Producing a free-range chicken under the best conditions with plenty of food and freedom ensures a healthy bird for one of South Africa’s largest poultry companies, Elgin Free Range Chickens.
There are around 56,000 breeding hens at Elgin Free Range Chickens at any one time. Photo: Chris McCullough
Based in the Overberg region of the Western Cape, Elgin Free Range Chickens produces around 6.6 million broilers a year on its own farm and from a number of contract growers. The success of this company can be attributed to the dedication of the staff but more so to the passion of its founder Jeanne Groenewald. The business operates a multi-faceted model with its own farm producing chickens and its own abattoir to process the birds. It even has its own retail outlets from which it sells the end product to consumers.
Jeanne Groenewald founded Elgin Free Range Chickens starting off with 100 hens in her back yard. Photo: Russel Tranter
Jeanne outlined how the company was started and how the key focus always has been on the health and well-being of the birds. She first started off raising 100 free-range chickens as a small backyard experiment after completing a BSc Agriculture degree in animal physiology and genetics at the University of Stellenbosch and gaining experience running a duck farm for her father.
Our philosophy is to remove any form of stress from the birds, so we give them lots of space and lots of fresh air,” – Jeanne Groenewald.
The company owner and chief executive officer told Poultry World, “The company is situated in the Overberg region of the Western Cape in South Africa. I started the business 22 years ago and have run it myself from scratch.The business is made up of different sectors. We run a breeding operation and have a hatchery where we employ 50 people. We have our own farmland as well as industrial land from where we operate the business,” she explained.
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For the next stage of the business Elgin Free Range Chickens uses additional farms as contract growers that have already established poultry housing. That side of the business employs another 70 people. “Most of our contract growers are also involved with other activities, including growing fruit and vegetables and some even have their own vineyards.”
“Then we run our own abattoir processing facility situated in the Elgin industrial area employing a total of 550 people. Here we slaughter the birds and further process them into added value products in our own packaging.
The company has 11 retail stores employing 100 staff. Photo: Chris McCullough
Delivery to retail outlets
Everything is kept in-house as all our products are distributed to our own retail outlets and others by our logistics team. We currently have 11 retail stores employing 100 staff with more outlets in the pipeline planned to open next year,” she continued.
There are around 56,000 breeding hens in the breeding unit at Elgin Free Range Chickens at any one time. The broiler units produce 128,000 broilers a week. “We have traditionally used the Cobb breed but have recently switched to the Arbor Acres breed,” Jeanne added. “Altogether I have 6 growers affiliated to the business and we process around 6.6 million broilers a year.”
Elgin Free Range Chickens also uses a number of contract growers to supply birds to the business. Photo: Chris McCullough
Attention to detail – removing stress from the birds
The key ethos of Elgin Free Range Chickens over the years – and which has helped foster the company’s growth – has been its attention to detail in rearing a healthy bird. “Our philosophy is to remove any form of stress from the birds, so we give them lots of space and lots of fresh air,” said Jeanne. “We ensure there is ample natural vegetation and large pastures available for the birds to roam in. Another important aspect is to use only a top quality feed with no animal by-products, AGPs, growth promotors or antibiotics included. We also give the birds 8 hours of darkness so they can get enough sleep every night. All these factors help to ensure we produce a healthy bird.”
The aim is to produce a bird weighing 2kg live weight at the end of the cycle. Photo: Russell Tranter
“At the end of the production line we aim to produce a bird weighing 2kg live weight and the ages differ depending on the season. We have 3 feed companies that supply us with our own unique rations made specifically for us. The raw material costs are rising all the time which is a huge concern to us as this accounts for 75% of our input costs. These rising costs thus have a really negative impact on the end product as far as price increases are concerned. All our birds are sold oven-ready to different retailers, including our own retail stores and the hospitality industry,” Jeanne stated.
(avian influenza)..Fortunately we have not been challenged too much in this area, as our birds naturally come in at night and are thus protected in their houses.” – Jeanne Groenewald.
Constant influenza alert
As with every country that produces poultry, South Africa is on the alert for any cases of bird flu, particularly so in flocks of birds reared outdoors. Following a deadly outbreak of the virus in 2017 poultry producers are constantly on the lookout for signs that their birds may be infected. However, it’s not just the outdoor flocks that are affected. In the winter time when chicken houses are closed, the ventilation may be poor in some cases. Then the immune systems of the birds can be low, allowing bird flu to spread like wildfire through the flock.
Jeanne has never had bird flu occur in her flock and has a number of management practices to try and prevent her chickens from catching the virus. She explained: “We have never been affected, luckily enough, and to help prevent wild birds from mixing with our birds we have created huge shade-cloth enclosed areas with trees planted inside them to provide a natural environment but this also keeps all wild birds out. Fortunately we have not been challenged too much in this area, as our birds naturally come in at night and are thus protected in their houses. Funnily enough a number of farms that are not free range and have environmentally-controlled houses have been wiped out by Avian Influenza, so it is not really just a free-range threat. Avian Influenza is an industry threat,” she noted.
Our way of producing is definitely more expensive and thus our product has a very defined market,” – Jeanne Groenewald.
Jeanne admits her chickens have a well-defined market as her production system runs at a higher cost, therefore increasing the cost of the end product. “Our way of producing is definitely more expensive and thus our product has a very defined market,” she said. “This market is growing, however, as more and more people understand the benefits of eating proper food produced to high welfare standards. Our niche market really is our advantage as our customers are well-informed and educated in terms of recognising good quality food. They know what they want and we produce that,” she concluded.