Crown Chicken is trialling a new system of hatching broiler chicks in the houses where they will be reared. Although similar systems have been used on the Continent for several years, it’s the first UK business to do this, and if successful, there’s the potential to roll it out their sites in East Anglia.
Using a Vencomatic system called X-Treck that holds ready-to-hatch eggs in an incubator tray above a belt, the chicks hatch in the house and within hours are able to access water and feed. Egg shells are removed afterwards on the X-Treck conveyor and macerated on site, which is a legal requirement.
Matthew Ward is agriculture director of Crown Chicken. Getting water into the chicks as early as possible is the real potential benefit, he says. Now on the second crop of birds, he says even at this early stage the team is seeing clear benefits. On the first crop, the birds were a day ahead on weight, and very even.
“If you can put a more reliable, even bird into the processing plant, that is where the benefit is,” he says.
Welfare is also improved. As well as being able to drink straight away, they don’t have to be processed on conveyors in the hatchery or travel in chick trays on lorries. There’s also the benefit of being able to transport more eggs at a time than chicks in a single lorry, making it cheaper per load.
The background to the trial is the 2016 buy out of Crown Chicken by food manufacturer Cranswick, which was looking to diversify into other proteins.
Before the deal was done, Crown Chicken – which is fully integrated with a hatchery, feed mill and processing plant – focussed on supplying cash and carries. “We weren’t in with the big four supermarkets. They quickly realised there was an opportunity to do something a lot bigger,” says Ward.
Since Cranswick bought the company in a £40 million deal, the firm has been expanding, and in May this year got the green light for a new processing plant in nearby Eye, which will double its capacity. Currently the firm processes around 510,000 birds a week. The plant is due to open in October 2019, one of the first new chicken processing plants to open since the 1980s, says Ward.
“It’s a big project. Phase one will do about 1.2 million a week. So, we’re in the process of building these numbers up ready for D Day. It’s an exciting time.”
This means all systems are go at Crown to upscale production, and Ward says the time was right before any decisions were made about investing in a new hatchery, to consider alternative methods.
“Clearly we’re going to upscale, and looking at the latest developments makes sense. So, once we heard of X-Treck so we went to look at it in Belgium.”
Vencomatic describes X-Treck as a “rail system suspended and positioned freely in the air, ensuring an optimal airflow surrounding the eggs during hatching. By controlling the systems’ height with a winching system the farm manager has an easy to use tool to control the airflow and temperature surrounding the embryo.
“On incubation day 19 and 20 the chicks hatch in the house and have immediate access to feed and water.
“Direct feed and water access boosts the intestinal development and the immune system resulting in robust broilers. In combination with hatching in healthier air and making chick transport unnecessary, this forms the basis for further profitability in broiler production.”
Ward and Daniel Bush, senior broiler production manager liked it and decided to give it a go. It is now installed in one 300 ft x 60 ft shed, which had two rows of the X-Treck system that hold the eggs. The eggs are set for 18 days in the hatchery, but now instead of transferring to the hatcher basket on the 18th day, the eggs are removed, candled, the infertile ones are removed and replaced with fertile ones, before the trolleys containing the eggs are transported to the farm and slid into the X-Treck, which then automatically guides them down the shed.
“We call that day minus three,” says Bush. “Pretty much on minus one they’re all out, they’re feeding, they’re drinking.
“They drop onto a belt, which is about 10-15cm below and then the belt is about 10cm from the litter. They drop onto the belt, dry out, get their strength up and walk on to the litter. Within three or four hours they go and find water.
“The whole principle of it is if they hatch out in the hatchery as they do now, they’ve got no feed and water, therefore dehydration is the concern and that manifests itself as unevenness,” says Bush.
“I have to say I was a sceptic at first, thinking the hatchery has so many controls there’s too much that could go wrong,” says Ward. But now he says it seems a lot simpler than they thought. The shed temperature has to be raised to 36 degrees, so it’s fair to say it wouldn’t suit an old shed. But that’s not a problem for Crown, which has plenty of new-builds.
The trial will run for a year, and Ward and Bush want to establish whether it benefits the birds’ welfare, and whether that results in a more even bird, less antibiotics, and better gut health.
“We are on the brink of building a brand new hatchery on this site so it’s the right time to look at it,” says Ward. “Ultimately it could influence how we build the hatchery.”
There are some disadvantages they’ll be monitoring closely too. “The biggest cons are you’ve lost your ability to vaccinate 100 chicks in a box,” says Ward. They’re mitigating this with a vaccination programme at day one in the water. “The biggest concern to me is if a specific disease came along when you needed to spray,” says Ward. “So that is why in my opinion you could never do away with the hatchery because if you ever needed to revert back to vaccination you couldn’t. But in terms of building a niche market to take an on-farm hatch bird, it has potential.”
There’s also the cost. At roughly equivalent to £1 a chick (ie the equipment for a 35,000 chick shed costs £35,000 to install) it’s not a cheap option.
Another con is you need the broiler house earlier, because of the extra hatching time. But as Bush points out, this can be managed by heating the house to get it up to temperature as soon as it’s been cleaned out from the previous flock. “You could almost put the egg in the same day,” he says.
While this is the first of its kind in the UK, others are exploring the benefits of feeding and watering chicks as soon as they hatch. Hatchtech has just built a hatchery using this principle for Annayalla, although it’s different in that the chicks still have to travel to the farm.
While these developments are all in their early stage, it will be interesting to see how the trial progresses as the year rolls round, and the potential implications for how other poultry businesses choose to invest in the future.