Ewes flock to hen house in mixed grazing system

Hilltops Free Range eggs grows business to incorporate sheep

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Hilltops Free Range's Anthony Jude de Silva, with Maremma dog, Jack, who is one of 13 Maremmas that guard the chickens from predators.

Hilltops Free Range's Anthony Jude de Silva, with Maremma dog, Jack, who is one of 13 Maremmas that guard the chickens from predators.

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A holistic approach to the way it is producing and marketing its products has seen Hilltops Free Range expand with sheep and a pasta facility.

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A HOLISTIC approach to the way it is producing and marketing its products has seen Hilltops Free Range expand with sheep and a pasta facility.

From ecosystems to welfare, sustainability and the story behind their eggs, Hilltops Free Range managing director Dr Anthony Jude de Silva said it is all about improving the efficiency and productivity of the land in a natural way.

"We started with the chickens in 2017 with the focus of improving the soil and leaving the country better than it was," Dr de Silva said.

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Creating an efficient and sustainable ecosystem that uses no chemicals or fertiliser is important at Reynoldsdale.

Creating an efficient and sustainable ecosystem that uses no chemicals or fertiliser is important at Reynoldsdale.

"Sheep and chickens provide ways to develop the capabilities of the system, and getting it right improves the product."

Hilltops Free Range has 45,000 ISA Brown laying hens in a free-range set up that spans throughout the paddocks of the 400 hectare property Reynoldsdale, Boorowa.

"We have 17 flocks with 2500 chickens in each flock," manager Simon Lindeman said.

Thirteen Maremma dogs are used as protection from predators within the flocks.

A true free range enterprise, they have the lowest stocking density in the industry at only 45 hens per hectare which allows each chicken over 100 square metres to roam freely.

"The chickens are always outside, totally free," Dr de Silva said.

"The ideal habitat for chickens is open paddocks with tree lines. We have set up our paddocks around this."

They have been increasing the number of eggs produced by doubling production annually.

"When we started in 2017 we produced around 2500 eggs, then 5000, then 10,000, 20,000," he said.

"We will be up to about 40,000 eggs produced (for 2021) now."

The layers have access to in-house custom made trailers with coops in which they go to lay. Eggs are collected from these coops daily.

The layers have access to in-house custom made trailers with coops in which they go to lay. Eggs are collected from these coops daily.

The layers have access to in-house custom made trailers with coops in which they go to lay.

The eggs are then collected daily from within the boxes.

"The industry average sits around 85 to 90pc of eggs produced collected," he said.

"We are comfortable with 20pc below that because we cannot harvest them all - it is an uncontrolled environment, so can go in ebbs and flows."

Some chickens occasionally lay throughout the paddocks, but they can only collect within a certain perimeter that is checked daily.

"The eggs that are in the paddocks just go back into the soil," he said.

Throughout the drought they remained green, and they believe this was due to the the nitrogen going back into the soil from the chicken manure and the feet of the chickens not causing compactions like hooves.

George Merriman (right), Merryville Merinos, Boorowa with volume buyers Simon Lindeman and Anthony Jude de Silva, Hilltops Free Range, Reynoldsdale, Boorowa picked up 348 ewes, 1.5 years sold, for $301/hd at the Merryville Merino ewe sale in February.

George Merriman (right), Merryville Merinos, Boorowa with volume buyers Simon Lindeman and Anthony Jude de Silva, Hilltops Free Range, Reynoldsdale, Boorowa picked up 348 ewes, 1.5 years sold, for $301/hd at the Merryville Merino ewe sale in February.

Dr de Silva purchased 417 ewes from Woolaroo Merinos that have been joined to Grassy Creek rams.

At the Merryville Merino ewe sale earlier this month, he bought around 75 per cent of the offering.

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This draft included 348 ewes, 1.5 years, for a $301 a head average, and he aims to continue to build his numbers.

"Previously I had Merinos from 1983 to 1994, then went into crossbreds after that and then Angus, Kenny's Creek blood," he said.

Around 45,000 ISA Brown laying hens run free-range in flocks of 2500 with Merino ewes now introduced to the system to keep the pasture down. Photos: Hannah Powe

Around 45,000 ISA Brown laying hens run free-range in flocks of 2500 with Merino ewes now introduced to the system to keep the pasture down. Photos: Hannah Powe

Dr de Silva introduced sheep to graze in the phalaris and cocksfoot based paddocks with the chickens to help keep the grasses down and create a well diversified, sustainable ecosystem.

"We don't use any chemicals or fertilisers - it all comes from the chickens," Dr de Silva said.

"The nitrogen going back into the soil makes the pasture grow so much, we need more sheep to keep them down and we also cut hay and silage...we also will do wheat and lupins this year for chicken feed ."

Dr de Silva wants to use his background in telecommunications to create sensors to collect measurements and data points relative to all areas of production and sustainability of the farm.

Dr de Silva introduced sheep to graze in the phalaris and cocksfoot based paddocks with the chickens to help keep the grasses down and create a well diversified, sustainable ecosystem.

Dr de Silva introduced sheep to graze in the phalaris and cocksfoot based paddocks with the chickens to help keep the grasses down and create a well diversified, sustainable ecosystem.

"I was the founding director of (telecommunication software) TelSoft and I want to transfer the tech to ag outputs," he said.

"We have started at the other end looking at what we need to collect.

"We hope to be active within the next six months and will start building data networks to better understand in real time what is happening within the soil, and with water and pastures in the paddock.

"We will look at carbon absorption, the interplay between sheep and chickens, and the interactions between animals and the pasture and their movements."

Dr de Silva said this key data combined with the use of artificial intelligence systems could lead to the running of different scenarios to identify and better predict outcomes.

Anthony Jude de Silva with chief operating officer Katerina Kormusheva at their on-farm packaging facility.

Anthony Jude de Silva with chief operating officer Katerina Kormusheva at their on-farm packaging facility.

This will allow Hilltops Free Range to forward plan and identify what production will look like depending on different paddocks, flocks, and conditions.

It will also help with accessing markets in Asia and Europe, and ensuring they are achieving their goal of traceability and telling a story behind the food they grow.

"It isn't just about what the eggs look, feel and taste like now," chief operating officer Dr Katerina Kormusheva said.

"It is about providing data on how it was produced and what went into production, and allowing people to evaluate where that sits within their values."

Hilltops Free Range currently markets its eggs to Harris Farms and QE (Foodstores) in Sydney, as well as Woolworths and IGA in the Canberra region.

They also sell to high-end restaurants, such as the Hyatt Hotel Canberra, and direct to doorsteps within the Canberra region.

"We do all the deliveries of eggs," Dr de Silva said.

"They are collected, packed on farm and trucked into shops all in one day. They are very fresh."

They have grown the business to also incorporate sun-dried egg pasta production.

"This provides a use for the broken, cracked eggs," he said.

"The new packing and pasta shed will have eggs sorted at collection and then re-directed to the pasta production unit."

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