A fourth-generation arable farmer Randolph Ford has embarked on his latest challenge at an age when many would be thinking of winding down into retirement.
He is one of the partners in East Anglia’s latest £3.5m egg packing centre at Attleborough, which is designed to handle the production from dedicated farms in the region.
Anglia Free Range Eggs already has about 15 farms backing the packing and marketing scheme, which will eventually handle about 65m eggs a year. “And it will be exclusively handling our own eggs,” stressed Mr Ford.
It was almost seven years ago that the north Suffolk farmer, of Burnt House Farm, near Eye, decided to add another string to the business by going into free-range egg production.
His son, Christopher, who had been looking after the 450-sow herd for about six years after leaving Easton College, was keen to take on the latest challenge.
Today, he runs the farm’s three egg units, each with a total of 16,000 hens. “I’m enjoying it. I did pigs since I left school and came into this about six or seven years ago,” he added.
Mr Ford’s other sons are involved because Trevor runs the pig enterprise and Stephen is in charge of the farm’s 850 arable acres.
As egg production increased, Mr Ford wanted closer links with customers – a lesson partly learned from keeping pigs successfully for more than 45 years. “We think it is a good idea because we can get closer to the supermarkets.
“We thought we needed to have another string to our bow. We started off with one poultry shed then we built another because it was successful. We built a third and again it has been a success,” said Mr Ford, who said that the flock laying rates were running about 94pc. Each flock was producing about 15,000 eggs a day, which will all eventually be handled by the group’s plant.
The investment in each unit has been considerable, roughly £500,000 each. The light, airy purpose-built sheds have the latest automatic feeders and drinkers and are designed to remain at a constant temperature of about 16C. This is ideal for the flock of 16,000 hens, which are kept in four groups. All have access to at least 20 acres of grassland, which must also have 20pc of tree cover to provide shelter.
While eggs from Burnt House will be going to Attleborough, production from the two other units will go from February and April next year when an existing supply contract ends. All the flocks are tested every 15 weeks for salmonella.
His fellow producers include south Norfolk producers, Philip and Robert Vincent, of Pulham Market, who also put up an identical unit, and Dudley Southgate, who farms near Attleborough. But more are keen to join the group, he said.
Mr Ford, now 65, who is the fourth generation to farm, took over in 1964 about six years before the death of his father. As a stockman, initially with pigs and now hens, he has really enjoyed the challenge. “If you look outside these buildings in the evenings, they’re full of birds and they lay lots of eggs.”
But there are real challenges, not least the growing fox population. “Our biggest predator is foxes. We’ve shot more than 80 foxes last year because a free range unit is a magnet.”
Mr Ford is convinced that ‘urban’ foxes have been dumped by his units. “One day I saw four foxes sat around the fence. I went home and got my gun, they were still sitting there.”
He has taken on extra staff to pack and to help in the shed because attention to every detail is vital.
“We aim to keep the temperature at a constant 16C by lifting or lowering the flaps. We always have one side open so they can flow through and we’ve got walk throughs so the birds can get across the unit.”
While the birds can go outside, then don’t venture out when the weather is terrible. “They’re fed automatically six times a day and have water on tap.”
His latest flock, which is 30 weeks old, and should lay for a further 42 weeks. They were bought as day-olds but were reared elsewhere until coming in at 16 weeks.
“We let them out in the afternoons when it is nice after they’ve been acclimatised for the first week. Then we start opening the shutters and by the third week, they’re open from 8am until 10pm.
“We shut the flaps at 10.30pm at this time of year but the hens are clever. They know and a bell rings when it is going to shut. Believe it not, they hear it and just recognise if they don’t come in, they’ll have to stay out and get cold.”