Huge changes going to free-range operation in largest egg business

Zeagold Nutrition Hillgrove manager Hayden Baughan and agribusiness general manager Judith Mair...
Zeagold Nutrition Hillgrove manager Hayden Baughan and agribusiness general manager Judith Mair in a flock of hens at Hillgrove egg farm in East Otago. PHOTOS: SHAWN MCAVINUE
As cages are being phased out, an egg-producing giant is investing heavily in its free-range facilities. Shawn McAvinue visits two Zeagold Nutrition facilities in East Otago, including a free-range farm near Moeraki, which supplies some of the 650,000 eggs graded in Waikouaiti every day of the year, and finds happy hens and an industry in its final stage of reset.

As the last of the hen cages are being phased out of farms across New Zealand, an egg producing giant continues to invest in its free-range facilities in Otago.

Zeagold Nutrition agribusiness general manager Judith Mair, of Dunedin, said the company had 1.3 million hens laying eggs, making it the biggest egg producer in New Zealand.

Its network of egg farms in New Zealand included three free-range systems in Otago — one in Glenpark, near Dunback, one near Hampden in North Otago and another at Hillgrove near Moeraki in East Otago.

In the past 15 years, Zeagold had invested "a lot" in free-range farming in Otago, Ms Mair said.

The free-range eggs produced at the farms get graded at a facility in Waikouaiti.

Eggs get ultraviolet disinfection in Waikouaiti.
Eggs get ultraviolet disinfection in Waikouaiti.
At the Waikouaiti site, hens lay eggs in three farming systems — cage, colony and barn.

Under the Government's Layer Hens Code of Welfare, farmers must stop producing eggs from caged battery hens by the end of this year.

"The exiting of cage farming is one of the biggest transformations in the poultry industry and we are working through the final wave of that exit," Ms Mair said.

The phasing out of cages was nearly complete at Waikouaiti.

In the North Island, Zeagold was investing in new barn facilities and a new free-range farm.

"They are exciting developments, they are beautiful farms."

The company was proud of its facilities, it utilisation of "the best of European technology" and providing aviary systems which allowed their birds to demonstrate natural behaviours.

Hens search for grubs on a range at Hillgrove egg farm in East Otago.
Hens search for grubs on a range at Hillgrove egg farm in East Otago.
"We are serious about good farming practice and creating sustainable environments."

About 4500 trees and shrubs had been planted on the ranges at Hillgrove to provide shelter from weather and protection from predators, such as hawks.

Gravel was placed outside the sheds, so hens could clean their feet before entering indoors, to ensure the sheds remained as clean as possible.

The hens were the "heartbeat of the company" and each flock had its own personality and temperament.

"There is a pecking order."

All of the hens were the "robust" brown shaver breed — a consistent egg producer, which performed indoors and out.

Hillgrove manager Hayden Baughan, of Moeraki, said 23 staff worked at the site, which has sheds stretching for about 2.5km in Trotters Gorge.

Zeagold Nutrition Waikouaiti site manager Neville Kennedy inspects eggs travelling on a conveyor.
Zeagold Nutrition Waikouaiti site manager Neville Kennedy inspects eggs travelling on a conveyor.
Technology allows the birds’ daily performance to be monitored, to identify changes in production.

Data shows on average a free-range hen eats about 120g of feed a day.

The data showed how much water the hens were drinking and at what time of day.

On average, a hen produced slightly more than six eggs a week.

The data showed patterns to alert staff to changes in hens’ behaviour.

After eggs were graded and packaged in Waikouaiti, some were trucked daily to places between Queenstown, Timaru and Invercargill.

Most went to distribution hubs in Christchurch and Auckland.

Eggs are stamped with a traceable code before leaving Hillgrove farm. The FR stands for free...
Eggs are stamped with a traceable code before leaving Hillgrove farm. The FR stands for free-range, 112 is code for Hillgrove.
The company supplied about 2 million eggs to the Christchurch hub annually, she said.

A vertically integrated supply chain ensured control of the complete process, including producing chicken feed at a mill in Waikouaiti, buying day-old chicks from a company it part-owned and then rearing them at Hillgrove before moving them to aviary sheds on another part of the same farm, where the hens spend the rest of their productive lives.

After the hens were euthanised, they were rendered to feed for another type of farm animal.

Sustainability was important to the company.

Hen manure was harvested weekly on the farms and was all contracted for use as fertiliser on farms.

The company was always investigating new ways to be sustainable, such as how to obtain a power source from the wind which blows down Trotters Gorge.

"We are looking at how to create a self-supporting system. We’ve got a bird that provides a sustainable source of protein so how do we create a sustainable system to support that protein source?"

Zeagold Nutrition Hillgrove grader Shona Creighton, of Hampden, inspects eggs on the farm in...
Zeagold Nutrition Hillgrove grader Shona Creighton, of Hampden, inspects eggs on the farm in Trotters Gorge.
Ms Mair said challenges in the industry included Covid-19 market impacts and staff shortages.

Automation could detect hairline cracks in eggs and automatically reject them so they could be made into pulp or separated into yolk and whites.

However, the market "slumped" when Covid-19 affected the food sector and "slowed" the industrial sector.

Before Covid-19 closed borders, backpackers on working holiday visa had jobs on their sites including to help build facilities at Hillgrove in 2019 and 2020.

"We are really looking forward to those borders opening up and getting a few more people to help the team."

At the egg-grading facility at Waikouaiti, eggs were packaged under its brands Woodland and Farmer Brown.

Eggs produced on Hillgrove also supply clients including McDonald’s.

Hens perch in a shed on Hillgrove egg farm in East Otago.
Hens perch in a shed on Hillgrove egg farm in East Otago.
McDonald’s managing director David Howse said McDonald’s supplied 10.6 million free-range eggs to its restaurants in New Zealand last year.

Some of the eggs were supplied by Zeagold Nutrition’s farms in Waitaki and the rest were from Otaika Valley Farms in Northland and the Bay of Plenty.

Zeagold Nutrition Waikouaiti site manager Neville Kennedy said the eggs graded and packed at the site were from the farm on site, the three free-range farms in the Waitaki area, and occasionally from a farm in Fernside, Christchurch.

Every free-range egg the company produced was graded and packed in Waikouaiti for distribution.

At the facility, nearly 80 staff worked between 6.30am and 3pm, grading and packing about 650,000 eggs every day of the year.

"We’ve asked the chickens to stop at Christmas and Easter but they just won’t listen."

shawn.mcavinue@alliedpress.co.nz

Comments

Remind us what happens to the male chicks? Or for that matter the hens who reach the end of their "productive lives"?

@Coker - Some of the older hens go to families like ours. In the last five years we've repeatedly bought "spent" hens from commercial egg producers, and had them in our backyard here in Dunedin.

They may be "spent" by industry standards of production, but we've found we get at least two years of solid egg production from the hens after we take them.

Then, when their two years are up here, my husband dispatches them and we use them for stocks, stews and soups.

Their remains we don't eat are composted, then feed our veggie patch. Nothing is wasted.

I'd say that's pretty environmentally sound! And I'd recommend anyone else to do the same if you can.

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