Making hens comfortable and able to 'range' further is boosting production for the organic, free-range egg business.
- Carbon footprint to cut to zero
- 85% less energy utilisation through new production units
- Revenues up by a third in the last four years
The environmental and ethical arguments for organic and free range chicken farming have long been made and are, as such, widely understood across supply chains and even at a consumer level.
What is less well understood is the role tree-planting can have on small, family-run farms in both enriching the environment and cutting the carbon cost for free-range egg producers everywhere. That is the activity that continues to keep The Lakes Free Range Egg Company busy right now. “When we started planting trees, no industry standards existed, so we led the way,” says David Brass, the company’s CEO. “157,000 trees later, we’re still leading edge, cutting our carbon footprint to zero and researching longer term impact of tree planting.”
The company works with producers that farm disadvantaged land who are now able to make a living and are seeing indigenous wildlife returning to their farms. “This gives us a USP and provenance which retailers love. It means we can pay producers a premium for their environmental ethos,” adds Brass.
How does tree planting aid egg production?
Well, trees provide canopy cover for hens who will then range further afield. The business says it finds the hens are more content, lay well and are less stressed which reduces risk of feather pecking. The Lakes claims to be able to produce 312 eggs per bird every year, generating £2-3 per bird more income for producers.
The businesses insists on all producers having a bespoke biodiversity action plan with 20% range enrichment, which is monitored annually. In return, producers are able to benefit from a 5p per dozen premium payment made by The Lakes.
Of course, the tree planting across more than 50 farms and covering more than 6,000 acres brings a range of wider environmental benefits too, not least in reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The planting of indigenous species encourages native flora and fauna and producer farms are witnessing the return of often endangered species like bats, Barn Owls and Red List birds.
Elsewhere, a concerted effort to reduce energy use has brought a raft of cost savings, with its new chick rearing units using 85% less energy than conventional ones and the natural ventilation of the hen houses using 70% less energy. It has brought processing costs down by 7%, meaning it can double production using the same amount of energy as before and the business now claims to be 30 times more energy efficient than other EU suppliers.
Environmental achievements, a first for the egg industry
Two biomass boilers make use of the waste wood created by the thinning and cutting-back of trees (generating 400kW of heat) four heat pumps (generating a further 130kW) and the 1,000 on-site solar panels (100 kW) have combined to help The Lakes become carbon neutral this year – a first for the egg industry.
These initiatives have, in turn, helped it secure more business from Sainsbury’s and boosted revenues by a third in the last four years.
Backed by a committed senior management team (Brass is himself a Woodland Trust Ambassador), the focus on continuous environmental improvement demands ongoing investment, however. The business spent £3m designing and building its new state-of-the-art egg-packing facility. And 25% of that cost was spent purely on including new technologies to reduce energy use and improve machine efficiencies. A further £270,000 has been spent on a biomass boiler and £300,000 on solar panels. The new chick-rearing facility was another £2m investment.
Even planting the trees is no small investment; each tree costs £1. On top of the 157,000 already planted, the company is committed to planting 100,000 more in the coming years.
But it is in its ability to lead the way that could have the greatest impact on the environment, beyond its own sphere of influence. The company’s joint research with McDonald’s proved the benefits of tree planting to hens and egg production and this led to RSPCA Freedom Foods introducing a national standard for a 5% minimum of range land to be planted with trees.