Keeping chickens under harsh conditions is not an easy task. Yet Al Watania does. In the Saudi desert they run one of the biggest, most modern and well managed poultry operations in the Middle East. And that's not it. Al Watania has major expansion plans in Saudi Arabia and even into Egypt, where an even bigger operation is currently under development.
By Ad Bal
When entering the Al Watania premises near the city of Al Qasim in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it immediately becomes clear that this is a kind of state within a state. All traffic must go through the entrance gate. Behind the fences, a huge poultry project is situated with a surface area of more than 200 square kilometres.Al Qasim is located about 300 kilometres northwest of the Saudi capital Riyadh. For providing poultry and egg products to Riyadh’s 7 million inhabitants this seems quite far away. However, Al Watania is supplying their products throughout Saudi Arabia so distances aren’t really a problem.
Al Watania was founded in the late seventies by entrepreneur Sheikh Sulaiman Abulaziz Al-Rahji as a privately owned company, to start producing both meat and eggs. Near Al Qasim there was ample space available. “The choice was made to put everything together on one site”, says production manager Dr. Mohammad Najeeb Ramzan, who is overall responsible for poultry production at Al Watania. “By doing so, we have full control over the entire operation. Of course that demands strict biosecurity and management measures, but we know very well what we are doing. The advantage is that we have everything under control on one single spot.”
Breeder operations isolated
A good example of such strict control, is the hatcheries department which is managed by Mohamed Rabea. He is in charge of the four hatcheries on the premises. Logically he is also heavily involved in the entire production chain on the broiler side. “We have four different sites where we keep our parent stock”, he says. “But unlike everything else, these are located at a distance of up to 100 km away from our premises. This is because we wish to keep them as isolated as possible and thus exclude the risk of infection. “In total we purchase around 1.6 million breeder chicks annually. We use both Cobb and Ross stock. Cobb is supplying from their grandparent stock facilities in the USA or Europe, whereas Ross is sourcing them from their GPS farms in Saudi Arabia.
Both breeds have their advantages and disadvantages, but overall they perform similarly, says Rabea. Cobb tends to have a somewhat higher hatchability, but Ross produce slightly more eggs. There are some more differences, but at the end of the day they both show similar performance. So that’s why we keep them both and in equal volumes which enables us to permanently compare them. On an annual basis, we currently produce 245 million hatching eggs, of which after sorting 230 million will be set. In our hatcheries we make no difference between them.”
Only multi stage
“Hatchery number 3 is the oldest”, Rabea continues. “It was built in 1977. In all our hatcheries we have multi stage incubators. These originate from the time we bought them, like the ones in hatchery nr. 3, which were supplied by Petersime. In other hatcheries, we are also using Jamesway machines. Of course we realise that with the newest single stage technology, even better hatching results can be achieved. However, we are very keen on keeping our current multi stage machines in excellent working order.
As a result, we achieve very satisfactory results, sometimes even over 90% hatchability. So as long as there’s no need to invest in new machines, we keep using these classic models. That demands regular and intensive maintenance however, and we do so all the time. But why renew them if they are still working properly and we are achieving such satisfactory results? We are proud to show that this is possible. However, of course sooner or later we will need to invest in new technology and we are currently investigating which options there are. Also because we are in a process of expansion, we need to think about new machines and then a to switch to single stage is very likely.”
Vaccination in the hatchery
“Like for broilers, for layers we are using two breeds”, says Dr. Al-Tanab. “We run both Hisex White from Hendrix Genetics and LSL White from Lohmann Tierzucht. Both produce according to their specifications and we are satisfied with their performance. We are rearing the birds by ourselves.
“After 16 weeks of rearing we move the pullets to the layer houses. Again from a biosecurity point of view, we are very keen on moving them from house to house”, says Dr. Al-Tanab.
The production houses on the two layer facilities are connected to each other by means of a central corridor. In here, collection belts take the eggs to the central sorting and grading room where they end up on Moba machines. These grade them into seven sizes, similar to the European system. The eggs are packed in 360 piece boxes which are branded under their own Al Watania name. If necessary, they can be stored in the huge cooled storage room which is connected to the packing station. From here refrigerated trucks of sister company Al Watania transport, take the eggs to their final destination, either to retail outlets and/or the hotel and catering sector in Saudi Arabia. About 20% of the eggs are exported to other countries in the gulf area.
Identical broiler houses
Of course by far the biggest number of houses at Al Watania are for growing broilers. In total there are 714 houses, distributed over 26 farms. Most farms consist of 12 houses, each having space for 36,000 birds. Also there are some farms of 16 and six houses. All houses are identically sized and made of brick, concrete flooring and an insulated tin roof. Pad coolers and tunnel ventilation keep the temperature inside at the desired level. All houses are equipped with the same type of Chore-Time feeders and Val nipple drinkers. Each farm has one “lead worker” and one worker per two houses. One manager is taking care of two farms.
The farms are located at a distance of at least 1 kilometre from each other. “We consider that a prerequisite to keep the disease pressure at the lowest possible level and prevent transmission”, says Dr. Ramzan. “For that reason we also don’t expand within our current premises, as this would increase the risk of disease transmission between flocks of different farms.”
The day old chicks arrive in a cleaned house on a bedding of chopped wheat straw. They are kept for a growing period of only 30 days, which is based on the market demands in Saudi Arabia. Once the birds have reached their slaughter weight, they are harvested mechanically. A major reason for mechanical catching is that it is very difficult to find staff for manual catching, which is undoubtedly an unpleasant kind of work. Then the houses are cleaned again after taking out the litter to a processing facility. Here it is dried and pelleted. The dried manure will be used as cropland fertiliser at Al Watania, thus keeping it on the premises.
The houses are thoroughly cleaned, disinfected and prepared for the next flock. Al Watania is applying the all-in all-out principle, meaning that only one age is kept on one location. Measured by mortality and occurrence of diseases, in general flock health is satisfactory. According to Dr. Ramzan, average mortality is around 3%. To a certain extent this is also thanks to the slaughtering age of only 30 days. The major diseases found are ND and IB. As mentioned earlier, the chicks are vaccinated against these diseases in the hatchery, both by intramuscular injection as well as via spray. A professional veterinary team is taking care of the entire health programme at Al Watania.
Hundred percent halal
Once the grown up birds arrive in the processing plant, they don’t stay outside in the heat, but are taken into the building immediately. In order to allow air to flow around the birds, the roof of the trucks can be lifted hydraulically. This enables lowering body heat and preventing the birds from suffocation. Then they are taken to the slaughter line where they are killed in full accordance with Islamic law. Al Watania is keen on killing the birds in this official way. It is done by specialists who precisely cut the throat of the bird on the right spot. The birds release the blood flow from their body, after which they move through the entire process like in any other plant.
Once they are finished, some will be cut into pieces and moved to the further processing plant. A large portion will be finished and packed as whole birds, either separate or with two or three together in one bag. For this purpose, Al Watania is using special bagging machines from Moba. Slaughtering capacity in the plant is about 250,000 birds per day. This is realised by three lines of 7,000 birds per hour each. Usually two lines are being used while the third is cleaned. Al Watania is using both Meyn and Stork lines. Again, like on the production side, strict hygiene protocols are in place and the processing plant is ISO certificated.
More further processing
The demand for convenience food and more diversified products has grown steadily, also in Saudi Arabia. For this reason the further processing division has also grown considerably in recent years.
“In 1997 we were producing only one tonne of six different products per day”, says manager Ashraf Ezzat Ahmed of the further processing department. “But nowadays we are producing 40 tonnes of 62 different products, ranging from all kinds of sausage products, to chicken nuggets, chicken popcorn, meat balls, schnitzels and all kinds of other ready to eat products, either marinated or not. And the volume keeps growing. Not just that, we keep thinking about new products to further expand the range. By doing so, we fully meet a growing demand for such products in our country.”
Thus Al Watania, which presents itself as a modern company facing the demands of a growing market, will undoubtedly ensure that it stays in the forefront of poultry production in Saudi Arabia.