Perfectly trained hens
Frans Smets (58) and his wife Rita (57) run a rearing farm for free-range layer hens in the Belgian community of Kasterlee (south of Turnhout). Rita has a part-time job and helps out when things get busy at the company. Their two hen houses from 2004 provide space for the rearing of 39,500 free-range layer hens. The newer facility (from 2010) houses 59,500 free-range layer hens. Frans selected Vencomatic Group's Jump Start system for all three houses. Frans Smets was the first Flemish poultry farmer to install the Vencomatic Group's Jump Start system at his company. Jump Start allows Frans to supply perfectly trained hens to his clients.
Before becoming a poultry farmer, he worked as a carpenter for fourteen years. In the early nineties, he took over a broiler farm with two houses in Kasterlee. Frans: "I started with broilers in 1993. Partly due to the dioxin crisis, I was wondering (around 2003) how I wanted to continue with our business. I noticed that there was a considerable demand for free-range hens, so I started rearing in 2004. An advantage of rearing is that you regularly have a quiet period for yourself,Another factor was that I had no desire to collect eggs." He converted his two hen houses for the rearing of 39,500 free-range layer hens and chose for the new Jump Start system.
Frans remembers negotiating at his kitchen table with the Vencomatic Group sales representative in 2004. The sales representative gave a solid sales pitch for the Jump Start, when he suddenly stopped. Frans: "The salesman looked at me and said: "Well, I guess a Fleming won't buy anything from a Dutchman.” So I poured a glass of Trappist beer. After a few more, we signed and completed the sale."
Frans was the first poultry farmer in Flanders to install the Jump Start system at his company. Fellow poultry farmers and even the people of the hatchery thought that he was crazy. "They told me: ‘A return to free-range means going back to square one.’ But I believed in Jump Start and the reward for rearing was good." In 2010, Frans built a new hen house for 59,500 free-range layer hens at a second location a little further away, and there he also chose for the Jump Start system. He is particularly happy with the high uniformity of the system: 93 percent with brown hens and 96 percent with white hens.
But Frans considers it equally important that Jump Start lives up to the promise of 'perfectly trained hens' that will do well in an aviary system. "From day 10, the winchable plateau with water is pulled up by 4 centimetres at a time. So to get to the water, the hens must jump higher and higher." In the end, the drinking level is at 1.5 metres, which means that the hens can jump well. After 17 weeks, Frans sees this when he turns off the lights in the evening and the animals all go to rest as high up as possible in their hen house. Frans: "When the hens jump up into the system in the evening, they immediately find water and feed in the morning – and that ensures high uniformity. This is also the big advantage of Jump Start over a row system with water and feed at the same level. The advantage of a row system is that you have less work, but I prefer a bit more work in return for a lot more uniformity."
Of course, the poultry farmers, who buy hens from Frans, share his desire for perfectly trained animals. Frans wants the farmers to be happy, as they pay good money for the layer hens. They must be able to earn a return on their investment, and that also implies as few floor eggs as possible. Frans: "Picking up thousands of floor eggs every day is a nightmare. That's why the hens must have learned to sit upstairs at night, because that will make them lay their eggs in the laying nest in the morning. That's the idea behind the jump training of the Jump Start system."
The Flemish poultry farmer is happy with Jump Start, although hens with whole beaks have been an issue in the last three years. Frans: "The KAT has banned debeaking and the farmers have agreed. But pecking may occur out of boredom, but also if intestinal health is not 100 percent, for example. And since the animals in the Jump Start system run free, you have to keep an eye on that. So we give them lucerne and picking stones; one stone per 1,000 chicks. It is also a matter of adjusting feed and light. And we play music: pop music from Studio Brussels." Frans explains that he plays the music relatively loud to mask any sounds that could frighten the hens, such as a falling bucket or a passing aeroplane.
If Frans Smets were to expand his company now, he would certainly choose Jump Start again. Frans: "It's because of the people who work at Vencomatic Group. They truly care about the hens. They're passionate about their work, and you can feel it. Their goal is to create the best possible system. This means a system where both the farmer and the hen are happy with. Actually, Jump Start is like an entertainment park for hens; they move and they jump and have access to everything."