Norfolk agricultural year: January concerns for poultry health

A poultry health scare and a mountain of paperwork were January’s main challenges for Jeremy Buxton at Eves Hill Farm near Reepham – the subject of our monthly ‘year in the life of a Norfolk farm’ feature “. reports Chris Hill.

The year has started with a worrying problem for Norfolk farmer Jeremy Buxton – his hens aren’t laying eggs.

The 200 birds, which normally produce around 180 eggs a day, barely fill a tray of 30.

And as well as a health issue, it’s also a big financial worry, as he said the hens were costing his business £1,000 a month because they weren’t producing enough eggs to pay for their feed.

Gaby George of Westover Vets examines one of farmer Jeremy Buxton’s sick hens
– Credit: Kathryn Buxton

The free-range chickens arrived at Eves Hill Farm near Reepham last May but have been forced indoors since November when a mandatory housing order was imposed across the UK to stop the spread of the country’s largest avian flu epidemic.

Mr Buxton said the lockdown had contributed to the poor health of his chickens – but he was relieved to find they had not caught the disease itself, which would have prompted an immediate slaughter of the whole of the herd.

Instead, vets prescribed antibiotics for their respiratory symptoms and found mites under their feathers which Mr Buxton tried to remedy by creating a dust bath of ‘diatomaceous earth’ – a natural product that can scratch the waxy shell of the mite, causing them to die. .

“We can partly attribute this to the avian flu [the housing regulations]but also our inexperience with poultry,” he said. “We are still novices and I accept that we have made mistakes this winter in poultry management, because we are still learning.

“Any type of change in their routine can prevent the chickens from laying eggs. They have been moved indoors and in this unnatural environment they are susceptible to parasites like mites, which is the problem we have now.

“We’ve decided to tackle the mite first, and will consider giving antibiotics after that. I’m hesitant to use antibiotics, I want to give them a few days first to see if it will go away.

“We gave them a dust bath, which is a very natural solution.

Jeremy Buxton's sick chickens enjoy a dust bath to solve their mite problem

Jeremy Buxton’s sick chickens enjoy a dust bath to solve their mite problem
– Credit: Denise Bradley

“If they were outside, all those little bits of sand and dirt in the dirt would do the same job. That’s what we did wrong – we didn’t provide them with a place to take a dust bath when housed in. We didn’t reproduce nature inside.

“But that’s the thing with cattle, you never stop learning. None of that will happen next winter, because we learned from what happened this winter.

“The most upsetting thing for me is that we have so many wonderful customers, and all of a sudden their eggs have dried up. We have to let people down, that’s the worst thing.”

Farmer Jeremy Buxton does clerical work in his home office

Farmer Jeremy Buxton does clerical work in his home office
– Credit: Denise Bradley

Administrative formalities and planning

Poultry issues aside, Mr Buxton said January was generally a quiet month dominated by a deluge of administration and paperwork on the family farm.

This includes preparing for farm insurance audits, analyzing last year’s financial figures, sending soil samples for analysis, making decisions on spring crops, advertising campsites and glamping and meeting with council planners to discuss designs for his proposed new farm shop – yet prompting forms to be filled in.

“Most farmers would prefer to be outdoors, even when the weather is gloomy, but in January we often find ourselves indoors doing paperwork and planning,” he said.

The farm is soon awaiting an audit by Red Tractor, the leading agricultural assurance scheme aimed at ensuring high quality standards in the UK food chain.

“I’m pretty scathing about these things, I think they’re a bit absurd,” Mr Buxton said.

“For example, we took our cattle out of the Red Tractor program. Because we sell our beef direct from the farm, none of our customers ask about Red Tractor because we can be completely transparent, so they believe in the systems that we set out to provide the quality of beef they expect.

“All these audits and assurance programs mean less time on the farm. I’m not a fan of paperwork. Who is? But we have to be audited.

“We couldn’t sell our crops if we weren’t part of Red Tractor, otherwise we wouldn’t get the same prices. This is to show that we follow all the rules and regulations that the powers that be want us to follow. . “

Jeremy Buxton with some of his farm machinery which he sells

Jeremy Buxton with some of his farm machinery which he sells
– Credit: Denise Bradley

Machine movements

Despite the relative winter calm in the fields, there was a steady stream of machinery traffic in and out of the farm gates.

This includes the grain trucks coming to take away the grain batches from the last harvest, but also the sale of surplus machinery to prepare the farm’s fleet for the coming year.

“As our system evolves, our cattle become more of a tool in this regenerative system rather than just producers of beef,” Buxton said.

“They’re now 100% grass fed so if a cow is eating straight out of the field we don’t need all the grass cutting and baling tools that depreciate by sitting there. doing nothing. It cuts costs and saves time and makes life much easier.

“We are also looking for new machines that could make the farm more efficient and speed things up. I would really like a direct seeder. It’s at the top of my list, and we need an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) or Quad suitable for what we’re doing – a lighter, more agile vehicle that damages the ground less.”

Grass fed Hereford cattle grazing on pasture at Eves Hill Farm, near Reepham

Grass fed Hereford cattle grazing on pasture at Eves Hill Farm, near Reepham
– Credit: Karl Hendry

Vegan / Regenerative

January is also a month when the impact of meat production and livestock emissions on the environment becomes a hot topic during the annual Veganuary campaign.

As a supplier of beef from grass-fed Hereford cattle, Mr. Buxton wants to distinguish between his “regenerative” system and the intensive “feedlot” systems in other countries, where cattle are kept in large yards and fed with optimized rations.

He is a follower of the “Regenuary” alternative movement, which encourages consumers to choose meat from farms whose livestock enrich the soil of the carbon-storing pastures on which they graze.

“Everyone has the choice to eat what they think is good for them, but it’s about sourcing responsibly from production systems that don’t harm the environment or our climate, and thinking also food miles,” he said.

“And everyone in the food chain needs to be transparent and honest about how their food is produced, and make sure that gets passed down to the consumer, so there’s no slander.”

As part of this educational effort, Mr. Buxton is hosting a class on March 21, led by regenerative agriculture expert Niels Corfield, who has helped guide new practices at Eves Hill Farm.

It will teach farmers the fundamentals of soil health including minimizing soil disturbance and artificial chemicals, maintaining a living root in the soil year-round, integrating livestock in the system.

“Change is on the way, so here’s some peer-to-peer learning to speed up the process,” Buxton said.

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