18 August 2018 | Online since 2003

21 July 2018

Farmer's lucerne pecking bales improves well being of layer flock

Doug says the lucerne pecking bales provide his birds with greater well-being and overall health

Free range egg producer Doug Wanstall says that providing his layers with lucerne pecking bales has improved the health and wellbeing off his birds.

He is also convinced that it has boosted productivity in his flocks.

Doug, who has 11 layer farms with 220,000 birds, introduced the lucerne bales last year as an alternative to pecking blocks.

This year Doug has planted 200 acres of lucerne, which will produce about 1,000 tonnes

He says he quickly started to see the benefits: "We have certainly seen more healthy birds and more healthy birds lay more eggs - there is no doubt about it," Doug says.

"We are seeing drier litter, we are seeing better quality - and it always makes people laugh - but we are seeing better quality poo.

The lucerne is being grown on Doug's own land in Kent

"We think - and this is less tangible - that we are getting better food conversion and so they (the birds) are using slightly less compound feed.

"The whole idea is adding availability of fibre to chickens and this has a number of different health benefits."

'Pecking bales'

The lucerne is being grown on Doug's own land in Kent. As well as the layers, his Bank Farm farming business has 1,200 acres of arable land and a beef suckler herd.

This year he has planted 200 acres of lucerne, which will produce about 1,000 tonnes. Half of it is fed to the cattle - "this stuff is brilliant for finishing beef cattle. We have got some at the moment that are putting on about 1.8 kilos a day and we are just feeding them lucerne," said Doug.

"The rest is turned into pecking bales for the chickens - both for his own layer farms and also now for sale to other producers.

"This is the first year we have sold the product to other people. It's early days but we have had some good positive feedback from the people who have used it.

"I can't imagine any feedback would be negative because we have only had positives from it," he said.

The lucerne is sold in 15-kilo bales. Doug explained that they are "compressed into plastic bags, we put the bag into the chickens and just make little holes in the bag and let the birds slowly peck away."

"Our bales will tend to last quite a long time - they will last a week to 10 days with the chickens and then we replace them."


Doug stumbled across lucerne a few years ago on a Nuffield study tour to the United States. He subsequently saw it being used by egg producers in the Netherlands.

As Doug is doing now, the Dutch producers used lucerne in bales as an enrichment.

"We were looking for something different to oilseed rape and beans, which we were not making very good returns on," he explained.

"I came across lucerne when I was doing my Nuffield study tour - I saw it grown in the States. I also saw it being used in chickens in Holland. They were feeding it in Dutch barns to reduce feather pecking and to give the birds something to do - to keep them occupied. It was a kind of combination of factors that got us started."

He said: "We are giving it to them as an enrichment to give them something to do - allow them to express their normal foraging behaviour. The beauty of lucerne is that it's also got very good dietary fibre in it, it's very high in protein and the chlorophyll in the leaf is very good as an additional yolk colourant.

"So there are all sorts of advantages. It is an alternative sort of pecking block that gives you more than just something to peck at. It is a very dry material as well, so it helps create a nice dry litter. There are so many advantages to using it."

Break crop

Doug started growing lucerne on his own land three years ago, replacing oilseed rape and beans in the rotation.

"Each stand of lucerne will last for two to three years. It will last longer but, because we are also growing our own wheat for the chickens, we want to make sure we have got wheat still in the rotation.

"So it's acting as a break crop. We put it in for between two and three years, depending on a number of factors, one of which is black grass levels. Where we want to build the fertility of the land we may leave it in for an extra year," said Doug.

"After that we will grow wheat and then probably a triticale, then spring barley and then probably put it back into lucerne in the fourth year."

Last year was the first time Doug processed the lucerne into bales to give to the chickens. "We got a small amount of our product processed and started putting it in with the birds," he said.

"It was very clear that the farms we were using it on were seeing the advantages."

Doug said he started seeing better feather retention and less stress in the birds. "We decided this summer to grow more of it and to make sure we could not only grow it but dry it and process it to provide a product that's useful for the poultry industry."

'Quite risky'

The lucerne bales are being sold directly alongside Bank Farm's feed, as well as through ForFarmers and Avivets.

"I think we would probably like to increase the amount we grow as the market grows because, now we are going to the trouble of having it processed, we are looking at developing horse products as well," he said.

"We will progressively grow more but I don't want to go too crazy to start with because it is quite risky stuff. It can go wrong.

"It is not very easy to establish, weed control is not easy so the first cut tends to be a bit weedy. We feed that to the cattle. After that, once you get going, the crop smothers out the weeds and you don't have any problems."

He said the weather had smiled on him this year. "Lucerne is quite a risky crop to grow but this year we have been very lucky with the weather - we have managed to do most of the job outside, using the sun and the wind to dry it.

"There are times when you need to artificially dry it and we have got drying floors that we use.

"The beauty of lucerne is that it is a crop that keeps growing in the dry. They reckon the roots can go down 15 metres. It does tend to do quite well in a drought year. It struggles on very wet weather. If I was on a heavy clay land, I don't think we would try to grow it."

Anyone interested in trying the lucerne bales can obtain them through ForFarmers or Avivets. Alternatively, you can contact Doug directly at doug@bankfarm.co.uk, telephone 01233 720215.


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