November 22, 2016

Chooks run the farm in Caravan Egg business

With an eye to adding more diversity to their beef, lamb and cropping operation, the Warner family hatched a plan to use their 1,700-hectare property to house a true free range egg enterprise. Caravan Eggs is the fast-growing result.

The paddocks of the Warner family’s property Jaskro Park in Victoria had traditionally been home to sheep and cattle. But in the past year flocks of happy hens have also arrived to graze its pastures, nurturing the soil and helping control weeds, as well as producing eggs that well exceed the definition of free range.  

Before October last year, fourth generation farmer Robert Warner’s experience with chickens and producing eggs was limited to raising a few backyard chooks to supply the family.

But one year on, Robert, his wife Jill, and their family have hit the 1,700-eggs-a-day mark with the latest arm of their farm, a free range egg enterprise, Caravan Eggs.

“Twelve months ago we hadn’t produced a single egg,” says Robert, who grew up raising cows and sheep and now runs Jaskro Park, a 1,700-hectare beef, lamb and cropping operation at Dundonnell in southwest Victoria. “We certainly didn’t think we’d have close to 2,000 chickens a year later.”


Hatching the big idea

The Warner family started Caravan Eggs last October with an initial flock of 450 Lohmann Brown chickens. The launch followed months of intensive research by Jill and son Oliver, a Marcus Oldham agribusiness graduate, who plays a major role in the business.

“We were looking for further diversity, a way to add another cash flow,” says Jill. “And the chooks just fitted in with the sustainable agriculture approach we have. They fertilise as they go, eat some of the weeds and eat the bugs; we had a lot of crickets on the property and we thought this was a way to make use of that.”

As part of his studies, Oliver had visited pasture-raised egg producers and was interested in the prospect of using the family property to meet the growing demand for eggs produced by happy chickens that live a life in which they’re free to roam and graze.

The system the Warners chose was mobile chicken coops from NSW companies Chicken Caravan and Leghorn Industries for the birds to roost, lay their eggs and shelter. The Warners’ chickens are never locked in and are free to graze as they like, under the protection of Jaskro Park’s alpacas already on the payroll to guard sheep from predators. Two young Maremmas – a breed of livestock guardian dog – are also being trialled. Every four days, Oliver uses a tractor to relocate the caravans to fresh parts of a 50-hectare area of the property.

The idea of the Caravan Eggs name was certainly sparked by the caravan home and lifestyle of the chickens. “We thought it was a name that really captured the idea of freedom, of the chickens being able to move around as they please,” says Jill.


 A family affair

Other family members in the Warner clan have roles in the venture. One of Oliver’s sisters, Kate, a nurse living in Darwin, looks after social media, while sister Sarah, a project manager by profession who lives two hours away in Goroke, takes care of administration, and brother and diesel mechanic Alex helps where possible, including weekend movement of the chickens.

Based at the property, Robert, Jill and Oliver are hands on with egg collection, sorting, packing and delivering orders, as well as selling eggs at weekend farmers markets. In addition to being a sales avenue, the markets have been an important tool for promoting the brand and telling its pasture-raised story to the public, chefs and restaurateurs, and for gathering customer feedback.

“The markets are extremely valuable,” says Robert. “When you’re getting that feedback you get to hear what people are happy about but also what you can do better. And the ability to truly explain our cell grazing system, and how different it is as a way of producing eggs, is pretty important.”


 Retaining control with growth

Today up to 80 per cent of Caravan Eggs’ sales are to local supermarkets and restaurants. Oliver says his main challenge now is growing the customer base to establish consistent sales as egg production increases. Production rose dramatically in October when they added more hens to their flock, boosting laying hen numbers from 900 to 1,900.

“We’re getting a pretty reliable client base now but there’s still fluctuation in demand from those customers each week,” he says. “That’s where the markets fit in – if you have leftover eggs you can quickly slot them into a market.”

With the growth of the business, another challenge for the future is retaining the family-run model and high quality product while also running the rest of the property.

“We needed to gain size to get the economies of scale, to have the production to be able to say we could supply the quantities customers wanted and to justify the time it takes to sort, package and deliver the eggs,” says Oliver.

“Growth has been the main thing we’ve focused on because we’re still small scale. But at some stage we will have to set a goal about what size we can get to and still keep that quality in our product that we’ve been able to closely control while still a small family operation.”

Adds Jill: “We’ve tried to keep things very local, to have that control of the whole process from the welfare and care of the hens to delivering to customers. We don’t want to get to the stage where we don’t have that. So there’s the challenge of finding the right people to work with so we can ensure quality control – that’s something we haven’t quite worked out yet. The chooks are very intensive and it’s become a larger and larger scale operation in just 12 months. So what it does in another 12 months will be very interesting I think.”

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