THE decision by the large retailers to phase out ‘colony’ eggs in favour of free-range products has left the industry “in a state of flux,” according to Adam Dye of pig and poultry equipment supplier, Newquip.

However the move could open up opportunities for other industry sectors, as Wendy Short found out when she attended the firm’s open day at its headquarters in Leeming Bar, North Yorkshire.

All of the major retailers have pledged to move away from the sale of eggs from colony production systems, with Sainsburys, for example, having announced that it will sell free-range eggs exclusively by 2022. This will leave many producers who have invested in ‘enriched colony’ systems as an alternative to battery cages concerned about their future prospects, said Mr Dye. He has run Newquip with his brother James since 2000. The family business is the sole mainland UK distributor of Big Dutchman-branded pig and poultry equipment.

“At present, this country has roughly 15 million birds that are kept in colonies,” said Mr Dye. “Some 50% of the eggs are sold to the catering sector and the rest go to supermarkets. Retailers like Marks and Spencer and Waitrose have already committed to free-range and some of the other retailers plan to follow suit, with others banning colony and moving to barn eggs.

“Theoretically, the UK could become self-sufficient in free-range egg production. Neverthless there will be a number of issues to overcome, the most important being the granting of planning permission to accommodate free-range layers. In addition, most of the large egg packing companies have colony birds on the premises, but they do not have enough surrounding land to convert their systems to free-range. This could give producers in other sectors the chance to diversify; the accepted minimum figure for a commercially viable free-range unit is about 16,000 birds.”

Mr Dye thought it was unlikely that free-range egg imports would rise over the coming years.

“The UK has high welfare standards for free-range production and the number of imported eggs is minimal. I do not feel that imports will rise sharply, because people choose free-range eggs mainly because they want to be certain that the hens have a good quality of life. That may not apply to similarly-labelled eggs that are produced in other countries.

“Meeting increased demand for free-range eggs will require enormous investment. The capital required would be on a similar scale to the conversions to enriched colonies that were undertaken when battery cage production was banned in 2012.

“Any new units that are built must also take into account the ever-tightening regulations which are applied to the production of ammonia, dust and odour. For this reason we are getting an increasing number of enquiries for air cleaning equipment. The prospect of a significant rise in the demand for free-range eggs is set to be a huge challenge, but it will also offer an opportunity,” said Mr Dye.

New Products

Delegates at the open day viewed the new Vision Perfection modular system for free-range hens. Designed with a two-tier or three-tier option, it exceeds the minimum welfare standards, offering facilities at every level which cater to all of the birds’ needs, including, feeding, drinking, perching, next boxes and manure removal, said Mr Dye.

“The Vision Perfection free-range tier is designed to encourage birds to spread evenly throughout the upper levels, as every level is identical. On some systems, birds tend to congregate on the higher tiers, but we have found that the more dominate birds will take the higher tiers on this system, leaving the weaker birds with ready access to food and water on the lower tiers. It can also be used as a one-tier system, to produce barn eggs.

“The design incorporates a head height of 450mm, which is higher than most of the other market products. It also uses air ducts to ventilate the manure, to reduce ammonia levels.”

Another innovation on display at the Newquip headquarters was the Pick Puck, a combination of an enrichment device and a beak trimming product which is available in automatic or manual options. In the automatic version, a swinging plate with a coarse surface is suspended above a small feed hopper with a drop pipe. It dispenses feed when a hen pecks at the plate or nudges it from side to side. Meanwhile, the manual version permits the operator to choose specific times for the dispensation of food.

“It is a bit like a large-scale emery board,” explained Mr Dye. “The birds’ beaks are trimmed naturally when they peck at the plate and they will also scratch to find grains that have dropped on to the floor. It allows them to exhibit natural behaviour. It is usually installed in the litter aisles and the height can be altered, so that it will suit a range of bird ages.”