The Ferreira family of Moedskepvlakte farm near Kirkwood, in the Eastern Cape’s Sundays River Valley, specialises in organic production.

Johnny Ferreira manages the certified organic orange and lemon orchards and is also a director of the Soga Group (Sundays Organic Growers Association), which produces certified organic citrus juice.

Eddie Ferreira, Johnny’s brother, runs 5 000 chickens in an organic poultry enterprise. In keeping with organic certification protocols, the hens are not exposed to genetically modified (GM) feed, antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts. 

The only noise in the serene pastoral setting is the contented clucking of Eddie’s hens as they range on pasture in the organic orange and lemon orchards. In this stress-free environment, the chickens scratch, forage and take dust baths to keep pesky parasites at bay.

“I believe that pasture-raised chickens are different from so-called free-range chickens; free-range is a misused term. For example, in some cases supposedly free-range chickens are only allowed out for an hour a day, which, in my view, is not free-range at all,” says Eddie.  

Research and supply

Eddie did the homework and researched the market, the availability and the difficulties of producing organic eggs from chickens raised on an organic diet and treated in an ethical and humane way.

Eddie says researching the market and establishing the demand for organic eggs is the most important thing to do before setting up the production system.

“It was quite a gamble for me to start up a new business like this; I had no model – there was hardly anyone in the country who fed their hens non-GM feed. I had to learn from scratch.

“My first hens came from KwaZulu-Natal in August 2017. It was the only place in South Africa that could supply me with the numbers I needed. There were 600 hens to start, then another 600 the following month, and so on,” Eddie explains.

Niche markets and logistics

“Producing organic eggs can be profitable but you have to know what you are doing,” says Eddie. The South African market, he explains, is not entirely convinced of the benefits of buying organic produce and dedicated, trustworthy organic retailers are thin on the ground.

Logistics can be tricky because of the long distances between Kirkwood and the urban areas Eddie supplies, and there are significant costs associated with an egg production system that uses only organic maize and soya.

“It’s hard work and it’s labour intensive,” says Eddie, offering advice to aspirant pasture-based, organic egg producers. “You must have a market and you must be dedicated. You also need enough pasture to farm the chickens commercially, and that pasture needs a species mix of grass grown on organically managed soil.”

Broiler chickens, tagged for slaughter at 72 days, are a recent enterprise addition to the farm. “I keep them in an airy, sunlit chicken tractor. The chicken tractor is reasonably light and we move it to a patch of fresh grass in the orchard daily, which quickly gets them off their own manure.”

Hens need hectares

Chickens have an extraordinary capacity to demolish whatever is underfoot, Eddie explains. “Once you put them onto pasture, they will happily pluck about and decimate any foliage they set their ‘pecking’ sights on. Efficient pasture management means there must be enough pasture to move the birds continuously and allow for pasture recovery. It’s labour intensive management that needs big areas of land, which many farmers just don’t have.”

Access to the Soga citrus orchards provided the ideal solution to the challenge of meeting the chicken pasture requirements.

The hens are kept in separate orchard camps; each camp is 50m X 37m (or six trees), an area of 1 850m². “One of the reasons we keep the hens in separate camps is to monitor their daily egg production.”

Once hens get to an age where they are no longer productive, they will be replaced. But this has not happened at Moedskepvlakte yet. “We will try our best to find homes for them. There are people who want to adopt the hens or use them in their backyards. The worst-case scenario is that we will have to slaughter them, but we will do that only as a last resort,” Eddie says.

Efficient eggmobiles

Eddie bought into the eggmobile concept after researching various models of eggmobiles, or mobile hen houses, with an egg laying system. He adapted his eggmobiles to suit his conditions.

“Because we run the chickens in orchards and the turning circles on the pathways are small, we can’t have very big eggmobiles,” says Eddie.

An eggmobile is not cheap, coming in at a cost of approximately R100 000; this includes the solar panel that powers the electrified poultry fence, the water supply and the roosting and egg laying space.

Eddie currently has 16 eggmobiles on the farm. “The mobiles are numbered and each one houses 300 hens. For example, mobiles one and two are the hen houses for the chickens that came to the farm first; eggmobile number 16 houses the youngest and most recent arrivals. Each hen has a tag on her leg linking her to the specific eggmobile.”

Staff members open the hen houses early in the morning. During the day, the hens go in to lay and at sunset they go back in to roost. After this the mobile is closed.

Eggmobiles are moved, according to schedule, to a new orchard every two weeks. “Early in the morning we hook the mobiles up to a tractor, with the hens still inside, and pull it to the next orchard. We pull out and roll up the fences, then open it up. The camps are measured before the move,” Eddie explains. The hens, unflustered by relocation, peer curiously out of the eggmobile during the move. 

Although it sounds easy enough, moving the eggmobiles comes with its own set of challenges. “You have to be quick,” says Eddie. “We have reached the point where the hens spend only about two hours longer in the mobile in the morning than they usually do.”

Feed challenges

Organic, chemical-free chicken feed is difficult to source, and Eddie has had to pay for feed two years in advance to get the right feed for his birds.

Among the different types of chicken feed is a certified organic grain, which he has planted under contract. “The protein source that we use is available in South Africa, but all of it is genetically modified, so I import it from Zambia.

“I have to source the food and have it specifically grown for my operation. For example, we pay upfront for our maize in October or November, and after that a Prieska farmer plants it. The maize arrives on the farm in April and lasts for about a year.”

Losses from above and below

While electric fencing helps to control theft, it is still an occasional headache. “It is pretty easy for people passing by the orchards to steal some eggs or chickens,” says Eddie. “We also have a problem with hunting hawks that take out at least one chicken a day. We live with it, as it is part of nature.”

Countrywide organic egg supply

Eddie says that when the hens are laying their eggs, a curtain gives them some privacy. “We don’t remove or destroy the material on the outside of the egg, which is called the plume. If an egg is very dirty, we keep it aside, wash it and process it for cooking purposes. These eggs won’t be sold to the retail stores.”

The hens lay an average 0,8 eggs a day, or about 292 eggs a year.

The organic egg enterprise supplies about 70 retail stores countrywide, including delis, health shops and health-conscious restaurants where people want quality organic eggs. “We do business from Port Elizabeth to Knysna, George and Plettenberg Bay, as well as in Cape Town and Johannesburg,” Eddie says. To get to Johannesburg and Cape Town, the eggs are first transported to Port Elizabeth, arriving at their destinations early the next morning. A dedicated agent collects the eggs from the airport and takes them straight to the client outlets.

Eddie enjoys farming pasture-raised hens under organic principles and says he is content with his lifestyle. “The eggs are expensive, but if you have the market it’s worth producing them. One doesn’t have to be a millionaire to be happy.” – Carin Venter, FarmBiz

For more information, please contact Eddie Ferreira on 082 771 7434 or send an email to info@farmereddie.co.za.