Eggs recipe for success

Dorothy HendersonThe West Australian
Boston the Maremma has joined the team on Sally Roworth’s Quarry Road property, with his future role to be that of protecting the hens from foxes.
Camera IconBoston the Maremma has joined the team on Sally Roworth’s Quarry Road property, with his future role to be that of protecting the hens from foxes. Credit: Dorothy Henderson

Never in her wildest dreams did Sally Roworth see herself as a full-time farmer, let alone as a person surrounded by clucking red hens and eggs piled high. Yet, life as the manager of a brood of happy hens is not really so far from her younger self’s goal of becoming a professional horse rider.

As a single woman in her 30s, Ms Roworth is one of a growing number of women smashing the stereotypical image of an Aussie farmer.

While she did not necessarily choose to take the path she is on alone, circumstances have meant what started off as a joint venture with her partner has become an all-consuming occupation about which she is increasingly passionate.

Several years ago, Ms Roworth and her partner at the time bought 17ha of land on Quarry Road, on the eastern side of Esperance and nestled in the wetlands that surround the coastal town. While she had been searching for acreage that was capable of providing an income, Ms Roworth initially had no intention of seeking out a working, egg-producing business.

“I am not a broadacre farmer, so I was searching for something suitable. Animals have always been a big part of my life though, and after we looked at this property and the business, I thought, ‘I can do that!’,” she said.

“I am not from a farming background: my father refuelled aircraft in Kalgoorlie and my mother was a teacher. I have a background of working with horses though, and animal husbandry skills were required here.”

Not only did Ms Roworth work with horses, but she did it in a way that taught her about the difficulties associated with making a return from the effort and money invested in animals. Time spent as a racehorse trainer made her realise it was hard.

“I trained racehorses for a while, having my trainer’s licence for about 10 years,” she said. “I did the bookwork related to that and cared for the horses. I was passionate about it, but at the end of the day, it was a lot of work for little return.”

She realised that she needed to invest her time and passion in something with a brighter financial future, although she retains her love of horses and rides now as a release from the day-to-day responsibilities of managing her business, Esperance Eggs.

“When we bought the property in 2014, there were 1500 laying hens under free-range and barn-laid systems,” she said. “We have built numbers up to 4000 hens, producing 3000 eggs a day, and plans are for all eggs to be produced under a free-range system.”

Ms Roworth said the switch to a free-range system was driven partly by consumer demand, and partly by personal preference.

“It’s great for people to be able to come out here and see happy chooks. People are more aware of where their food comes from. They are increasingly conscious of the origins of their food, and make their purchases accordingly,” she said.

The hens at Esperance Eggs are rust-coloured Hyline Browns, chosen because of their egg-laying capacity.

They are brought in at 16 weeks of age and start laying at 19 weeks.

“They produce eggs flat out for about 18 months, and then they are retired from commercial production. We are lucky to live in a rural area with a high demand for laying hens, and they are sold locally,” Ms Roworth said.

Move to free range

While the switch to free-range production is a goal with great merit, and is not a system that is less productive than other ways of producing eggs, it is more labour-intensive.

“The farm has four employees — one full-time and three employed on a casual basis,” Ms Roworth said.

“Because the hens go outside, they can be more susceptible to disease, and there is work involved in manual tasks like opening and closing doors and moving fences.

“That is why there is a price difference between free-range and cage eggs — there is likely to always be a demand for cage eggs, simply because they are cheaper.”

In an effort to increase production, Ms Roworth recently bought a mobile laying shed from the Eastern States. Having made the trip across the Nullarbor from Victoria on two semi-trailers, the shed is now situated on the property, providing 700 laying hens with access to clean, green grass and sunshine, with the added benefit of making life easier for the business.

“The mobile shed involves a degree of automation that I appreciate. The egg boxes are emptied by a conveyor belt, and the eggs arrive at the sorting table clean. The water and feed dispensers are automatic. It gives the hens a nice life, and makes it easier for us,” Ms Roworth said.

The mobile laying shed is not the only recent introduction to the property, with a maremma dog also making the journey to Esperance from Victoria, where its family works on Redbank Farm looking after pastured hens.

At five months of age, Boston has not yet assumed full-time hen guarding duties, but he lives close to his flock and is enjoying supervised bonding time with the hens on a daily basis. He loves to spend time with the pullets in the mobile laying shed, and once in there, is reluctant to leave the company of his feathered charges. Ms Roworth said the plan was to extend the hens’ grazing area once Boston’s presence was an effective deterrent against the enemy of all hen owners — foxes.

She said the adoption of free-range egg production required a change of mindset for egg producers, with pasture production something she had to consider. Planting of kikuyu is being considered as a way of improving existing grazing areas while helping to control the lovegrass that can become invasive in the area.

Smooth transition

As someone new to farming, Ms Roworth said her love of animals combined with business skills acquired while working in administration at a local feed supply store had made the transition into the industry quite smooth.

“I am not your stereotypical farmer — I am young and female. But I am seeing a change in Australia, like many industries, with women slowly making their way up the ranks,” she said.

Esperance Eggs produce is available to shoppers locally, with supermarkets stocking the eggs in their distinctive pink cartons and plans to expand the market to Kalgoorlie-Boulder. Locals are able to buy eggs direct from the on-farm shop, which also serves as a collection point for another business Ms Roworth has added to the mix.

“I am also providing Esperance people with access to quality fruit and vegetables via a Perth-based business, Aussie Fruit and Veg. More than 100 customers collect boxes of fruits and vegetables from here every fortnight. They can collect their supply of eggs at the same time,” Ms Roworth said.

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