How the UK’s Border Eggs built an award-winning business

Moving to egg from arable production has brought success to a Scottish farmer.

Award-winning Border Egg producers James and Angela MacLean manage a flock of more than 100,000 Lohmann Brown free range, and free-range organic, birds on their 400-acre farm in Scotland. (John Millard | UNP)
Award-winning Border Egg producers James and Angela MacLean manage a flock of more than 100,000 Lohmann Brown free range, and free-range organic, birds on their 400-acre farm in Scotland. (John Millard | UNP)

U.K. free range and free-range organic egg producers James and Angela MacLean, of Border Eggs in Berwickshire, have built an award-winning business and are one of the few farms in southern Scotland to increase staffing levels each year. So why do they feel they’re sometimes “pushing water uphill”?

James MacLean talks to Jenny Hone about the keys to success, and why producing food in the U.K. countryside can be a struggle.

Hone: How did you get into egg production, and why choose the free range, and free-range organic, route?

MacLean: Egg production has secured the future of the farm. Until 2007, our 400-acre arable farm was growing wheat and barley, but the returns were not what they were a generation ago, and it was clear that a farm of this size would ultimately become unsustainable. Also, we wanted a challenge. The poultry job is interesting, rewarding, challenging and fun – and at times, a shed load of hassle!

Organic allowed us to start small, with 3,000 Lohmann Brown Classic birds. We tripled this in 2008 to 9,000, and then in 2009 the banking crisis meant the requirement for organic eggs dwindled, so we diversified into free range, with a further 12,000 Lohmann Browns. We now have 104,000 chickens, with organic accounting for 10 percent of our business, making us a medium-sized organic egg producer.

Hone: You were recently named Egg Producer of the Year by a U.K. trade magazine. What is the key to your success?

MacLean: We have a small but good team of eight core members of staff – including my wife and me – plus a vast array of self-employed helpers, such as engineers, electricians, planning consultants, etc., and a number of local people who help out at each turnaround.

In addition to employing good people, I think the secret to success is don’t try to be too clever; don’t try to change what isn’t broken. Ellerington Engineering sheds, Big Dutchman equipment, Lohmann Brown Classic chickens and Noble Foods’ feed is a system that works for us. We’re following what others have done before, and occasionally doing things a bit differently.

We are just adding another shed so there’s a lot of borrowed money at risk. We’ve multiplied up from 3,000 to upwards of 130,000 birds over two companies – in 2016 Angela launched MacLean Eggs – but principally there’s only one type of bird on farm, and two different production systems.

It’s also important to pay your bills – both the large suppliers and, in particular, and the small local companies, so they come back and help you tomorrow. We need them, and we’re proud they are now relying on us for some of their yearly income. It means that when we ask someone to give us a hand, they do, and we all move on together.

Hone: What made you choose the supplier Noble Foods?

MacLean: It’s best to align yourself with the biggest and the best, and Noble supplies 60-70 percent of the U.K. egg market. Their field support is very good, they’ve helped us grow our business, and they’ve been very supportive with advice. Ultimately, they are making money from the eggs they purchase from us, but it’s in their best interest to see us succeed because then we produce more for them.

Business is not hard if you follow the philosophy, "Look after us and we’ll look after you."

Layer Stimulation 3

A playhouse is one of several toys that keep the chickens entertained. (John Millard | UNP)

Hone: How do you provide optimal conditions for your birds?

MacLean: Our business is to look after the birds, so we have the same management routine for both free range and free-range organic.

The first organic sheds we looked at were little more than wooden shacks – so-called curtain-sided mobiles – with hand-winch ventilation. By comparison, the conventional free range sheds were all-singing, all-dancing with computer-controlled ventilation – and they were getting tremendous results. So we decided to house both our free range and free-range organic birds in state-of-the-art sheds. This way we get similar egg-laying capacity from both, which means around 350 eggs from a 76-week bird. Organic is still a production system, so why would you put the birds in a poorer quality shed, or feed them an inferior ration?

We are also taking part in Scotland’s Rural College enrichment program to test the effects of different enrichments on 32,000 of our birds, in eight pens of 4,000. We don’t do a lot of trials on the farm but as a management tool, within one shed, it’s good to find out what the birds like and don’t like, both from an industry perspective and for our own business.

Hone: Have you experienced any particular disease challenges?

MacLean: No, we look after the birds and work closely with the veterinarian to ensure problems are kept to a minimum and vaccination programs are strictly adhered to. We get quality pullets from Noble Foods, we don’t rear our own because there’s no point in diluting our expertise, and we have enough challenges with our own business.

Hone: How might Brexit affect your business?

Maclean: When you build a free-range shed, it costs GBP1.2 million (US$1.5 million), so you’re in it for 20 years, not two years. There’s no point tying yourself in knots about things you can’t influence. We work closely with Noble Foods, and we supply them with what they ask for, which in recent years has been free range. We are Marks & Spencer accredited, we produce Happy Eggs, but we are simple people and it’s not our job to judge the marketplace. There are too many politicians in this world without becoming one.

Hone: What are your plans for the business?

MacLean: You need to be a reasonable-sized player to keep the lorries coming in the road end. Big businesses want to deal with big business, so we will continue to expand until we’ve exhausted the possibilities on the farm, and then we’ll grow the business elsewhere, either in Scotland or England, because we’re only seven miles from the border. We want to be adaptable to change, to give Noble, and ultimately the consumer, want they want, whether that’s more sheds or a speciality egg.

Hone: You mentioned earlier that egg production can be a hassle. In what way?

MacLean: In Japan, there are no free-range chickens because there is so little land. Here we have the land, but local people don’t want food produced in the countryside. The local planning committee refused our last shed because of objections from a small number of local residents, even though we had the support of the planning department and statutory bodies and had met all the criteria. We spent a year appealing it and the Scottish government finally approved it in November 2018, but we lost a year of production. Unfortunately this is happening in all areas of livestock farming. Consumers want produce on the supermarket shelves 24/7, but they don’t want it produced in their backyard.

Hone: Despite some local opposition to your business, you support the community in a number of ways.

MacLean: When you’re making money, it’s not all about spending it on yourself. We sponsor a number of local events and charities, including the Berwick Ladies Hockey team, Chirnside Chasers running group and a local special school. We have a budget every year and we tend to exceed it. It’s the right thing to do and when sometimes it feels like you’re pushing water uphill, there’s nothing better than someone saying "thank you," as opposed to “bloody chicken farmer.” It’s good to give something back.

Egg Sorting 2

Sorting the eggs for supplier Noble Foods. (John Millard | UNP)

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