Thursday, December 5, 2019

Potters Poultry: Warwickshire firm delivers top products for UK egg producers

August 1, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

A first-class service for farmers sees Rugby-based Potters Poultry building on 50 years of success.

A 50-year-old family business is reaping the rewards after investing in new systems and securing RSPCA Freedom Foods accreditation for its pullet rearing aviary.

Potters Poultry manufactures all the equipment egg producers might need inside a laying house – including feeders, drinkers, nest boxes and 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 with brother Justin is the third generation of Potters to run the Rugby-based firm.

Olivia heads up the livestock division, while Justin handles the equipment. Accreditation for the rearing aviary was a hard-won battle – involving more than two years of tests, trials, meetings and co-operation. It means the company no longer requires a derogation to sell birds off this system.

Training systems

Potters now employs three main training systems, called the premium aviary system – the only Freedom Foods accredited aviary in the UK, the Christmas Tree, and Jump Start, a basic system with plastic slatted level to mimic many multi-tier aviaries used by UK farmers.

The Christmas Tree system is another multi-tier rearing system – but 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. It offers 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.”

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.

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 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 a number of 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.

“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.

Happy hens

A pragmatic woman with little time for sentimentality, Olivia 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 e.g. how much resting behaviour there is. So 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.”

Increased productivity

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 dropped from 10% to 5% mortality, and egg numbers have increased by at least five eggs per bird. I believe this is the future for rearing in the UK. If you go to Holland, they wouldn’t consider rearing on any other system.”

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