Taste of freedom

Frank SmithCountryman

Albany shoppers have a choice many would not find in a local supermarket — large meat birds that feed a family and then some leftovers for sandwiches.

Greg ‘Duck’ Hill runs Perfect Poultry on his 30 hectare block at Beaufort, near Kojonup.

“Call me Greg and my friends would not know who you were talking about. I’ve been called Duck since I was at school,” he said.

“As well as selling to local shops, I was growing small chooks for Chicken Treat, which wanted one kilogram carcases but I could not make any money producing them.

“I’ve now been producing and marketing my own birds for 17 years. I aim for up to a 4.2kg carcase, which sells at the farmers’ market for $20.”

Duck also adds value. He sells freezer packs of breast meat, chicken mince, chicken wings and fillets. He also bones and rolls carcases, stuffing them with dried apples and apricots or garlic and butter.

“That’s hard work. It is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week job. I’ve been doing it for 21 years,” he said. “Mine are free-range chooks.”

There are no doors on the sheds and the chickens have the run of Duck’s block, as well as access to a 200 hectare block next door that he also owns. There, he runs 400 ewes and crossbreds for the prime lamb trade.

Rainfall is normally reliable but Duck recorded less than 170mm last year.

“It is deep, sandy country. I bought the property because it has an enormous amount of underground water. I can pump four million litres per day.”

In addition to his own needs, Duck supplies fresh water to Beaufort Tavern 4km down the road.

Growing up

Duck picks up batches of 800 4.5 week mixed-sex old growers from Ingham and puts them into his feeder shed.

After just 14 days, he can kill some birds with an average 1.8kg dressed weight, but most he keeps for five weeks. Then he starts to pick out the biggest males.

“Their rapid growth is due to due to their genetics — they are American Cobb hybrid birds.”

Duck feeds his birds wheat, to which he adds lupins and a premix of blood and meat meal and minerals and vitamins.

“I buy seconds wheat from a farmer at Hyden. Each lot lasts two to three years,” he said.

Duck has his own small abattoir. The chooks are killed and dunked into a water bath at 62C. They then go through a mechanical plucker, which removes the feathers.

Waste is taken into a pit and the effluent drains into 1.2 metre deep channel.

“The Environmental Protection Authority has no issue with small producers like me, because the effluent doesn’t leach into the groundwater,” he said.

“I do all the work myself, except for a local lady who comes in to do the packing for four hours when I’m under the pump.

“I’ve been killing and packing for 12 years. I’m good at it, although it does mean working long days.”

Running an abattoir means dealing with health regulations and local government. Fortunately, the manager of nearby Beaufort Meats helps Duck with his paperwork and dealing with HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) and health regulations.

Off to market

Duck sells his birds at the Albany Farmers’ Market every Saturday and supplies the Boatshed Market in Cottesloe.

He also sells his birds locally or trades them for items he needs.

“There is no middleman to pay. I aim to sell them less than my competitors. And I sell packs of breast meat for $16.95,” he said.

“It is a niche market. Many people are fond of large chooks and like dealing direct with the grower. I’m not interested in chooks for the rotisserie any more.

“If I miss a week in the market, customers want to know where I have been. Many people won’t eat other chickens.”

His market turnover is around $3500 per week with up to $5000 or more over Christmas and Easter.

Duck said his chooks were genuinely free range.

“Free-range chooks return to the shed when the day heats up. My chooks are out at the first hint of daylight,” he said.

Foxes are a great enemy of free-range chooks. Duck leaves a radio on in the sheds all the time.

“Chooks become desensitised and ignore it but it disturbs foxes,” he said.

However, he lost 126 birds to a fox one night. Since then he has installed his “secret weapon”.

“I have a Foxlight hanging in the shed now. It produces random flashes of light for 10 to 12 seconds,” he said.

“Foxes can’t get a handle on it. I’ve had it for 10 months and not lost a bird since.”

Duck’s wife, Di Hill, runs a horse stud in Albany. She moved there so their two daughters could complete high school.

So, after every market, there is a short family reunion.

In time not taken up looking after chooks, Duck does contract mulesing every year. In his spare time, he enjoys competitive tennis.

“I’ve been my own boss all my life,” he said. “It’s a lot of work,” he said.

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