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Model broiler farm

Ann Bertels and Wim Verbruggen run a decent sized, well kept broiler farm in Rumst. Sustainability is not a hollow phrase to them. They try to incorporate it into the management of their farm as well as possible.

Located in a 'green lung' between Antwerp and Mechelen, Rumst is a place where farming is still a way of life. Ann and Wim have 3 children: Stef (18), Lars (16) and Merel (13). Ann's father was a dairy farmer, Wim's father a potato/milk merchant who also had some beef cattle. "We wanted to start out in agriculture, but we didn't know in which branch," says Ann, who also sits on the board of the provincial department and the sectoral department 'Pluimvee en Kleinvee'.

"I didn't fancy milking cows. Someone from the Farmers' Union advised us to start a broiler farm, a sector with a future.  We purchased a piece of land from my father and built a broiler house there in 1990. A few months later we started with 20,000 birds, by the end of 1992 there were 3 houses for 60,000 chickens.  In 2009 we could build our fourth house, with manure processing.  We now have 85,000 Ross broilers. We work with 2 feed manufacturers and 2 hatcheries via annual contracts, so we can keep them sharp and obtain good terms. Our chicks are 'top sporters', meaning they must work very hard in a short time.  Therefore, it's logical that we need to keep our finger on the pulse. But the differences remain small. We feed our hens a vegetable diet at the request of our clients. As soon as they are mature, they are transported to various Belgian slaughterhouses."

Well equipped houses

The 4 houses are filled with flax straw. "It's cheaper than wood shavings and we have not encountered any negative effects," Wim explains his choice. "The feeding and drinking lines are from Roxell. We have been using their Swii’Flo nipple drinking system for several years. Two houses have ridge ventilation, the third has combined ridge/longitudinal ventilation, and the latest house is fitted with longitudinal ventilation. In all other respects the houses are rather conventional, and regular CO² burners are used. We do, however, have plans to optimize the heating. We are also interested in a heat exchanger, but the price tag of such system for each house is still a bit steep. On the roof of the new house, we installed solar panels. The generated energy covers most of the electricity consumption and is mainly used for ventilation. Our 3 oldest houses are fitted with fluorescent lamps, and our latest house with Agrilight, which provides a more uniform light distribution.  "We're planning to install LED lighting in one of the old houses no later than this spring. According to the manufacturer, this would cut electricity consumption by a whopping 75%," Wim argues.

Environmental enterprise

Ann and Wim do not store any waste at their farm. The poultry manure is exported or processed. After each round Wim immediately cleans out the house with a bulldozer, after which the manure is processed in Belgian plants or exported to France.  "What's really important is that we have a reliable client who comes to collect the manure the whole year through. All the feed is used at the farm and Rendac collects the dead birds. Our latest house has a chimney that emits the foul air vertically, so that it is better distributed.

Health comes first

Good farm hygiene is a top priority for the owners. "That's also sustainable enterprise. It starts by giving the houses a thorough clean up," says Ann. "Apart from the veterinarian and the personnel of the service company, who wear overalls and footwear provided by us, no one is allowed to enter the houses. We try to keep the chicks healthy by raising them in optimal conditions: a warm house with sufficient drinking water and rest for the chicks during the first days. Proper care and a good house climate are also essential for animal welfare. We also perform a rigorous selection in the beginning: we remove any birds that are not viable. In this way, we have a homogeneous group after a few days." Wim nods approvingly: "If our birds are content, so are we. This translates in good results." Ann and Wim employ a rigorous light schedule. "As soon as the chicks have been here half a day, we give them 6 hours of rest by turning out the light", says Ann. "We do this twice a day and from day 3 we turn out the light for as long as 12 hours in one block. After 10 to 14 days we gradually reduce the schedule. A chick should not grow too fast in the beginning, otherwise it will not be able to develop a strong carcass. The growth spurt should only come after 4 weeks. We also try to mix the feed with natural products to keep the intestines as healthy as possible, and to use as little antibiotics as possible. In addition, we stick strictly to our vaccination schedules, even when disease pressure is low. I guess an advantage here is that we're the only poultry farm in the neighborhood. We therefore don't have to fear disease transmission from another farm."

Quality has its price

"We don't expect any further sharp drops in feed prices, also because they are often subject to speculation. What really upsets us is the way in which the retail trade sometimes sells a piece of chicken breast at dumping prices, whereas we make every effort to assure the meat hits the market as healthy as possible.

Quality has its price. Sadly, the consumer is not always aware of this."

Social enterprise

Wim and Ann attach great importance to good communication with the neighbors. "In 1992 we held an open day and when we submitted our application for the new house, we informed our neighbors about it. We're lucky that most of them are fellow farmers/gardeners who realize that everyone has to think about their future. Through my engagement within the Farmers' Union I keep up to speed with what's in the pipeline and with any changes in the legislation. Further expansion of the farm isn't on the cards any time soon, but we stay alert. In the medium term we're planning to renovate the old houses. We are also considering to do some risk spreading by investing outside the sector. Many options are still open..."

Source: Boerenbond – Management & Techniek 2 – 24 January 2014 – www.boerenbond.be