Open and accountable hen rearing has cemented the reputation among consumers that Manning Valley Free Range Eggs, Taree, is doing a humane job of providing protein to the masses.
Peter Matuszny, a finalist in NSW Farmer of the Year competition, has been rearing egg-laying hens for 30 years, beginning with 14 birds before ramping up to 500, and another lot of the same until these days the family farm runs 350,000 Isa and Hyline hens at densities below standard – between 2500 and 6000 hens per hectare.
Beef cattle share the farms and chicken litter is recycled in the pasture. Birds nest and feed inside barns, sleeping in security overnight before being let out come morning.
“The birds go back and forth. There’s no set pattern,” observed Mr Matuszny. They prefer late afternoon and tend to spend a lot of time within 10 metres of the door, scratching and dusting themselves.
Staff pick up stray eggs from young layers earlier in the morning to discourage that practice and a dedicated feed nutritionist ramps up the protein and energy requirements as a result of the birds’ freedom. For all that, production is always lower than in caged bird barns.
“Free range production uses more labour, production is not as great and birds use more energy and consume more feed,” Mr Matuszny said.
So free range production comes at a cost. But consumers are now, more than ever, willing to pay more for humanely-delivered eggs and Manning Valley Free Range Eggs rose to that challenge.
“We try to be as honest as we can with our customers,” says Mr Matuszny.
“But the focus on a pure birds per hectare quota also has a tendency to ignore other features which make up a good free range farm. Stocking densities depend on climate, environmental aspects, sustainable farming practices including rotation of the paddocks and its ability to grow grass.”
Seven years ago the farm put cameras in and around its barns allowing people online to take a peek at free range egg production.
“We get about 200 to 300 visits a day and we’ve even had school children researching assignments by looking through our webcams,” said Mr Matuszny. “The camera tells a story.”
The increasing demand for free range eggs is pushing this sector of the industry towards a new market for selective genetics.
“We are already asking for more robust genetics,” says Mr Matuszny. “Free range hens are exposed to other bird life. The risk factor is higher.”
When asked what he thought about a Silicon Valley think-tank believing synthetic eggs would become an industry disrupter, Mr Matuszny said despite the rhetoric, real eggs were the future of food.
“The demand for free range eggs will grow,” he said. “It is a fact that people are eating more. Consumption has grown by 100 eggs per person over the last 10 to 12 years.”
Mr Matuszny said he believed strongly in the future reputation of the free range egg industry.
“We will sustain growth and meet our customers’ needs,” he said.
“We appreciate the response we get from our customers who say they like what they see of the farm.
“It’s about keeping standards high. Bad reputation can stain the whole industry.”