By Rachael Porter
By his own admission, it took several weeks of persuasion to enter the Poultry Business awards. But James Maclean is now pleased that he listened to wife and business partner Angela and Noble Foods’ Jean-Paul Michalski – not least because the business was crowned Egg Producer of the Year at the inaugural event.
“It’s the first time we’ve entered our business in for an award. Prior to this year, I’ve always thought it best to keep our heads down well below the parapet.
“But Angela and Noble Foods convinced me to look at it another way. They said if we did win we could use our raised profile as a platform to showcase all that’s positive about our business.”
He says he knew that a win would also be good for staff morale. “They all do a great job – from looking after the birds on a day-to-day basis, to packing, grading and delivering more than 36 million eggs each year. They deserve some recognition!”
“Taking a trip down to London for the awards ceremony was exciting. We booked a table and it was like nothing we’d ever done before. It was fun and so it was well worth it.”
The icing on the cake was that the 104,000-bird organic and free-range egg laying business was crowned Egg Producer of the Year at this year’s Poultry Business awards.
“As predicted, our win been a great lift for the whole team. The staff are proud of the work they do, the unit we run and the top-quality eggs that we produce. And now they have the recognition and respect of their peers and the wider poultry industry,” he says.
To celebrate, the Macleans have organised some team building evenings and had polo shirts and sweatshirts made up with the Poultry Business awards logo and ‘Egg producer of the year’ emblazoned on the back. “The staff are proud to wear them. They really have got quite a buzz from this win and it means a lot to them. We all need to celebrate that.”
James and Angela are very clear about the fact that the business’ success is very much down to the team, which comprises eight full-time and two part-time staff, with additional staff joining the team during the busier periods on the farm. “We couldn’t do what we do on a daily basis without them. And we certainly wouldn’t have achieved the level of growth in the business that we have without a skilled, loyal, dedicated and passionate work force behind us.”
The business was set up in 2007. James and his father Colin were running an arable business on the 185-hectare unit, based at Hutton Hall Barns near Berwick-upon-Tweed, in Berwickshire. “But cereals prices were low and had been for more than a decade, so in 2005 we began looking at diversifying,” explains James.
He says that organic, free-range egg production quickly became the preferred option. “So we identified a field for the first poultry house and started the process to convert the land to organic.”
For this first flock, of 3,000 birds, the egg production business was incorporated within the farm. “But when we began discussing expansion plans it was agreed that I should establish my own company and ‘Border Eggs’ was born.”
That year James also decided to join the British Free Range Eggs Producers’ Association committee as one of the Scottish representatives.
Expansion since 2007 has been continuous and rapid – but always gradual and well planned. And sometimes it was at the request of Noble Foods, to help is meet the growing demand for British free-range eggs.
In 2008, the business added two 3,000-bird organic multi-tier houses, with a central egg room, which took the total number of birds on the farm to 9,000 layers. James was still working alone at this point, with one evening worker who packed most of the eggs.
In 2009 he added a 12,000-bird free-range multi-tier house, taking the total number of birds to 21,000. James then employed two employees – one full time and one part time. In 2010 housing for a further 16,000 birds was added, taking numbers for 37,000.
And in 2011 he took on another part-time member of staff and also began looking, locally, for other additional sites for expansion. He also built a manure store and changed one of the houses from organic to free-range, at Noble Foods’ request due to changing consumer demands.
Expansion, investment in facilities (including solar panels) and taking on more staff have all continued. James’ father Colin passed away in 2014 and Angela chose to work on the farm and joined the business as a director. James and Angela then decided to start a new business in 2016 – MacLean Eggs, of which Angela is the sole director. To date, they have 104,000 birds, across two businesses. There are plans, which are being finalised, to expand again by a further 32,000 birds.” That’ll take the number of birds up to 136,000 layers. We would like to go to as many as 500,000 layers,” says James.
He says that other people, not even living locally to the existing sites, opposed the latest expansion. So, it’s gone to planning appeal at Scottish Government for review. “It’s very much based on people’s whims and prejudices. These people have no real understanding of free-range egg production and no desire to understand it either. They just see that a large shed is set to be erected, some five miles away from their home, and they decide to oppose it. It’s madness, these are the very same people who turn up in supermarkets expecting to buy fresh free-range eggs. But there’s little we can do about it, other than to just continue to push through our plans and hope that common sense prevails.
“We’re producing Grade A, nutritious eggs in an ethically sound, high welfare, and environmentally friendly way. Scale actually facilitates that too – it allows us to invest in the best housing, feed, veterinary care and technology to maximise bird health and welfare, and egg production.”
James does get frustrated, but he won’t let ‘petty jealousy’ hold him back. And he says, in fact, that it makes him all the more determined to succeed. “We’re feeding people – the eggs we produce are nutritious and key to a healthy diet. The birds are healthy and high welfare. And we’re employing local people. We have nothing to fear and demand for eggs continues to increase. So, as far as I can see it, we’ll continue to expand while it’s makes financial sense to do so.”
He’s also driven by the memory of his later father Colin. “He wasn’t sure we’d go much further than 9,000 birds. I think he doubted us a little. And I often think about what he’d say if he were alive today. I hope he’d be impressed – very impressed. And proud.”
James admits that he also thrives on pressure and being super busy. There’s certainly very little down time when you’ve more than 100,000 birds to oversee. “And no two days are the same. If I get a call at 7am that the nest box doors won’t open then you have to drop everything and go and sort it out. That’s the nature of the job. I always love a challenge.”
And he says you always must be ‘on your game and upping your game’. “We are, in effect, in competition with other egg producing businesses, so it’s vital to stay one step ahead. It’s a case of survival of the fittest – so that’s what we set out to be.”
The flocks’ KPIs are testament to the fact that the business is, indeed, in tip top condition. James said that after the award ceremony he spoke to a couple of the judges and ask what it was that stood on about their business and they both said that they were impressed not only by the high KPIs figures that he and Angela gave them during their finalists interview, but also that they knew what their KPIs were across all their sheds.
“But knowing what our KPIs are is vital. If we don’t have a handle on our mortality, seconds and yield figures then how can we monitor what’s going on and maintain and improve performance. It’s second nature to us – and our staff.”
James has learnt, during the past 10 years, that he also likes working with people – not just the birds. “We prefer to employ staff that have had no experience with poultry, that way there are no bad habits to break or misconceptions to change,” he says. Border Eggs has a staff induction programme and an annual appraisal system in place. “And, on joining us, each staff member is trained by an existing member for three days. They are also taken to a Noble Foods packing centre to ensure they understand the role that they play in the food chain,” he explains.
All staff, regardless of their role, attend Noble Foods’ training courses on topics such as egg handling and food hygiene, as well as food safety, personal hygiene, biosecurity, and pest control.
The impressive KPIs achieved by the business also serve to highlight that James and Angela have what they call a ‘good formula’ for the business. “We have the backing of Noble Foods and HSBC. We always stock sheds with Lohmann Brown pullets, we use Ellerington Engineering to build our poultry houses, Big Dutchman Newquip equipment, and we have incredibly loyal and skilled staff. It works, so why wouldn’t we continue to multiply that up, when the demand for eggs is there. It’s an opportunity and it would be foolish, when we’ve already got so much scale and experience behind us, not to capitalise on that.”