Once the arch is open the chickens rush out to start foraging

Ultra-high density grazing (UHDG) is a practice steadily gaining traction as an essential part of regenerative agriculture. Most UHDG practitioners use cattle, sheep or both, to harvest plant growth. But Jo and Terence Spilsbury who live in the Harrismith area, close to Sterkfontein Dam, use laying hens and polo ponies. The ponies are reared for the polo market, at home and abroad.

The Spilsburys, as advocates of regenerative agriculture, prefer not to use chemical pesticides and fertilisers, producing their own earthworm-based compost. Horse manure, collected from the stables, is a good source of raw material for the compost operation.

“The chickens,” says Terence, “are really a by-product of our efforts to try and improve the farm, which, sadly, was rather degraded when we bought it about eight years ago.”

As with most start-up businesses, the value of economies of scale quickly became apparent. It is a battle to grow a business during the initial stages when the sums do not add up. However, these days they can run 1 500 hens at any given stage and produce about 1 000 eggs per day.

“As a family we believe in producing our own food. It teaches our children about humane farming and holistic living. We are living our dreams, our beliefs and our passion for polo, on the farm. There are still challenges to developing a sound pasture-based, outdoor laying hen production system, but we increasingly see value in the way our pastures respond and improve,” says Terence.

Terence and Jo Spilsbury.

Home improvements

The Spilsburys initially built a mobile chicken house on a trailer that could be hitched to a vehicle. The trailer had built-in laying boxes and sleeping perches, as well as feed and water buckets. The chickens were closed in at night for safety and the doors were opened every morning so that they could graze. The trailer’s mesh floor allowed droppings to fall through onto the pasture.

“The idea,” explains Jo, “was that the chickens would follow the horses on the pastures, picking up bugs and spreading the horse manure, decreasing the parasite load and increasing the pasture’s fertility.”

But the trailer, capable of holding only 250 laying hens, soon proved too small. The Spilsburys needed to expand, so they designed a bigger chicken house that could be pulled like a sleigh when it had to be moved.

A breed apart

Jo explains how they came to choose their laying hens after going through an experiential learning process.

“Our first batch were white Amberlinks. They were cage-raised and had no idea how to perch or scratch outside like normal chickens. They stayed close to the trailer and took a long time to start free ranging.

“Then we found a producer who raised chicks in barns, with perches they could sleep on when they grew bigger. These were brown Hylines, and we found them to be much better adapted to our system.”

Sadly, the producer had trouble finding Hyline chicks and had to switch to Lohmann Browns. The Lohmanns look similar to the Hylines but proved to be much flightier and more aggressive towards the other birds. On the positive side, they are good layers and very good free rangers.

Jo gets the chickens in when they are 18 weeks old. It takes about three to four weeks before they start laying. This, says Jo, is quite a tough time, as the hens need to be fed but do not produce anything.

“It also depends on the time of year they arrive. They come into production much quicker during the summer. Unfortunately, you cannot always utilise this advantage, as the hens need replacing during different times of the year.”

Hens lay for roughly 16 months before their production starts to dwindle and they have to be replaced. Jo has a cull buyer, with his own chicken meat market, who collects hens at the appropriate time.

Jo and her team, Robert and Esther Kankhande, sorting eggs for the next consignment bound for Gauteng.

Feeding practices

Although the birds are supposed to forage for much of their food, they need a specially formulated free-range grain ration to ensure sustained laying. The AFGRI product Jo uses contains no growth promotors, antibiotics or animal by-products such as fishmeal, but consists solely of plant-based products.

“We find that we can detect the presence of fishmeal in eggs. It has an off-putting smell, so to us that’s a no-no. At the moment, we are exploring the option of feeding maggot meal as a protein source. As soon as the maggot meal is available in Harrismith, we will be mixing our own non-GMO ration to produce the ultimate egg – non-GMO as well as pasture raised.”

Regeneration of pastures

Horses are the Spilsburys primary business, so the priority is to produce as much hay as possible. “We are trying to develop the farm into a pasture-based system. It’s fairly tricky, seeing that the farm has been badly degraded. We are trying to revive the soil structures by applying as much compost and worm tea as possible.

“Our pastures currently serve as a space to keep the horses, but the chickens are slowly having a beneficial effect on pasture health,” says Terence.

Their aim, he explains, is to create as many small camps as possible so that they can practice high-density grazing using chickens and horses. This should accelerate soil and pasture regeneration.

“Our next immediate challenge would be to establish multi-species cover crops and apply worm castings as fertiliser. But in plant progression terms, the chickens are the first step. It makes sense to look at a multi-species approach in terms of the animals you keep. In addition to the laying hens, we would like to have meat chickens in summer.”

Handling the setbacks

Although they have not had major theft issues with their chickens, says Jo, numbers do drop, probably because of predators. “We have black sparrow hawks that will easily kill a chicken. We also have mongoose that seem to be pretty active. We lose roughly one chicken a day, which, considering the purchase price of R120 plus the loss of eggs, is rather significant,” she adds.

They also had a bit of a setback with their watering system in the newly designed arch housing.

“We installed metal nipple drinkers that released water when the bird pecked at the nipple. Unfortunately, this caused the birds to peck at anything that was moist. So, we had to replace the drinkers with open water sources.”

A focussed market

The pasture-raised eggs are a high-end product and rather expensive. As such, it made sense to focus on the Johannesburg market from the start, says Jo, who markets under the brand name Jo’s Pasture Raised Eggs.

“The way our marketing came together was just incredible. An organisation called Compassion for World Farming heard of us and through them, first one and then several shops promoting holistic living contacted us to carry our stock. We have also expanded our market to Durban. Harrismith’s Oaklands Country Manor, a top-end lodge, is also a regular customer. In fact, it was our very first customer.”

As for transport, they are lucky to have an artisan cheesemaker in the Natal Midlands, called The Gourmet Greek, who sells his products at the same shops as Jo sells her eggs. He collects Jo’s egg boxes twice a week on the way to Gauteng and charges her per box, for transport.

“People, I find, are prepared to pay a little bit extra for a product they know is healthy and wholesome and produced in an ethical and sustainable way.” – Izak Hofmeyr, Farmbiz

For more information, contact Jo Spilsbury on 082 319 4303, send an email to Jospilsbury1@gmail.com, or visit www.jospastureraisedfood.co.za.

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