Eggs

Background

Selling free-range eggs online

New Zealand free-range layer farmer Bruce Greig was faced with a drop in demand due to Covid-19 lockdowns. He immediately started selling his eggs online and saw consumers return and his business boosted to new heights.

With aspirations to be a farmer, Bruce Greig originally set out from his native South Africa to work on dairy farms overseas after gaining valuable experience on local farms. With many miles travelled after leaving his home city Johannesburg, Bruce ended up in New Zealand in 1999 working on dairy farms and teaching before finding a niche in the market selling free-range eggs from hens based on pasture. Now his business Thulani Free Range Pastured Eggs is excelling, partly due to rocketing consumer demand for fresh eggs in the coronavirus era, but also because of the high quality of Bruce’s eggs.

Eggs from hens on pasture have a higher concentration of vitamins A and E. Photo: Chris McCullough
Eggs from hens on pasture have a higher concentration of vitamins A and E. Photo: Chris McCullough

Peace and quiet

“I bought the farm in 2006 calling the business Thulani Free Range Pastured Eggs,” says Bruce. “Thulani is the Zulu word for peace and quiet. It’s a small farm alongside the Halswell river overlooking Canterbury’s Port Hills. Our eggs are genuine free-range eggs produced locally on pasture. The hens have continuous and permanent access to pasture, receive a nutritionally-balanced diet and are kept in small flocks so they can express their natural behaviour,” he explains.

Bruce was encouraged to start in the poultry business by another egg producer and quickly saw an opportunity in the market for his own rather unique eggs. “I started small-scale with limited capital and saw an opportunity in the market,” he comments. “At the moment we have 1,300 hens producing 660 eggs a day. Our average laying rate is around 85% and we produce over 340,000 eggs per year.”

Bruce Greig started his free-range eggs business in New Zealand 4 years ago. Photo: Chris McCullough
Bruce Greig started his free-range eggs business in New Zealand 4 years ago. Photo: Chris McCullough

It can be a laborious task gathering the eggs, as they are collected by hand on a daily basis and also washed by hand, although Bruce is considering some new technology to help him. “Of course we have to watch our costs, but I am looking at investing in artificial lights on timers, upgrading the feeding and water equipment and installing an egg washing machine,” says Bruce. “A machine to wash the eggs would save us a lot of time.”

Desirable brown eggs

Bruce uses the Brown Shaver and Hyline breeds of chicken on his farm that produce the more desirable brown eggs that customers want. “It’s a matter of choice and customers prefer brown eggs on the breakfast table,” he says. “Our eggs are high quality as the hens permanently have continuous access to green pasture. I also use a concentrated feed from the local Feedco mill in Lincoln.

The ration consists of 60% wheat plus minerals and costs NZ$ 766 (US$ 532) per tonne, including GST and transport to farm, which I consider a reasonable cost for this ration,” he continues.

A past study conducted by researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences showed that eggs produced by chickens allowed to forage in pastures are higher in some beneficial nutrients. Researchers examined how moving pastured hens to forage legumes or mixed grasses influenced hen egg omega-3 fatty acids and the concentrations of vitamins A and E. The study also compared the eggs of pastured hens to those of hens fed a commercial diet.

Around 660 eggs are collected by hand every day and sold online. Photo: Chris McCullough
Around 660 eggs are collected by hand every day and sold online. Photo: Chris McCullough

According to lead investigator Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production ecology, the differences were striking. “Compared to the eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. The vitamin A concentration was 38% higher in the pastured hens’ eggs than in the commercial hens’ eggs, but the total vitamin A per egg did not differ,” she added.

Moving to online sales

Bruce has a number of outlets for his eggs but these changed a lot during the Covid-19 era as lockdown regulations were enforced and some outlets were forced to close. “Our eggs are normally sold through farmers’ markets, retail shops, bakeries, butchers’ shops, food service outlets, such as cafés, and online to individual households,” Bruce explains. “The eggs range in price from NZ$ 5.00-8.00 per dozen (US$ 3.5-5.5). At the start of the lockdown in New Zealand I lost all my hospitality, food service, retail and farmers’ markets outlets which accounted for about 90% of my business.”

Bruce runs his hens on his own land and on a neighbouring dairy farm. Photo: Chris McCullough
Bruce runs his hens on his own land and on a neighbouring dairy farm. Photo: Chris McCullough

Bruce immediately converted to online sales through his Facebook page. “My loyal farmers’ market customers immediately signed up and as a result I was sold out for most of lockdown,” he reports.

As the orders flowed in I was able to make contactless deliveries to the customers as, thankfully, farmers were considered essential workers and could travel and deliver during the pandemic. My business actually grew during lockdown and my revenue increased.”

Success of the business

Maintaining a healthy flock is paramount to the success of Bruce’s business and to ensure that he runs a programme to keep them healthy. “By keeping a small flock the birds have a better chance of staying healthy,” Bruce says. “Giving outdoor access comes at a price. Hawks are major predators in New Zealand and are a protected species. Hawk attacks account for 50% of our flock mortality.” That said, one of the biggest advantages of Bruce’s mobile system, aside from top quality tasty eggs, is that the land is well fertilised. “As the houses are mobile with no floor, the manure falls directly on the grass,” Bruce notes. “The houses are moved regularly which means the land is well fertilised. It also means I don’t need to clean out the houses!”