23rd April 2019 – He didn’t grow up on a farm, but David Butler always had an interest in poultry and when the opportunity presented itself, he took the plunge into organic farming. “I always had an interest in chickens and while I did not grow up on a farm, my dad worked in the egg industry years ago and I loved going on delivery runs with him,” he explains. “I kept chickens in our backyard in Bray, so the writing was on the wall so to speak. I did go to agriculture college for a year and was interested in organic farming, so when the opportunity to farm arose, I focused on producing something that customers wanted, and could easily identify as coming from a different production system. “For eggs, taste and colour are crucial and that is mainly why people buy organic eggs,” he says.
Butler’s Organic Eggs began with a modest flock of 250 laying hens in 2007. Based just outside of Hacketstown in Carlow, the business has expanded over the last 12 years to meet growing market demand. Certified by the Irish Organic Association, there are now three poultry units with approximately 2,400 laying hens at a given time. One unit houses new layers on arrival and allows them to get used to the house and range before they start laying.
David uses Loman Brown, a hybrid breed raised specifically for egg laying productivity. Hens are reared organically on a certified organic unit and then brought on to the farm at 17 weeks, beginning laying at 20 weeks. David keeps the hens for approximately 72 weeks and peak laying averages are 90pc of hens laying, with a low average of 80pc.
The heatwave last year provided challenges for the business as productivity dropped to 40pc, with birds struggling in the conditions.
As animals in an organic system, they must be fed an organic diet. “In an ideal world, I would be growing some of the ration myself, but I do not have the land, time or expertise to grow organic cereals. “I prefer to focus on the egg-production side because that is where my skills are. Organic feed costs, on average, double conventional feed and represents the biggest cost on the farm as we use in the region of 130/t annually,” says David. He sources feed from WCS Pedigree Feeds based in Baltinglass just 15 minutes away. “They are great to deal with and they deliver to me every two weeks. All of the feed is imported as not enough organic cereals are produced in Ireland. “Their feed is consistently good and has improved the colour and quality of the eggs and shell. The feed quality has a big impact on the welfare of the birds. We combine this with access to range so hens can forage diverse pastures and we rotate them every six weeks to new paddocks.”
Supplying eggs is a year-round job, and with two deliveries a week, Butler’s Organic Eggs currently supply over 14,400 eggs a week to their outlets in Dublin, Wicklow and Carlow. All of the eggs are sold wholesale and they work with Dillon Organics, who distribute approximately one-third of the eggs coming from the farm.
“The business has grown steadily over the past 12 years and we found ourselves in the position where we could not meet the demand. “My wife Paula left her job to come and manage expansion in line with market demand.
“It is our intention to double production over the next two years and we are currently navigating a grant application to increase the production area. “We already employ two people, so it obviously adds pressure to the business, but hopefully the gamble will pay off,” says David. Since Paula joined last year, her focus has been on management, administration and marketing. This has freed up David to focus on production and welfare of the hens. “I love customer feedback and people are buying our eggs primarily because of the taste and the fact that no chemicals are used in the production process,” he says.
“There is still a lot of confusion about organic and free range, but once we explain to customers that organic animals have to be free range and fed an organic diet, they are very happy with that, and willing to pay more for their eggs.”
Eggs an ‘entry level’ organic food for consumers
The global trend in rising sales of organic food is largely due to the growing health consciousness of consumers and concern about the environment and animal welfare. Research commissioned by Bord Bia in Ireland on organic food sales in 2017 showed that 70pc of Irish shoppers would like to purchase more organic produce.
Categories that perform well globally are vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat and eggs. Often referred to as the ‘entry categories’, these are where consumers first dip their toes into the organic market. A number of egg businesses have entered organic production in the last few years, some of them operating small mobile units and others working from larger poultry units.
One of the most limiting factors in organic production is the provision of organic feed, as it can cost double the price of non-organic feed. While some farmers are producing some of their own feed, the large volumes required in pig and poultry production makes it almost impossible to be self-sufficient.
As there is an overall deficit in supply of organic cereals in Ireland, producers are forced to import, identifying a huge gap in the market for quality homegrown organic cereals.
Despite this limiting factor, there are certainly opportunities in the sector and if farmers can develop a strong brand and offer a consistent supply, there is little problem selling organic eggs.
It demonstrates the interest in organic food production and how potentially operating in a smaller category can allow you to develop a sustainable business.
Grace Maher is Development Officer with the Irish Organic Association, email@example.com.