90% less energy to grow better birds

Performance Pullets, sister company to the Lakes Free Range Egg Company, has built a state of the art pullet rearing facility in the Lake District that is breaking new ground in the commercial rearing of pullets. Sitting on a 15 acre site alongside three existing pullet rearing units, the new 69m x 20m rearing unit has a 20,000 chick capacity.

It combines a dark brooding system with underfloor heating, energy efficiencies, natural light and bespoke monitoring equipment that enables refined measurement of data – including ammonia and CO2 levels.

“Rearing our own chicks means we have better control and are able to influence the development of our free range hens from day one.”

The company aims to produce more active pullets that are less likely to feather peck, are better feathered, with improved bone strength and more mobility, results so far are impressive.

Research from Bristol has shown major benefits in feathering and chick growth from dark brooding. There are one or two small scale units using dark brooding in UK, but Performance Pullets has scaled up the process to create commercially viable dark brooding that mirrors the natural development of the chick, brooding under the hen. The facility includes underfloor heating and large scale brooders running the length of the building.

All modern systems aim to control chick behaviour by adjusting the house temperature. This system puts the chick in control, the heat stays constant and the chick meets its own needs for heat, as it would in nature, a very simple and natural method of brooding chicks.

The electronic system is a bespoke design, developed by owner David Brass, Agricultural Manager Roger Gill, from Performance Pullets and Israeli based Agro Logic. The sophisticated electronics enable accurate measuring and control of ammonia, CO2, temperature, and feed usage. The system also incorporates continuous and consistent weighing of birds – with ‘hop up’ plates weighing around 1000 birds each day. This provides constant daily data from which performance can be analyzed.
David said “Challenges faced with this new technology included the fact there is no reference data on CO2 and ammonia levels for chick/pullet rearing. We are learning more from the data every day, but we anticipate it will take several years to reach the pinnacle of optimization.”

The first batch of pullets has been reared and is now laying on farms that supply the Lakes Free Range Egg Company. The second batch of pullet replacements are benefitting from lessons learned and at 9 weeks, the results indicate the birds are growing quicker and are better feathered and noticeably more active than pullets reared traditionally.

Early results indicate low 7 day mortality at ½% which is as good as we could expect. The birds are feathering 2 – 3 weeks ahead of traditionally reared sheds and they are travelling off farm 100g heavier having utilized ½ kg/bird less feed than standard units. The rearing facilities are located within a short but safe distance from the free range producers they supply, which in turn, keeps travel stress levels to a minimum.

“Whatever we can do to reduce stress levels goes a long way to improving performance.”

Lighting and temperature are key for rearing and are major cost elements. The new facilities are lit by just seven LED’s, compared to the standard units with dozens of fluorescent lights and pullets benefit from natural daylight.

Natural daylight is supplied from windows which are opened when the chicks reach 5 weeks of age. David said “We are unaware of anyone else who does this, but to us it’s common sense to introduce as much of their future housing features as soon as possible – reduction in stress at this early stage is paramount. Our pullets are better suited to free range because they are more used to daylight when they arrive on farm.”

Noticeably, the rearing process from chick to pullet ready for on farm transfer uses 90% less energy than standard units. It is certainly innovative; the underfloor heating is fed by a biomass boiler that has capacity to provide energy to all of the rearing units and facilities on site.

“It takes 90% less energy to rear better performing pullets ready for free range farms.”

The £470,000 build cost includes £90,000 for the biomass boiler and incorporates elements of research and development. David concluded, “We are working with Professor Christine Nicol and Dr Claire Weeks at Bristol University who have helped us with the design and research. This is a world leading facility, designed and developed with purpose. We’ve looked at the best things to do for better pullet performance, not necessarily the most cost effective things to do and are excited about the results we’ve seen so far.