On a large, anonymous, industrial estate near the in Warwickshire sits the home of Potters Poultry, a 50-year-old family firm with a unique business proposition.
It manufactures all the equipment egg farmers might need inside a laying house â€“ feeders, drinkers, nest boxes, perches, the whole aviary. But it also supplies 16-week-old pullets, reared on a variety of systems, ready to start laying.
It is the only UK manufacturer of laying house equipment, and the only UK business to combine it with livestock, says director Olivia Potter, who along with her brother Justin is the third generation of Potters to run the Rugby-based firm. The two distinct sides enhance the understanding of the other, she says, which makes sense.
Olivia heads up the livestock division, while Justin handles all the equipment. In the board room, Olivia talks me through what she sees as the company’s most interesting recent innovation, a rearing aviary for pullets, which – again uniquely in the UK â€“ has RSPCA Freedom Foods accreditation.
This was a hard-won battle. Astonishingly, it was 2.5 years of tests, trials, meetings and co-operation before finally, the accreditation came through, and the company no longer required a derogation to sell birds off this system.
But first, some background. Back several decades ago when caged hens were the predominant method of farming eggs, 16-week old pullets would be supplied to farmers from companies such as Potters that had simply been fed and watered.
As free-range systems grew in popularity it became apparent the pullets would benefit from some degree of training, so they knew how to use different parts of the barn the nest boxes, perches, slats, and in later years, the aviary.
In the early days of this trend, back in 1990, Potters equipment business actually developed a free-range aviary, called the Naturel system, featuring lots of levels, perches, and raised nest boxes within the barn. But because no-one had yet thought of training chicks to use different systems, the first lot of pullets which had simply been reared on the floor didn’t know how to use it and were hugely stressed.
“The huge mistake we made is we took the birds out of a litter rearing shed, put them in there and wondered why they didn’t perform very well,” says Olivia. “And rather than question the rearing, unfortunately it was the equipment that was blamed. There were floor and system eggs everywhere, there was smothering, there was high mortality, so the equipment was removed.”
In short, it was a disaster, and it was many years before the industry worked out the key was in training the pullets to use different levels before they were taken to the laying farm.
27 years down the line, and Potters now employs three main training systems, called the premium aviary system (this is the only Freedom Foods accredited aviary in the UK) the Christmas Tree, and Jump Start.
Jump Start is the most basic, with a series of plastic slatted levels, designed to mimic many multi-tier aviaries used by farmers around the UK.
The Christmas Tree system is another multi-tier rearing system, but this time the levels are made of wire, which allows far more light to pass through, which is helpful for those working with the birds in the sheds, and it also makes the whole system easy to clean. Rope lights are strung underneath each level to allow greater visibility of all the birds.
Potters equipment business has also started once again selling aviary systems, having learnt from the mistakes of the 1990 Naturel system.
They now offer two: an integrated system where the nest is inside the system, and an open system, where the nest is separate. The key selling points are both systems are low to the ground, meaning they’re easy to manage without having to climb, and they’re bird friendly, with multiple access points.
After installation of equipment or the purchase of pullets, Potters makes itself available to try and troubleshoot for as long as the farmer needs them. “What we aim to be is an extra pair of eyes to go in, weigh the birds, weigh the eggs, and look at the environment,” says Olivia. “If you are in your shed 24 hours, seven days a week it’s easy to miss things.
“Also, farmers can be quite isolated on their farms whereas my service guys are on three, four farms a day, so they can share knowledge and best practices. We pride ourselves on how well we look after our customers.”
The battle for Freedom Foods
With welfare becoming an increasing priority for the market, Olivia knew gaining the first UK Freedom Foods accredited aviary for Potters’ rearing farms would be a valuable boost. However, she didn’t anticipate quite how drawn out and difficult it would be.
After two years of meetings, studies and research Olivia says she was starting to feel confident they would get the go-ahead. But Freedom Foods were nervous about the fact that at that stage, they were keeping the new chicks caged for several weeks.
The fear of a photo of caged chicks being, splashed on the front of the Daily Mail, with the headline ‘This system is approved by the RSPCA’ was causing everyone to stop and pause.
So, despite having doubts, Olivia decided to trial a completely open system. Rather than closing the sides, the day old chicks were allowed to roam free, with some placed in the system and some on the floor.
“One of the aspects of getting the Freedom Foods approval was letting the birds go from day one,” she says, “and this meant putting some food and water on the floor in case they weren’t strong or mobile enough to get back into the system.”
But to everyone’s huge surprise, her doubts were largely unfounded. Within a few days, the chicks were effectively making use of the ramps and exploring the system fully.
The premium aviary system has been fully operational for three years now, and currently Potters has just one house devoted to rearing chicks in this way. That means out of close to two million pullets Potters rears each year, around 100,000 of these are from the aviary system.
Olivia says demand is likely to grow, and a contract farmer is looking to install the same system in his rearing shed on Potters’ behalf, but the birds are sold to farmers at a 40p per bird premium and so only a certain section of the market is interested in the benefits.
Why the premium?
“I‘ve had customers we’ve traded with for 10 years who’ve said why do I need to buy birds off here?'” says Olivia. “But we’re not shy about charging a premium. The reason is it depreciates our equipment over six years.
“We’ve got some excellent results from the Christmas Tree and the Jump Start but they perform even better from the premium aviary, so it’s up to people if they want to invest that extra money.
“The real telling aspect is anyone who has had their birds reared on the system has not said oh, ‘that wasn’t worth it,’ they’ve all come back wanting to have it again.
Olivia is clearly a pragmatic woman with little time for sentimentality. But she has been surprised at how the hens’ behaviour is far calmer if they’ve been reared in the premium aviary. “I can honestly say it wasn’t until we’d worked with this system we appreciated happy hens. They are just so much quieter.
“But what we weren’t really anticipating as experienced stock people was the difference in behaviour. We thought all the benefits would be for our customers. We thought they would go to bed easier, they’d get the increased eggs. But actually, some of the benefits are the behavioural differences eg how much resting behaviour there is. Quite often they’re all sat along the top of the system, just a lovely line of chickens, because they can, because there is room to do as there isn’t the competition.”
“On a Jump Start system where there is a slat and a drinker, somebody is always trying to move you out of the way. With this if they want to dust bathe they’re doing it on the floor, if they want to eat and drink they’re up on the system doing that, if they want to perch they’re up on the top doing that.
“I‘m sure the resting behaviour helps with the evenness and the growth. There is a lot more preening of themselves and their neighbours, so there is this contentedness. Nearly every batch will go through with a smother of some description, but we haven’t had a single smother in 3 years in this system because they don’t take flight and nothing spooks them.
“Also, it’s very straightforward to vaccinate them. You put a frame across the system and work down the shed. The massive benefit to that is she is eating and drinking throughout the process. You pick her up, inject her, then put her back on food and water. In a floor house, you’ve raised up all the feeders and drinkers so you can put catching frames in so they can go up to two thirds of a day with no feed and water.”
There are clear benefits in productivity too, says Olivia, because once the pullets reach the farm, they are completely comfortable working the system they will live within.
“Our customers have all seen benefits. Some have literally dropped from 10% to 5% mortality, and their egg numbers have increased by at least five eggs per bird. Bristol university went in to see one of the flocks reared on this system and said it was the best keel bone damage they’d ever seen. Because you’re training them from a very young age how to move around the system, they’re not trying to take flight and having falls when they go into the laying environment.
“I believe this is the way of the future for rearing in the UK. If you go to Holland, they wouldn’t consider rearing on any system other than one like this.”
The future of the industry
The egg industry, as everybody knows, is changing, with retailers and manufacturers pledging to stop buying eggs from caged hens in the coming years. What does Olivia think this will mean for her industry?
“The concern at the moment is the amount of expansion [as farmers plan for more free-range units]. It is great in the here and now, especially as an equipment supplier but then we have to think about the long term,” says Olivia. it going to become oversupply in coming years?
Looking ahead, Potters is hoping to counter these challenges with greater trade overseas, and with the knowledge that eggs have never been more popular, there’s a good chance demand for their products will hold strong.