable decrease in the number of enquiries from potential new entrants compared with two years ago.

Free range enquiries steady up - UK - While BFREPA’s stand at this year’s Pig & Poultry Fair received a continuous flow of visitors throughout the two-day show, there was a noticeable decrease in the number of enquiries from potential new entrants compared with two years ago.

Association chairman Tom Vesey said that this was probably to be expected considering the current climate. “Two years ago there was a real buzz to the place and you could hardly move on our stand for farmers looking to diversify into free range egg production,” said Tom. “But back then the egg price was at the highest many producers could recall and H5N1 could have been a postcode in London for all we knew!”

Despite the uncertainty currently hanging over the sector, free range continues to be an attractive proposition to many. BFREPA officials who manned the stand talked to a variety of visitors considering a free range career—including the broiler grower who wanted to fill his chicken house with something that offered a more secure future and the arable farmer who was bored for six months of the year and looking for something else to do! And of course free range continues to offer an opportunity to would-be farmers, who are willing to sell everything they’ve got and sink their life savings into a plot of land and a flock of hens.

“The egg market has always suffered from ups and downs and while we may be at the bottom of a trough at the moment, things will undoubtedly pick-up,” said Tom. “There is no other sector of British agriculture that can look forward to the growth that free range is faced with and it’s a prospect that offers exciting opportunities for many farmers over the next few years.”

BFREPA’s free range guide which was published especially for the show was a big hit with visitors and hundreds of copies were handed out over the two days. “Even if visitors didn’t come to the show planning to get into free range at the moment, there was plenty in our guide to whet their appetites,” said Tom.

Take advice, says newcomer James

James Holloway and his father Richard were among the many visitors who enquired about free range egg production on the BFREPA stand at the 2004 Poultry Fair. The Holloways had sold their farm three years earlier when they had no thoughts about getting into free range, but planned to buy a larger farm on which to continue their beef and arable operation.

But the Foot & Mouth outbreak saw the land market grind to a halt and the Holloways had a spell of being farmless. Richard sampled semi-retirement while James took a job as assistant manager on a farm in Lincolnshire. But, says his father, having had a taste of self-employment at home, James didn’t take too well to being employed.

With James clearly wanting to get back to being his own boss—and Richard happy to let him take on the running of the family business—the hunt was on for a farm again. This time, however, with the prospects for cereal growing and beef not looking bright, the idea of free range appealed.

Following the visit to the BFREPA stand at Stoneleigh two years ago and armed with information—and enthusiasm—they found themselves an 120 acre farm in Northamptonshire. A provisional contract was arranged with egg packer Deans and after a planning process that James describes as completely trouble-free, a 12,000 bird Harlow house was erected. Equipment was supplied by NewQuip and in January this year a flock of Hy-Line hens took up residence.

James has taken to free range egg production well, and Richard is happy to let him get on with it but he’s around if extra help is needed. “We went in to the job fully prepared and I think that is essential advice for anyone contemplating a similar move,” says James. “We’ve had a few problems—some simply a result of inexperience—but we’ve coped because we knew what to expect. “We’ve made a big financial investment—the shed and equipment cost nearly £250,000. You can’t spend a sum like that and not take advice.

“BFREPA has been a great help. Whereas at the Association’s stand two years ago we were asking about packers, buildings and equipment, this year we wanted to know more about flock management and once again we received some sound advice. It’s always good to hear it from those who actually do it.” James admits he has been disappointed with the egg price but he was warned that it could happen. “Again we received good advice from BFREPA at the 2004 show when we were told to expect fluctuations in the producer price. That prediction was certainly true but at least we’d budgeted for it.”

But the current slump in prices hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm for the future and plans are being drawn up for a second house, this time housing 16,000 hens. “We are not going to rush into it and I feel we need to learn a little bit more about the job before we take on more birds,” says James. “But we are committed to free range egg production being the mainstay of our farming business so ultimately that will mean expansion.”

ThePoultrySite News Desk

5m Editor