Happy hens for health

2009-03-14 00:00

“FROM technical advisers to feed suppliers … they all tell me I'm crazy; that it's not possible to make a profit this way.” But small-scale chicken farmer Genie Myburgh says she's not giving up on her mission to produce healthy and happy, free-range, organic chickens.

At Stonehaven farm in Mooi River, Myburgh is producing about 500 free-range chickens a week. The birds are as close to “organic” as you can get in South Africa, where legislation for organic certification is still awaiting World Trade Organisation (WTO) approval.

“We've taken the draft legislation for organic certification and we've tried to implement that as far as possible,” says Myburgh, “but until the legislation is approved, there's no protection for authentic growers or the consumer of organic meat, and the term is open to abuse.”

Currently, Stonehaven's adherence to organic criteria is self-regulated. Finding certified organic feed for her chickens is the biggest challenge. Organically produced maize, for example, costs 40% more than conventionally grown maize, and importing certified organic chicken feed is prohibitively expensive.

But Myburgh has found a small feed mill in South Africa to produce 100% vegetarian chicken feed in the limited quantities she requires. No medication — either antibiotics or growth hormones — is added to the feed.

Myburgh started chicken farming nearly four years ago. “I grew up in the KwaZulu-Natal countryside and it was the lifestyle that appealed to me,” she says of her decision to take over the farm. Formerly a bookkeeper, she had no formal training in chicken farming. Last year she completed her poultry meat examiners' certificate that involved coursework at university and practical work at a commercial chicken operation.

“I sometimes doubt myself and what I'm doing, but when I walk away from commercial chicken farms, I know I am doing something right,” she says.

For Myburgh, part of her mission is to educate consumers on the way chickens are produced and to interrogate the claims made by producers in the absence of proper government regulation of the meat industry. “For example, one retail outlet claims to sell meat that's not medicated, but it's really only in the last four to five days that the medication is stopped. And growth promoters are still used throughout production.”

Myburgh says she doesn't bash the commercial producers. “I understand they've got to produce enough to feed everyone. But I'm aiming at people who are seeking an authentic product.”

Myburgh admits that at R45 per kilogram, there's some price resistance to her product. “It's a hard sell. I don't tell people our chickens are better. I try to inform them of the differences and let them make a choice.”

Despite the higher cost, Stonehaven has carved out a growing niche market for itself among health-conscious families, up-market restaurants, health spas and health shops. She regularly sends chickens to Johannesburg and while there's big demand for the product in Cape Town, transport costs challenge the viability of that market.

“Cancer sufferers seek out our products. Then there are mothers who buy our chickens because their children have eczema, autism, multiple sclerosis and a range of other ailments,” says Myburgh.

Top-end restaurants appreciate the quality of the meat. “Because we don't inject brine into the meat to bulk it up, it's denser and doesn't need to be cooked for as long. And it has a different taste,” says Myburgh.

The business is currently breaking even. But for Myburgh there are other measures of success. “We have good months, but the challenge for me is to educate first, and then sell. And awareness is growing.”

Stonehaven: Methods

• No antibiotics, growth promoters or animal by-products in feed;

• Space: indoors, 10 birds per square metre; and outdoors, four birds per square metre;

• all chicken runs stand empty for four to six weeks between flocks;

• no artificial climate and light;

• chickens grow for 81 days — the commercial norm is 42 days;

• slaughtering is on the farm in a low through-put abattoir;

• regular veterinary health inspections.

Inquiries: Genie Myburgh at chickens@stonehavenfarm.co.za or phone 033 263 2257.


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