Getting started in poultry farming

Getting started in poultry farming takes some thought. We interviewed two farmers from the Jura who took the plunge, one with a particularly animal-friendly stall system (SST), the other with an outdoor farm based on the Bio Suisse standards. They talk about their choices, the transition phase and the challenges they encountered.

Michaël and Jessica Mercier, parents of two children aged 8 and 6, manage a 54-hectare farm at La Baroche en Ajoie. They raise sheep, grow rapeseed and cereals, and cultivate grassland and fruit trees. In 2019, they built an SST-compliant hall of 1,100 m2 where they keep 16,500 chickens.

Sébastien and Joëlle Eicher, who also have two children aged 15 and 12, have a 47-hectare Bio Suisse farm in Val Terbi. They keep 80 cattle (dams and fattening cows) and grow cereals and fruit. In 2017, they installed six sheds of 30 m2 each, housing 2,600 chickens in total. Two hectares of their farm are set aside for poultry farming.

What prompted you to go into poultry farming?

Michaël Mercier (MM): We got to a point where we had to reinvest in the farm. We kept dams at the time. We did the maths, and it was quicker by far to write off an investment in a chicken house than in a stable. I asked various colleagues for their views and Bell sent along their experts to talk to me.

Sébastien Eicher (SE): We bought my uncle's farm in 2013 and were raising around forty dairy cows. The situation had become critical. It had got to the point where I had had to accept work off the farm. The buildings needed renovating. Investing in poultry – with stable, guaranteed yields – was much less than the cost of investing in a milking shed.

Were you apprehensive in any way about the decision?

MM: I was worried about finding myself entirely on my own, having to learn everything by trial and error. Neither myself nor my wife have any training in poultry farming. At the start, the Bell expert came by every second day to give us a hand. He virtually slept in the chicken house! The service was absolutely first class.

SE: I was worried about losing my independence and being too dependent on one Group. But we have producer meetings where our views are heard. In the cattle breeding and dairy farming world, it was every man for himself and if we didn't want to sell our milk at the price offered, we were told to go and sell it elsewhere … It feels better to be part of a team, working with partners rather than fighting each other.

Which system did you chose, and why?

MM: With our land being divided up, I wasn't ready for the organic system. So I went with SST. The advantage is that everything is automated, it's easy to regulate the temperature and you need less ground space. (Editor's note: For the establishment of a  SST-conforming chicken house, Bell requires that the internal expansion can be fulfilled in accordance with Art. 16a of the Spatial Planning Act, a shared system is an option if two producers want to get together). For animal welfare, the chickens have a yard with daylight and ambient temperature. We have a lot of chickens, so any health issue could be catastrophic.

SE: We opted for organic, because we decided to have the entire farm certified as organic. And we got organic prices right from the start, even though we were still in the transition period. The old stable became our rearing house. We have to keep the pens close to the farm to stop foxes and birds of prey from attacking our chickens. Our neighbour uses the same system, so we can coordinate our deliveries of chicks and dispatch of chickens.

What work is required and how much time does it take?

MM: It's a year-round full-time job, I reckon. When the chicks first arrive for maturing, you have to check on them every two hours, night and day. That slows down as time goes by, it's ok to check the conditions twice a day. But you have to be attentive! My wife looks after that side of things. It works well because there are no heavy loads to be lifted.

SE: My wife looks after that side of things too. Having the same person all the time is important – it's easier to spot anything unusual.

MM: A full cycle lasts 30-36 days on our farm. The chicks are delivered to us, and we let them mature with the temperature at around 33°C. We bring it down gradually to let the chicks adapt to the temperature outdoors. A lorry comes by to collect the chickens at the end of the cycle. I get people in to help us that day. Then we have to clean everything from top to bottom. We collect the manure to spread it on the fields or we take it to the nearby biogas facility.

SE: Our cycle lasts 63 days. Once the chicks leave the brooding area, we can adjust the temperature by opening and closing a window. I've installed a ventilator and we heat the facility a bit in the winter. Hot weather can be a problem in the summer. At the end of a cycle, I move the sheds (each one weighs around 3.6 t) to another plot. We rotate them across the plots. I also have people come and help us with the final loading operation. We generally have a good time and we eat together. Get-togethers like this are few and far between, so we make the most of it!

Did you run into any problems?

MM: It took two and a half years to get a building permit. Cattle farming is the norm here, so the authorities needed some convincing. You have to get started a long time in advance. At local level, animal welfare and sustainable farming lobbyists contacted me and threatened to block my plans. In the end, after taking the time to talk to them, to set out my arguments and explain what I planned to do, they didn't take any action.

SE: Same here for the building permit, but it only took a year.

Were you worried about using chicken manure on your fields?

SE: Yes, because it contains more ammonia, so it smells stronger. But I didn't have any problems.

MM: I put it on the fields further away to start with, to see if I could smell anything. I also went into the village and asked people to let me know if there was a problem. I'm careful not to put it anywhere and everywhere. Treating it with biogas certainly takes away the smell, but it also eliminates the benefits.

Are you looking to expand?

SE: No, we're already at maximum production capacity. More would be difficult to manage with the required level of hygiene.

MM: Bell doesn't want bigger chicken houses. But I'd be happy to expand my SST production operations with Bell.