Egg-cellent prospects for fledgling egg farmer

The number of hens and custom-made coops continues to rise as an egg business expands on a dairy farm in Central Southland. Shawn McAvinue talks to Red Feather Eggs owner Naomi Hanning (18) about her new business and keeping her hens happy by moving their coops to follow the grazing rotation of the cows.

A fledgling egg farmer is set to grow her business assets to 750 hens and three mobile coops on a dairy farm in Central Southland.

To celebrate the start of a new season, DairyNZ held an event on the dairy farm of Maurice and Suzanne Hanning in Grove Bush, northeast of Invercargill.

The stock on the nearly 300ha family farm, Bristol Grove Dairies, includes 650 cows and 450 hens.

Their daughter Naomi (18) owns the hens for her business Red Feather Eggs.

The Verdon College pupil converted a horse float to a coop and her first 50 hens arrived in December 2021.

"They are interesting characters," she said.

When talking about her business to about 30 people, a hen launched itself into the air, landing on Mr Hanning’s shoulder.

"They do that," Miss Hanning said, laughing.

Her first delivery of free-range eggs was made to Invercargill at the start of last year.

The flock size increased with the arrival of a further 150 hens last year.

If a poultry flock had 100 hens or more, it had to be registered and audited by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

The audit cost her $1800, she said.

"It was a shock how expensive it was."

A bespoke coop was another investment made last year.

The mobile "hoop coop" was custom-made by Nathan Sloan from EDS Engineers in Invercargill and cost nearly $28,000.

About 350 hens could roost in the 8m-long and 3m-wide coop.

Inspiration for the coop came from a similar coop used on a larger scale in the United States.

A solar panel on the coop powered lights inside, which automatically turned on at the same time each day.

"So the girls have a routine — chickens get very, very crabby if they don’t have a routine."

After the hens returned to the coop each night, the were locked in until noon to ensure they lay eggs in nesting boxes, rather than outside.

In summer on the farm, it could be after 11pm when it got dark and chickens spent less time in the coop.

Dairy farmers Maurice and Suzanne Hanning showcased the winter crop on their farm at a DairyNZ...
Dairy farmers Maurice and Suzanne Hanning showcased the winter crop on their farm at a DairyNZ event in Grove Bush.
However, the introduction of timers to open the door of the coop at noon had encouraged the hens to return to roost earlier.

Each day, she collected eggs from the coop to wash and package them.

The chickens mostly stayed near the coop, which was rotated around about 40ha of the dairy farm.

"There’s loads of bugs, so they eat those and don’t have to go to far."

The bugs eaten by the hens included grass grub and porina.

Moving the coops ensured the grass in the paddocks remained alive, she said.

Her hens were given about 160kg of Sgt Dan Stockfood each week.

She ensured any introduced feed was plant-based and did not include animal proteins to comply with Fonterra regulations.

The coop followed the rotation of the cows, waiting until the cow manure had dried to stop the hens getting dirty feet.

"Otherwise they bring it into the boxes and get the eggs covered in all types of ‘delicious’ things."

The grazing chickens spread the dry cow manure across the paddocks, which had environmental benefits.

A coop was parked by hedges to give the hens somewhere to hide from hawks.

In a bid to stop hen’s being eaten, rabbits were regularly shot on the farm to give hawks something to eat.

Another 300 hens and another hoop coop are set to arrive next month.

The hens were kept for about 18 months for their optimal egg-laying period.

Consequently, her 50 original hens were sold to lifestyle block owners in May this year.

"People are always looking for chickens."

She bought red shaver hens because they laid brown eggs, which consumers prefer.

To break even financially, she needs to sell about 200 dozen eggs each month.

She had been selling nearly 600 dozen eggs a month.

Demand for the eggs remained strong, but supply had dropped due to hens laying fewer eggs in winter.

The price for the eggs was a work in progress.

Red Feather Eggs owner Naomi Hanning holds one of her chooks outside a mobile coop on her family...
Red Feather Eggs owner Naomi Hanning holds one of her chooks outside a mobile coop on her family’s dairy farm in Central Southland.
At the start, the size of the egg, dictated the price of a dozen — a dozen size 5 eggs cost $5.

To pay for costs, such as the audit, prices had been increased and the same dozen eggs now cost $8.

A long-term dream was to franchise the business to dairy farmers and distribute the eggs from a central hub, she said.

Mr Hanning is the fifth generation of his family to farm the land.

The farm was converted from sheep and beef to dairy about 16 years ago.

He wintered 520 cows on feed including fodder beet, kale and swede.

The cost to feed his cattle fodder beet and baleage cost about $23 a week per cow and a mix of swedes, hay and baleage cost about $21 a week per cow. 

Expense tracking was a priority.

"I’m a total control freak," he said, laughing.

The cows on the winter crop were split in two mobs and the first calvers were fed swedes.

The second calvers were on fodder beet for 80 days and then transitioned to swedes for calving.

He had been thinking about wintering the cows on grass and baleage but "I like turning soil over and growing good crops".

"Everybody has a different way of wintering in Southland and they can make those different ways work, which is great."

Mrs Hanning said they usually milked their herd twice a day, but finished the season milking once a day.

A milking was dropped on February 20 in a bid to conserve feed and maintain cow condition because of a dry summer.

There was not much difference in production, so they did not return to twice daily when the grass began to grow in autumn, she said.

"We are open to trying new stuff."

Mr Hanning said the target at the start of the season was 290,000kg of milk solids (kg Ms).

In February, it was looking like they would produce 270,000kg Ms for the season.

Production increased in April and May and milking continued until June 6.

About 288,000kg Ms was produced for the season, Mr Hanning said.

"We thought that was pretty good with it being so dry."