A Winning Move, As Sure As Eggs

Alan (FM 77) and Shelley Green

Innovation, perseverance and a willingness to take risks have turned a once-derelict farm into a thriving business for Alan and Shelley Green. In February their efforts were rewarded when they were named The Weekly Times Business of the Year for 2005.

When the couple purchased their 486ha Great Western farm, Pine Ridge, in 1983, the property was dilapidated, supporting just two sheep a hectare. "The land was very run-down, with no intact fences, tree stumps littering the landscape, rabbits, erosion, salting and little infrastructure," Shelley said. "But in a way it was an ideal situation - a block of land where we could start from scratch."

Twenty years later, the Greens have increased the stocking rate to 5.1 dry sheep equivalents per hectare, revegetated 13 percent of the farm and diversified into a successful free-range egg business, Green Eggs.

Alan Green

From the outset their goals were to be working on the farm full-time by the age of 40, and make the farm sustainable. Both Shelley and Alan worked off-farm to fund the property - Alan as a lamb marking and mulesing contractor and Shelley as a midwife. Farm planning courses, such as FarmSmart, gave them the confidence to diversity.

Olive groves and vineyards were fast becoming commonplace in the region, but the couple, who were keen to produce a food product, kept coming back to the idea of free-range eggs. "We wanted something that people need every day," Shelley said. But egg production was foreign territory. Alan grew up on 60,000-head cattle stations in outback Queensland and the Northern Territory and Shelley's family run a mixed farm at Maroona in the Ararat district.

"It was a risk - no knowledge, no money - we had to borrow heavily," Alan said. "We just relied on the fact that I know how to run sheep, cattle and horses - chooks couldn't be that different."

But the couple were shocked to find how hard it was for newcomers in the egg industry to gain information. "It is a very closed industry. Alan literally had doors closed in his face by people saying 'no, we can't help you'," Shelley said. So Shelley completed a poultry course at Longerenong College. "We were forced to do our own thing." she said. Other people, however, such as Department of Primary Industries senior poultry officer Greg Parkinson, and poultry equipment suppliers, were willing to help.

The first shed the Greens erected was iron, holding 2000 birds. This was followed by the EcoShelter, a polypropylene-covered shed, which was a third of the cost of a conventional shed, and the Range Harvester, a sophisticated Australian-made deep-litter egg collecting system.

The Greens received a $93,000 grant through the Federal Government's Farm Innovation Program to help them become the first poultry farm in Australia to use EcoShelters. Both products are now used across the industry. A fitted-out EcoShelter, which holds 8000 birds, costs roughly $240,000 to build. It may need a new skin every 10 years, for about $10,000.

The Greens erected a second polypropylene-covered shed in March last year and their business now houses 18,000 birds, producing almost 9000 dozen eggs a week. "At the moment we sell 88 per cent wholesale, at about $1.60 a dozen," Alan said.

"The other 12 per cent we sell at farmers' markets, restaurants, cafes and so on, for an average of $3.30 a dozen which brings in 30 per cent of our income," he said.

The Greens are aiming to double their retail sales, on the basis of a consumer trend to find out where and how their food is produced. "Our aim is to market all of our eggs under our brand," Shelley said. The Greens use Hy-line chickens, which enter the sheds at 16 weeks of age, weighing about 1.4kg. It costs about $70,000 to stock an EcoShelter. At about 28-29 weeks of age 96-97 per cent of their birds are laying. This is held to 90 per cent at 50 weeks of age. "That's pretty high and that's our target," Shelley said.

The Greens' egg production increased by 88 per cent last year. Shelley believes the key to their high production is the care they take of the hens. "We are getting percentages 6-7 per cent above the average production for free-range," she said. The Greens aim to get a net income of about $15 a bird. "When free-range egg prices are at $2 a dozen, a free-range bird is capable of producing about $50 worth of eggs (in 13 months)," Alan said. (Egg prices slumped at the end of last year, from $2 a dozen.) Egg prices fluctuate, with an egg shortage now slowly driving whole-sale prices up again (Mar 06).

Feed, a grain mix, makes up 70 per cent of their costs. Eager to continue to innovate and improve, the Greens now use their first shed to trial other breeds of layer chickens and management techniques. They carefully track and benchmark their business, using statistics kept on each batch of birds.

A keen stockman, Alan also runs 1500 Merino ewes, joined to Border Leicester rams. The sheep lamb in May, producing 1400 lambs a year. Alan said income from the poultry was less weather-dependent than income from wool.

Landcare has also been a long-standing passion of the Greens, who last year won a Victorian Landcare award. They have planted about 3000 indigenous trees a year on the farm and Alan is the president of the Great Western Landcare group.

Alan said the farm was making about three times the income it was when they started. The Greens said they had enjoyed working together in the business, learning new skills and meeting new and interesting people.

Alan and Shelley were also announced the Winners of the
RAS Alternative Farming Producer of the Year award.