Thobelani Mngomezulu is the herd manager at one of South Africa’s leading regenerative farming operations and a director of the Farmer Angus Egg Company. In a series of columns, he will share his insights about a system that tries to give Mother Nature a chance to regenerate or put back what farming takes from her – in many respects, a truly African approach to farming.
Back in 2009 when I started working on the farm, we had one big egg mobile and two smaller ones that were giving us about 150 eggs per day.
Today, we have 21 really huge egg mobiles with 350 birds in each, producing 5 500 eggs a day!
Here’s our story.
We’re pretty much doing the same things we were doing 10 years ago – just a lot more of it. We start work at 07:30. The first job is to transfer chicken feed from the silos to plastic buckets. It’s important that these are clean and sanitised. We weigh all the buckets that goes to every egg mobile to make sure we don’t overfeed and lose money that way. We then move to the planted pastures where the chickens are kept in their egg mobiles.
We have a cool, air-conditioned egg-grading room right next to the land where the chickens are kept, where we can work in a cool environment. We move our egg mobiles every day of the year to avoid overfertilising the soil and to prevent overgrazing. We move them 15m at a time before we release the chickens onto the fresh grazing.
We then clean and fill the feeders inside the egg mobiles. Very important, too, is making sure all the bell drinkers are clean and filled with fresh water – chickens drink twice as much as they eat! At about 09:30 we start our first egg collection. It’s the biggest egg collection of the day across all our batches of chickens.
When we are moving to the next mobile, we don’t approach it directly but walk in a big circle around the mobile to chase away any predators. Once the first collection is done, we clean the eggs and take them straight to the grading room, where they are sorted by the grading machine. We are always careful to record everything daily.
At about 11:00 the second collection is done, followed by another round of cleaning and grading. Then it’s time for lunch. Between 15:00 and 16:00 we do our last collection, the smallest of the day. When we have finished cleaning and grading these eggs, we switch off the egg-grading machine and the air-conditioner. We then take all the counted eggs to our final egg storage room, where our egg boxes are stored according to size.
We have Extra Large boxes with 18 eggs, Extra Large ones with 12 eggs, Large with 12 eggs and Jumbo with 12 eggs, as well as mixed boxes of 12 eggs and mixed trays. We inoculate our chickens every three weeks in summer, for infectious bronchitis (IB) and Newcastle disease alternately. In winter we inoculate them against Newcastle disease and IB every two weeks.
Every 16 weeks we get new laying hens. They’re placed on pre-peak feed rations until 29 weeks and then moved to phase-one feed until they’re slaughtered. We weigh our hens and eggs every week for 45 weeks. There are 40 chickens per batch and 150 eggs per batch. Thereafter we would weigh them once a month.
We have two feeders of free-choice mineral lick filled with Idwala’s Kulu Grit and kelp per batch of chickens. We keep our nest boxes clean and topped up with sawdust and diatomaceous earth to combat external parasites. We always wear masks when we’re busy with this task. Anything that breaks in our egg mobiles is fixed immediately. We also clean every egg mobile thoroughly twice a month.
The reason why we farm the way we do? Ninety-six percent of all eggs consumers buy are from birds farmed in small cages, but our chickens get to live like chickens, because we’re lucky enough to have water to be able to irrigate pastures for them – so we believe our eggs are healthier. Besides eggs, the chickens also give us something else in return: their droppings fertilise the soil, which was very poor when we started farming here.
I’m super excited to be a director of Farmer Angus Egg Company, while my wife is a shareholder. This after 10 years of working with Angus McIntosh and learning the value of continually moving our animals around Spier Wine Farm.