When Pat and Collin Peter bought Thorn Park trading store in East London in 1983, few of their friends believed their little business would last. Undeterred, the couple settled down to a life of hard work and long hours. “When we took over, it was just a little trading store and we were open seven days a week,” says Pat. “I was only 24 or 25. Here we are 30 years later and still going strong.”
Part of the reason the store remains open today is that the Peters adapted to the decline in demand for everyday items and groceries, and focused on selling fuel and animal feed. However, for Thorn Park trading store, it was their sudden entry into chicken farming that really turned the business around.
In 1995 Collin and Pat were about to embark on a trip to the UK when an opportunity to farm chickens literally walked through their door.
“We were going on holiday to visit my daughter (Liezl Slater), and a guy came in with a trailer of chickens he couldn’t sell and asked if we wanted them for free,” Pat recalls. “Collin saw an opportunity and we agreed. We asked our other daughter (Taryn Muller) to look after them while we were away.” Despite having no experience at all in caring for chickens, Taryn successfully raised the birds while her parents were on holiday, although not without some mistakes.
“She asked the farmers around here what to do and they helped her,” says Pat. “By the time we got home the chickens were fully grown, but the lights (to provide warmth for the chickens when younger) were still burning.” The chickens were sold and Thorn Park trading store began its foray into chicken farming.
The right man for the job
The chicken enterprise went well at first, but as the years went by, it gradually began to stagnate. Collin’s responsibilities to the store meant that he was simply unable to spend sufficient time on the chickens. Then good fortune intervened again. Liezl and her UK-born husband Mark returned to South Africa – and the enterprise received a new lease on life.
“About two years ago when I was working for a contractor, I was severely bitten by a dog,” says Mark. “At that time Collin was scaling down on the chicken farming. But when I was recovering from the operation on my arm I would go down there to help out as much as I could.”
A quick learner, Mark identified a demand in the market and came up with ideas on how to meet it. He entered into a 50/50 partnership with Collin and was immediately free to pursue his ideas. Despite having no prior experience in farming or building, he set out to improve the facilities and began constructing chicken houses. He admits, however, that while growth was quickly evident, it has taken time and experience to increase the scale of the enterprise to where it stands today.
“It didn’t suddenly go from 200 chickens to 1 000 chickens – we built it up gradually,” he says. “Over the years you just learn how best to operate.”
Since Mark’s involvement, the enterprise has grown to 2 700 chicks in brood houses and 8 000 birds in 24 larger coops. Initially, chickens were sold live at seven weeks, but as customer demand for frozen chickens has increased, the business has begun taking orders and slaughtering and packaging chickens for sale through the store. All remaining chickens are sold live.
On average, 1 300 birds are sold during the last week of each month and between 500 and 700 during each week in between. In order to meet this growing demand, Mark has streamlined a system in which birds are moved in stages as they near slaughter weight or sale readiness, usually at around seven weeks.
“They start off as day-olds in our brood houses where they remain for the first three weeks,” he says. While several hundred laying hens are kept to produce eggs to be sold in the store, day-old chicks are bought from Keystone Hatchery in KwaZulu-Natal and delivered by truck each week for the operation. Chickens are fed Epol poultry feed and water supply is via drip feeders. The coops are located in two separate blocks, one consisting of 14 coops measuring 4m x 13m each and another of 10 coops, each measuring 5m x 16m.
Two Keys to success
Both blocks are meticulously cleaned immediately after the chickens are moved on. To Mark, meticulous cleaning is not simply good practice, but key to his operation’s ability to produce top quality chickens. “The most important aspects are management and cleanliness,” he says. “If you haven’t got those, you’ve got nothing. So as soon as that last bird is out of the coop, the workers are in there bagging and cleaning.”
He maintains that by being pedantic about hygiene, they are able to avoid supplementing the chicken’s diet of Epol Broiler Starter and Course Finisher feed, allowing them to meet their customer’s demand for traditional farm chickens. “They’re marketed in the shop as ‘Thorn Park Home Style Farm Chickens’, so we keep them as natural as possible,” he says.
“Cleanliness minimises the amount of medications and supplements we need to give them to keep them healthy, and the customers get the ‘natural’ chickens they want.” Mark explains that at a few days old, chicks are given a vitamin and electroltye stress pack. “And that’s about it,” he says.
In keeping with this philosophy, Mark has built a new abattoir which adheres to his stringent requirements for impeccable hygiene. It includes slaughtering, cleaning and packaging facilities as well as showers and storage for sterilised clothing and equipment for staff, and is designed to make the entire process as efficient as possible. For Mark, the rapid expansion of the chicken farming operation is not only a response to market demand, but a reflection of his approach to work. “I’m always thinking of ways to do things better,” he says.
Phone Mark Slater on 076 862 3962.