Hightech Chicken Farm
In between the mountains, in the heart of the Eastern Free State is a farm hidden from the main road. Gilli Scheepers started farming in 1985 with 69 free range hens. The facility now holds 60 000 hens and they can handle 60 000 eggs an hour.
Source: Standard Bank Agri Review.
Fouriesburg is situated in the heart of the Eastern Free State, close to the Lesotho border, in mountainous terrain. As you drive along thegravel road to the entrance of Bloukruin Landgoed, you find a beautiful farm hidden from the main road in between the bordering mountains. Gilli Scheepers is a fourth-generation farmer; after his father decided to retire the original farm was divided into three sections to accommodate all his sons.
Gilli started farming in 1985 with 69 free range hens. As the farm expanded and his flock increased he decided to transform an old dairy into a layer house that could accommodate more hens. As business expanded Bloukruin Landgoed decided to try and compete with the corporate layers and applied for a permit from the old Egg Board. After receiving a permit for 7 000 hens, plans were made to build a second layer house.
Gilli’s planning included building this new house to the right specifications, to cover all possible options: “We ensured that the height of the house was appropriate so that we could transform it into a tractor shed, if this venture failed for some reason”, he says.
Driving to the highest point on the farm which overlooks the majestic Maluti Mountains; it is hard to believe that you can produce field crops in this rocky terrain. Gilli plants wheat on these mountains which is hardly visible from the main road. The enterprises include wheat, maize and dry beans as well as livestock: merino sheep, beef cattle and layers. In Bloukruin Landgoed’s earlier years the layers were seen as a good cash crop which assisted Gilli with his substantial expansion over the years. “My strategy has always been to buy when others are selling; and this is how I slowly but surely bought additional farmland as time progressed.”
Bloukruin Landgoed has recently built a lambing shed where pregnant merino ewes are kept and fed to assist with lambing, protect them from external variables such as predators and make sure they have good feed to stimulate growth and nutrition. Depending on the grazing potential, ewes that have birthed more than one lamb are kept in these pens for a month or two, while ewes with one lamb are only kept for three to four days, after which they are reintroduced to the field.
From the 1990s, with a flock of about 40 000 layers, Gilli’s attention moved towards his field crops and other legs of the farming enterprise.
“During the earlier years the egg operation determined whether we had food on the table; however it changed as the years passed,” he said. There was a stage when the layers did not have a significant impact on the business; recently however the business focus moved back towards the layers as a means to improve stability of the field crops enterprise through value addition across the different enterprises.
Bloukruin Landgoed mainly supplies eggs to the so-called informal market, which includes spaza shops, hotels, guest houses and other small establishments. Even when its laying capacity increased by another 50%, from 40 000 to 60 000 hens, it did not need to look for additional markets as its current market was able to absorb the new production, clearly indicative of the growth in consumer demand for eggs in the surrounding areas of Fouriesburg.
Latest expansion drive Gilli started playing around with the idea of a new expansion project partly to increase his current laying capacity, but also to diversify his business and enable better performance through value addition. He visited many farms where new technology had been introduced to research their practices and study their mistakes and what they had learned. The layer unit grew to the extent that it justified certain support functions like their own feed mixing plant as well as rearing houses for the production of point of lays. An upgrade of the pack line was required to accommodate increased egg production. State of the art technology was used to ensure optimal efficiency and productivity.
The groundwork started in January 2011 with the building following during March to September. The day-old chicks usually stay in the rearing house for about 18 weeks after which they are placed in the layer houses to start producing eggs. The layer houses are fully automated and environmentally controlled.
Feeding, watering, egg collection and manure removal are all automated. Temperature and air quality are also environmentally controlled.
From the layer houses the eggs are moved on a conveyor belt to the pack shed where dirty eggs are separated by hand, after which the eggs move onto a conveyer. From here automated arms pick the eggs up individually to make sure orientation of the egg is correct. After the eggs have been orientated they are placed into pockets on the conveyer to continue their journey towards the packing line. The next step in this production line includes an area with ultraviolet lights to identify eggs with impurities.
After these eggs have been removed those remaining are weighed and allocated to specific packaging lines according to size.
This facility can handle up to 60 000 eggs per hour at full capacity; Gilli envisages being able to deliver 7 100 dozen per day towards the festive season.
Benefits from new project
The newly built feed mixing plant will allow Bloukruin Landgoed to stabilise its income. It will also offer cost benefits, since it is much easier to transport products such as eggs than raw inputs
such as maize. When the feed mixing plant is in full operation Bloukruin Landgoed will be able to fulfil its own feed requirements as well as supply for external demand. The saving from using its self-mixed feed compared to buying feed is R250 to R300 per ton.
Another great advantage is to rear your own chicks, which is clearly visible in Bloukruin Landgoed’s birds’ temperament, overall condition and production. There is major cost saving around the new technology used in terms of reduced wastage of feed, egg breakages and idle labour. Further value addition includes hen manure being applied to marginal lands and chick manure used in winter licks for the cattle.
Bloukruin’s major challenges
According to Gilli, Bloukruin Landgoed’s major challenge is management. The operation has reached a level where all planning needs to be done carefully. He owns about 14 000 hectares, which require experienced managers to ensure sufficient and adequate planning but also to increase productivity and efficiency. “It is difficult to find reliable, experienced labour who are not only going to use your enterprise as a springboard,” says Gilli.
Another challenge is to overcome inequalities such as unemployment. “If your neighbours are hungry, that is a huge problem. In the Paul Roux area there are thousands of unemployed people who barely have food on their tables. Although Paul Roux is far in terms of distance we try to source workers from there when we have temporary work instead of using labour in our surrounding areas where there is enough work available for employment seekers.”
Words of wisdom for young farmers
Gilli emphasised that it is critical for young farmers not to chase hectares. Rather farm with fewer hectares, but do it well and get optimal productivity out of those, than farming a large area at a suboptimal level. “I also chased hectares when I was younger and learned some lessons along the way,” he says. Secondly, it is pivotal to realise that you only have one name: be honest and build credibility with your business partners, including banks, input providers, and so on. And lastly, young farmers need to be on the alert and wary about those with whom they conduct business. “As the saying goes,” Gilli adds, “he who sleeps with dogs gets up with fleas; there are many crooks out there that are on the lookout for prey.”
Bloukruin Landgoed is an example of entrepreneurship, endurance and foresight; which proves that farming might not be for the faint hearted but will deliver excellent opportunities for the few who have the courage to work hard and survive the tough times