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Innovative Cranbrook farmer Colin Ford designs solar powered chicken shelters to boost productivity

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Frankland River Pork farmer Colin Ford checks on two-day-old piglets with his daughter Poppy, 11.
Camera IconFrankland River Pork farmer Colin Ford checks on two-day-old piglets with his daughter Poppy, 11. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman

Colin Ford is not one to do things the conventional way, and a drive to innovate has seen the Cranbrook farmer’s piggery and free range egg enterprises undergo major expansions in recent years.

The 48-year-old, who grew up on a pig and potato farm in the English county of Shropshire, moved to WA with wife Beau in January 2006 after being recruited to manage a free range piggery at Albany.

Initially tasked with moving the piggery to Cranbrook and improving production, Mr Ford went on to set up several additional free range piggeries across the Great Southern.

The couple struck out on their own in 2016, establishing their own piggery on the 106-hectare Cranbrook property they purchased in 2008, from which they produced weaners for the next five years.

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Just over a year ago they launched their own brand, Frankland River Pork, and are now running 420 sows and turning off 180 pigs a week.

“I was running 800 sows before launching the brand, but we were just producing four-week old weaners, whereas now we produce the piglets and we grow them out to sale weight, so it’s been quite a period of growth,” Mr Ford said.

“As far as the product, the feedback I get from our customers is there is quite a difference in the texture of the meat, the colour of the skin, and the way the carcase is set.

“We’re producing under certain conditions to attract a premium market, and the feedback we get reflects the quality of what we produce.”

Newly weaned piglets at Frankland River Pork farm.
Camera IconNewly weaned piglets at Frankland River Pork farm. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman

The business operates via a joint venture with Bunbury-based wholesale butcher Ryan’s Quality Meats, which processes the carcases and distributes the cuts to the food service industry.

While Ryan’s sells some Frankland River Pork products in its own butcher shops, most is supplied to hospitality venues throughout Perth and the South West.

When it comes to production, Mr Ford said the piggery was different from most in its utilisation of a technique known as batch farrowing.

“Rather than farrowing, weaning and mating every week, we do it in three-week blocks,” he explained.

“One week we’ll farrow a batch of pigs, the following week we’ll wean a batch of pigs, and the week after that we artificially inseminate a batch of pigs.

“Breaking it up into blocks allows us to concentrate on certain jobs and allows for more efficient use of staffing.”

With the gestation period for a pig lasting 114 days, the piggery aims to produce 2.2 to 2.3 litters per sow per year, with current production sitting at 23.95 piglets weaned per sow per year.

After birth, piglets are suckled for 28 days before being weaned.

“Then the piglets go into free range shelters, and from birth up until slaughter, they’re about 21-weeks-old,” Mr Ford said.

“We deliver them to Dardanup Butchering Company for slaughter, and we’re aiming for a carcass of about 78 to 80kg dressed weight.”

As if the piggery wasn’t enough for the Fords — who are also busy raising four children: Harvey, 15, Louis, 13, Poppy, 12 and Freddie, 5 — four years ago they purchased and took over the Albany Farm Fresh Eggs brand.

Since then they have doubled the number of laying hens from 10,000 to 20,000, with the increase coming from a focus on free range.

Albany Farm Fresh Eggs farmer Colin Ford has helping hands from sons Freddie, 5, and Louis, 13.
Camera IconAlbany Farm Fresh Eggs farmer Colin Ford has helping hands from sons Freddie, 5, and Louis, 13. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman

“There was a mixture of battery cages, barn and free range, and within six months we’d removed all the birds from the cages and crushed all the cages,” Mr Ford said.

“One of the first things we did was consult with the vets and nutritionists, and we set about improving the production of the birds through nutrition and health advice.

“With the changes we were advised to implement we achieved an increase in laying percentage and got an improvement in the quality of the egg.”

Innovative minds are seldom idle, and it wasn’t long before Mr Ford was designing his own custom solar powered chicken shelters.

The shelters were manufactured locally and retrofitted with fully automated lighting, doors, cooling and feed systems also sourced locally.

Specialist automated nest boxes and egg collection systems were imported from Malaysia through an Australian company.

The big advantage — and the difference from industry standard free range shelters — was that they were portable.

“We have quite a low stocking rate of two to 3000 birds a hectare whilst industry standards allows 10,000,” Mr Ford explained.

“But more importantly, what we can do in between each batch of birds is move the shelter, so each batch of birds goes onto a clean area of ground.

“Once we’ve pressure cleaned and lime washed the shelter, it gets moved; we then go back over the ground and cultivate it and put a seed mixture on there.

“It’ll be another three or four years before the chickens go back onto that site, during which time the ground cleanses itself, the nutrients have been removed, and the UV light kills any viruses in the soil.

“We have also planted 7000 trees in belts between the shelters to provide the birds with shade and a feeling of safety to encourage them to free range.

“We’re using that rotation to maintain the health of the birds rather than having to rely on antibiotics or pesticides to keep them healthy.

“As a consequence, we have a really healthy bird… and there is quite a difference in the quality of the egg as well.”

Albany Farm Fresh Eggs farmer Colin Ford has designed his own solar powered chicken shelters at his free-range Cranbrook property.
Camera IconAlbany Farm Fresh Eggs farmer Colin Ford has designed his own solar powered chicken shelters at his free-range Cranbrook property. Credit: Shannon Verhagen/Countryman

Each batch of birds arrive at 16-weeks-of-age as pullets.

They start laying aged about 19 weeks and reach peak daily lay of 95 per cent before settling down to average 85 to 90 per cent, eventually being moved on at 76 weeks.

Mr Ford said the system had enabled the business — which supplies eggs through a Perth distributor to high-end hospitality venues in the metropolitan area, as well as supermarkets, cafes, hotels and health care providers across the Great Southern — to cut labour costs and boost efficiency and productivity.

And while labour availability has been an ongoing problem for many farmers across Australia, it has been less of an issue for the Fords.

With the packing facility located near a large demographic, Mr Ford said they had been able to offer flexible days and hours to suit people’s lifestyles.

“We have a great person who organises the 10 casuals we employ to ensure we have four to six people every day to make sure the work is done,” he said.

“At Cranbrook we employ one full-time and a second very skilled person who runs the grower section of the pigs on a contract basis.”

Soaring input costs, however, have presented major challenges in the form of rising feed and transportation costs.

“The rising price of grain has coincided with the expansions, so it’s pushed our margins pretty hard,” Mr Ford said.

“We use about 80 tonnes a week of feed, so you don’t need much of an increase to take the shine off it a bit.

“We have passed a lot of those costs on with the eggs, but the pigs is quite a tight market at the moment.”

Despite the difficulties, the family is feeling optimistic enough to expand Albany Farm Fresh Eggs, with two more shelters due to arrive in November and another 4000 birds in February.

Mr Ford said the move would boost productivity by 20 per cent, with the necessary customers and markets already locked in.

“You can’t rely on trying to get a premium for your free range; you’ve still got to produce it efficiently, because you’re competing in a market against intensive producers,” he said.

“However, the comments we get back from the end user — both commercial and domestic — are about the quality of our eggs, and even though they cost more, they represent better value for money,” he said.

“If you do free range right, you can achieve really good production at an efficient cost, all while producing an excellent product with an improved environment for the animal to reach its potential.”

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