The Zegeren farm in Holambra, Brazil, is a 3rd-generation operation. At the heart of the farm there is a 24,000 bird parent stock facility, surrounded by an orange plantation and a potted plant business. “Every generation added something to the farm,” says Walter Zegeren. ‘’We are constantly chasing new opportunities and putting our money where it makes the most sense.”
Coming from a small-scale dairy farm in the Netherlands in 1958, the grandparents of Walter Zegeren were hoping to build a new future. At the time their home country was still struggling in the aftermath of World War II, with the economy in rubble and the chances of building a future-proof existence in livestock farming slim. That was also acknowledged by the regional farmers cooperation, which started to scout for new opportunities abroad. In 1948 the cooperation found a location in São Paulo state. Brazil was introduced to the coop members as the new “promised land”. After the first settlers moved to Brazil, more followed in the decade to come, including the Zegeren family.
Cooperation of Dutch origin
Zegeren says, “Dairy farming was their métier, but they soon had to adapt their original plans. When they arrived in Brazil they saw the first settlers struggle with the health of their livestock and soon thereafter experienced first-hand that the dairy cows brought from the Netherlands didn’t do well in the Brazilian environment. It was just too hot for them and they caught all kinds of tropical illnesses.” It didn’t take the Zegeren family long to come up with a new business plan, and they eventually switched to the production of oranges.
Zegeren continues: “Our orange plantation was our core business for many years, but with the next generation taking over the farm, my father decided to add an extra source of income to the family company. In 1986, the year I was born, he invested in 2 poultry houses, in which we currently grow 24,000 broiler breeders. The investments were made together with the rest of the farmers cooperative Holambra. It did research and found that chicken manure was an ideal nutrient in the orange plantations of its members.” When Zegeren himself became active in the farm 10 years ago, he – again together with the coop – decided to add another branch to the farm. He invested in greenhouses to grow potted plants and is currently exploring the possibilities of growing vegetables there as well. “Holambra is famous for its plants and flowers and has its own auction place, so it was a logical step for me to invest in greenhouses. If you ask me what kind of farm I run, I tend to say I am a plant farmer. However, the different branches on our farm coexist.”
Zegeren’s main focus is to further invest in the plant business and invest in automation of the greenhouse. “That said, the last couple of years our investment plans mainly concerned our poultry branch. The nice thing of having our so-called eggs in multiple baskets is that there is only a slim chance that we are not making money. There is always one pocket in which we outperform. In the past our chicken houses were paid for by good orange harvests, my greenhouses could be built due to good profits in our poultry operation and some additional automation in the poultry houses became possible after good earnings in the plant business.” Zegeren is especially happy with how the businesses have been performing recently: “The last 2 years, all 3 branches were making a good profit, upping our reserves and driving our new plans for the future.”
According to Zegeren it is important to give every branch the attention that is needed. “When profits are made, we look for the best place to invest it in.” About 5 years ago the profits of the orange plantation and greenhouse were allocated to the poultry farm. “At that time we still had manual laying nests, which were really labour-intensive. Besides that, I had the idea that the collection of eggs stressed the birds to such an extent that performance was influenced.” However, the plan to convert the houses was easier said than done: “Our birds are actually owned by the cooperative, and feed and veterinary services are also in their hands. At first, the cooperation didn’t allow me to have their birds in houses with automatic laying nests. It took many lengthy conversations to convince them, and in the end they made an exception for me in the form of a test facility.”
Looking back at this process, Zegeren is glad to have pushed his plans forward. “Our 33-year-old cars (houses) got a whole new engine. With the Vencomatic automatic laying nests and a Vencobelt connecting both houses to the egg collection room we dramatically reduced the number of cracked eggs and eggs with hair cracks. With the systems in place and run by my exceptional farm manager Gilson, we were able to improve on total number of eggs and hatchability too. We get 5% more good eggs and 3% higher hatchability.” Zegeren delivers 205 first-class eggs to the hatchery, of which 199 are incubated and 171 hatch (86% hatchability). “With that we easily exceed the average coop member production, landing us a 10% bonus on the average hatching egg price of 2.8 cents. Also we were able to reduce our staff from 12 to 6, with 3 workers looking after the birds and 3 in the egg collection room.”
The flock that is currently in production is 33 weeks old. “This flock looks extremely good. The birds came into production about two weeks earlier than standard, at 24 weeks. Their peak production was at week 28, with 86% eggs a day. At 33 weeks I am confident to say that this will be a successful flock right up to end of lay at week 72.” The birds are of the Cobb slow breed, a choice of the coop. “These birds do fine, but as a breeder farmer I tend to favour the Ross breed. However, from a broiler farmer’s perspective, the Cobb bird seems to be favourable. In the end it doesn’t matter too much to me, as long as I am able to get above average results.”
Zegeren expects 2020 to be a good year for his poultry operation. “The flock is producing, the market demand is picking up both nationally and internationally and under our new government the subsidies to the large industry players have stopped. This gives smaller companies and coops like us a level playing field. Technical results on farm will make all the difference now, as will the cost of investments. With our investments coming from profits, those costs are essentially nil.” The next investment opportunity is already on Zegeren’s radar: “In our greenhouses we have the potential to make high margins, but potted plants are labour intensive. Automation there is the way to go, as it was in the poultry farm.”
Takes a look at the poultry industry in countries around the world.
When Dutch company Vencomatic ventured out to Brazil in 1999 the main focus was on broiler breeders. At that time most farmers were still working with manual nests, relying on an abundant workforce. Vencomatic director Etore Schirato has seen the industry change fast in the past decade: “Workers are harder to come by and with equipment improving constantly, many chose to invest in automatic nests.” That said, Brazil is not the fastest country to embrace automation. Currently about 48% of all broiler breeder farms still use manual nests, even though production is growing and margins are not bad. Schirato says, “I am sure the manual nests will be scrapped as part of the faster pace. With our economy growing, workers choose not to work on farms anymore. In contrast, we see experienced workers, 45+ in age, returning to farms that have automated. Physical workload has decreased and their experience in getting the optimal results out of the flocks is well paid.”