Gallagher energizer technology halves free-range chicken mortality rate
Mulloon Creek Natural Farms (MCNF) is an organic and biodiversity-accredited operation, straddling the Great Dividing Range west of Canberra (ACT).
A commercial operation, the farm works closely with The Mulloon Institute, which researches environmentally sensitive and sustainable farming practices, then tests their commercial application.
Phil James, MCNF's Business Development and Sales Manager, says the farm is the "living laboratory" for the institute's work, demonstrating regenerative ways to manage soil, water and vegetation on a commercial farm, so that future generations have a healthy planet to live on and get food from.
The farm runs several free-range animal enterprises, including eggs, which have been a huge hit with local and Sydney high-end caterers, restaurants and grocers.
"Our eggs have a very high omega-3 ratio: commercial eggs have a ratio of 8:1, whereas ours are 4.8:1." Phil says this is all to do with the way the chickens freely graze paddocks among the cattle, and are fed a mixture of organic wheat, millet and sorghum, plus free feed on shell grit and a specially formulated protein supplement.
"People with allergies love our eggs — they're a really good, clean source of protein. And they are the best poaching eggs you've ever seen: there's none of that soupy-look around the pot, which is why the cafés and restaurants love them. Being truly free-range, organic and local, is also a great selling point for those businesses to their customers — consumers want that."
The eggs sell for up to $18 a dozen, depending upon size.
"Being truly free range, we have no control over that!" Phil says. "Our egg sizes are all over the place: we may have a heap of 500g dozens, and then none the next week. That's the vagaries of this approach, but our customers understand this and are quite flexible with it, they understand the product they're wanting."
Phil says MCNF would like to expand its markets, but just can't get production up.
High predation mortality
Part of that has been to do with the high mortality rate from foxes.
Tobias Koenig, MCNF's General Manager, says, "We run about 2,500 birds in a couple of flocks, with each being in paddocks of eight to 12 hectares."
The chickens roam freely with the cattle — which are block grazed — can roost in trees, or go into the "eggmobile" — mobile shedding that's moved every few days.
"There's been a lot of discussion about stocking rates in a free-range chook operations," Tobias says. "The Australian Egg Corporation recommends 20,000 to the hectare. We run 170 to 250 per hectare, so it's a real free-range situation."
But because the chooks are not shut away, they are easy prey. Mulloon Creek has two Maremma livestock guard dogs on each block. Originally bred in Italy 2,000 years ago, Maremmas are effective at bonding with livestock (from chooks to lamas) to protect them from predators.
"But they can only do so much; our mortality rates were around 50%."
Cost and heartache
Graham Cowling, MCNF's Farm Manager, says the Brown Bonds — which are worth around $250 a bird — lay 280-300 eggs each.
"Losing a bird to predation, there's obviously the initial cost of that bird, the replacement cost, lost production and what we've invested into them in terms of feed. But there's the heartbreak as well as the cost — this operation is all about respect for animals."
When Graham joined MCNF several months ago, he began looking for ways to make use of the existing fencing. "I don't like wasting things."
One difficulty was getting much voltage with the existing electric fencing, which was high-resistance netting. "We couldn't seem to get more than 1,500 volts for more than 100 metres."
Other problems were stopping wombats digging holes under the fence to let the foxes through, as well as stopping wildlife and vermin getting over the top.
"There's one paddock where we were meant to have 1,200 birds but we only had 500 — that was the highest mortality we've suffered.
"Every morning before anything was done, at least two of us would go and do a full perimeter check of all the fences, looking for damage from wombats, kangaroos and deer jumping over it. It would take us 2.5 hours. Every day. And then if you found a problem, it took longer. On the weekends, I'd do it by myself and it would take three to four hours."
Technology the key
It was time for another option, so Graham began looking around.
"I'd never worked with Gallagher before, but I saw they had this energizer with lots of joules, and that got me interested. It had the higher energy to kick through the netting, so I could utilise what fencing we already had."
Graham says the effect of installing two 28-joule M2800i Energizers was immediate.
"These units are doing an excellent job: we're up to 4,500 to 5,500 volts after 500m of netting.
"Since installing the M2800i, mortality rates have dropped by around half — and I aim to get it lower again."
Besides saving their chickens, Graham says the M2800i's remote monitors are saving him hours a day.
"So now what I do, instead of immediately spending at least 2.5 hours driving around fencing every morning, I just check the monitors.
"I've got one sitting right where I can see it all the time, and one at the other end as well. That all tells me what voltage is going in, which is around 7,500 volts, and at 500m I should have around 5,000 volts. If it's under 4,500 thousand I know a kangaroo or something's been through it and knocked the netting down. It's very, very handy having the monitors to tell us what's going on."
Graham says he still does perimeter checks every day, but they're not the first job.
"If we've got other things that we have to do, we know that we can. We've become reliant on the remotes and these energizers, and know we can say, 'Oh look, I've got to do this first, but later on we'll just do a quick run around.' Before the Gallagher units, two of us were driving around in first gear, checking every piece of wire. Now we do it in second and third gear, and one person can do the whole lot in an hour.
"So there's a big saving just in time there. The urgency's not there either."
Graham says the ability to pinpoint a fault's location also saves a lot of time.
"The other day I was showing a farm hand and there was a fault. So I just showed him how to read the hand-held remote and the monitors, and they guided us to where we had to go. It only gave us probably a kilometre of fence to find the problem in, rather than 10km."
Graham says Anthony Fitzgerald, Gallagher's Territory Manager for South-East NSW, was a vital link in the solution.
"He was very helpful with the information and design. He came up with a plan that we can just nibble away at. The M2800i Energizers were a good place to start from, because we can grow from that. Eventually we'll do the whole farm, but we can just take our time, as it suits us."