She says that free-range producers generally face the same disease challenges as intensive commercial producers, but have the added risk of birds being exposed to outdoor threats.
Elgin Free Range Chickens overcomes this challenge by raising chickens in a stress-free environment.
“Without stress, a bird’s own internal immune system becomes stronger, which allows it to fight most disease challenges it is exposed to. The fact that bird mortality on all our farms averages 3% is proof that this farming philosophy is paying off,” says Groenewald.
The birds lead as natural a life as possible. Chicks are placed indoors for the first 10 days in summer and 14 days in winter at a stocking density of 15 birds/ m2, after which they range on natural vegetation during the day at a stocking density of a mere 5/ m2.
The area is covered in lush vegetation with trees and shrubs providing natural shade during the day to forage under and branches to perch on. The birds are also allowed to sleep properly at night from four days old.
“We believe that sleep is one of our key immune-boosting practices and never deviate from it. For this reason, we use gas brooders for heating instead of continuous light,” she says.
Once the chickens are old enough to roam outside, they also have the choice of sleeping indoors or outdoors.
“The range is safe and predator-proof. Most of the birds choose to go indoors when it’s cooler,” says Groenewald.
The birds receive top-quality feed with no antibiotics, animal by-products, poultry meal, fishmeal, growth promoters or stimulants.
They are vaccinated against most poultry diseases, which does away with the need for medication.
“We’re concerned about animal welfare and therefore have a policy to treat birds that are ill and suffering. This is done in close consultation with our vet. We have many farms that have proudly produced broilers for over 15 years without ever using medication,” says Groenewald.
Broilers are slaughter-ready from about 36 days of age.