A Northland egg business is expanding as the trend toward free-range eggs gathers pace.
The growing trend toward free-range egg production is welcomed by Otaika Valley Free Range Eggs account manager William Sandle.
Otaika Valley Free Range Eggs is a well-established, family-run business with farms in Otaika, south of Whangārei, and Kaharoa, near Rotorua.
The company's main packhouse is at the Whangārei farm and employs about 20 staff.
The Sandle family business was an early adopter of free-range farming, a move vindicated over the years by the increasing demand for quality produce and better animal welfare.
The trend is being helped by initiatives from McDonald's restaurants to commit to only serving free-range eggs, a decision that has encouraged other fast-food restaurants and food providers to follow suit.
Otaika Valley Free Range Eggs is among the top commercial egg producers in New Zealand. Its eggs can be found in supermarkets throughout the country and it is contracted to supply 40 per cent of the McDonald's restaurants' egg needs. McDonald's restaurants use almost 10 per cent of New Zealand's free-range egg supply, or 13 million eggs per year.
His sister, Trudy Sandle, runs the Whangarei packhouse and her husband, James Mason, runs the Whangārei farm, while William and Trudy's father Peter and his wife Riet continue to be involved.
"We do want to keep expanding, to keep growing our business.''
Sandle said the egg industry in New Zealand is undergoing a seismic shift away from conventionally caged birds, which was mandated in 2018.
By 2022, conventional cages will have been phased out to be replaced with colony cage systems or free-range. Colony cages can house up to 60 birds and offer areas for perching and a communal pad for scratching and pecking.
While he welcomes this improvement, Sandle prefers the free-range method of farming, allowing the birds out of their homes for the day to wander around the properties.
"Free-range is definitely growing. With free-range there are nine birds per square metre, so you need the land to be able to give them the space they need,'' he said.
"Free-draining soil is great for free-range, as we don't want the birds drinking from dirty puddles for health reasons.
"The hens are happy out digging and scratching the ground, but on really hot, sunny days they prefer the shade so we plant lots of trees.
"They do love to jump up and perch on things, but they don't tend to try and fly off so the high fences around the properties are enough,'' he said.
The hens are all of the Hy-Line Brown breed, from the Golden Coast commercial hatchery which is owned by Tegel.
"There are no white commercial hens used for egg production in New Zealand.''
Sandle said pest control was important but with so many birds, there were no problems with pests such as stoats or rats.
"Hens will gang up to attack any pests,'' he said.
The pecking order did exist and weak birds could be targeted, so management of the birds was important.
"We keep them in age groups of between 4000 and 7000 birds and each flock has its own shed and ranging area.''
Gathering such a huge number of eggs is handled by technology, with little need for people to touch any of the eggs.
"Eggs roll out of the sloped nesting area on to a conveyor and all of the eggs are weighed before being allocated to their size ranges of six, seven or eight.
"McDonald's stipulates the exact weight range they want for their restaurants to make sure their processes will cook the eggs perfectly,'' Sandle said.
Younger birds were more likely to lay double-yolkers and Sandle regularly gets messages from customers who see them as a lucky find.
The egg business is relentless, with processing needed every day of the year.
"We aim to have happy, healthy hens living a good life and producing delicious eggs.''