Bird numbers on the rise
The latest flock survey conducted by the British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association (BFREPA) indicates that bird numbers could be on the rise again.
Whilst the survey, which seeks to ascertain the stocking intentions of BFREPA members over the coming 12 months, shows that some producers still intend to reduce bird numbers in the next year, the overall results indicate an increase in the size of the total flock.
Against current bird numbers, this increase may be as much as 17 per cent, although BFREPA believes this comparison may be unrepresentative because it includes units currently in turn-round. The association believes the most reliable comparison is capacity. This indicates that bird numbers may increase by 4.2 per cent by April next year - a much lower figure, yet one that will cause some concern because free range eggs are still in a state of oversupply despite a shortage of eggs overall.
BFREPA chairman John Retson has already warned that the industry needs to be very careful to avoid rushing back into increased production.
He told the Ranger recently, "The truth of it is we are still over-producing in free range." He said, "The danger is now that we could see new production going in because of the shortages and these price increases and by the end of the year we will be in a mess again. The egg industry has got to be very cautious and control expansion."
After seeing the results of the flock survey, he said, "The last thing we need at the moment is an expansion of the free range flock. Members need to help us and themselves to keep things under control," said John, who appealed to BFREPA members to help the association collect detailed information about the free range flock.
"Free range has taken a hit. We need to help each other to get through this." The flock survey seems to confirm what pullet rearers have been experiencing - a rush back into egg production. Olivia Potter of Potters Poultry told us, "The recent increases have got people with empty sheds putting birds back in. The concern is that there will be boom and then bust again in six to eight months unless the packers control it. We are seeing a huge uplift in demand for pullets."
Steve Carlyle at Country Fresh Pullets said, "We seem to have learned nothing from the last 18 months we have just been through. Everyone wants to expand." Everyone wanted pullets, said Steve, "both free range and colony, and this time we will not have the battery cage ban to pull us out of the mire. Not long ago producers were suicidal. Now they all want pullets again."
The trend is borne out by Defra statistics for chick placings. The number of commercial layer chicks placed in the United Kingdom from UK hatcheries in March was up 15 per cent on the same month last year, from 2.2 million to 2.5 million.
The 12-month moving total is steadily rising. It is now 32.4 million after dropping back to 31.7 million in January.
The March increase followed figures for February, which showed that placings were up by 11 per cent on the same month last year. This came after a series of falls that promised to bring the national flock back to a more manageable level.
Figures for layer eggs set by UK hatcheries provide even more ominous reading. In March the number of eggs set was up by 24 per cent against March last year, from 7.1 million to 8.8 million. The 12-month moving total is now 93.8 million. In January the figure was 91.5 million.
The BFREPA survey, which achieved a response rate of more than 62 per cent from members, indicated that on balance BFREPA producers who took part could add an extra 216,605 birds over the coming year. The association has calculated that if this was to happen across the national flock, there could be another 630,000 pullets by Spring of 2013.
Last year’s survey, which came at a time when producer prices were depressed and feed prices were high, indicated large reductions in bird numbers. Producers’ responses suggested that as much as 12 per cent of the UK free range flock could disappear. John Retson warned major supermarkets that they could struggle to source UK eggs if producers fulfilled the intentions indicated in that survey.
The latest flock survey shows that many producers carried through on their stated intention to cut bird numbers. Nearly 10 per cent of those who took part in the survey have either closed down production or reduced bird numbers.
Amongst those who responded to the latest survey, 11 said that they had ceased production completely and were unlikely to re-stock their units. Another 12 said they intended to reduce bird numbers. Together, they account for a reduction of 57,170 birds. Another six were unsure. They said that what they did would depend upon future profitability.
The overall increase in numbers in the survey is driven by 10 members. Some say they have been asked to increase numbers by their packers. Other reasons include switching to free range from either cage or organic, improving efficiency and making use of available grants or planning permission.
Despite the forecast of increased bird numbers in the new study, there is still a great deal of uneasiness amongst free range producers.
Most recent BFREPA costings show that producers are still losing money on their birds, although the losses have been reduced by recent increases in producer prices. Up-to-date costings show that organic producers are losing £3.40 per bird. Free range producers are losing eight pence per bird.
John Retson says that the responses in the survey show that producers are still very concerned about the volatility of the market and the high cost of feed. "The price increases we have had, although very welcome, are being wiped out by massive feed price increases and there does not seem to be any let up in this trend."
John says that, in his view, high quality British free range and organic egg supplies are still under threat.
Source: Farming UK