In 2012, that experience and decisive, collaborative hatchery practice is delivering continuing growth for third-generation owner and hatchery manager, Hugo Elshuis.
One hundred years ago, when it was still the tradition to hatch chicks once a year for eggs and meat during the Christmas season, there were more than 20 hatcheries in and around the small country village of Albergen, in The Netherlands.
Today only the Elshuis Hatchery survives: a legacy to the current owner, Hugo Elshuis, from his Grandfather, who bought the former site of a brick and stone factory after the First World War, to build a hatchery.
In the early years, Elshuis reared its own parent stock. But to keep pace with the company’s growth, breeding was increasingly outsourced - and during the fifties, as demand for chicken grew, the hatchery concentrated on meat-production, which became - and remains - the mainstay of the business, with a special focus on exporting to Italy.
Today, 15 contract partners produce all 800,000 to one million eggs set by the hatchery per week. All these partners are breeder farmers: experienced poultrymen who own the birds and take full responsibility for them throughout their lives. This ’cluster’ of poultry businesses, says Hugo Elshuis, is not only an important contributor to the region’s economy, but also and crucially, the starting point for superior performance and chick quality all the way through the production chain.
Almost all the breeder farms that supply eggs each week are located within a relatively short 60 km radius from the Elshuis Hatchery.
The farms vary in size, at between 30-48,000 breeder hens, with the majority having supplied the hatchery for many years. Some of the breeder farmers are still smaller – and of one with just 7,000 hens, Mr Elshuis recalls the long tradition of the relationship: “This may seem like an uneconomical size, but this farmer has consciously resisted expansion over the years. He is content with the size and nature of his farm. His hatching eggs are always of high quality, and as an Elshuis contract breeder for many years, he is part of our ‘business family’.
“Besides”, he adds pragmatically, “ it is good to have a smaller producer in the group, his batches fill the gaps.”
Elshuis Hatchery is a complex of rooms that reflects not only the development of the hatchery over more than 90 years, but in parallel, the history of Dutch hatchery technology company Pas Reform’s product development over the same period of time.
In each room of the hatchery, Pas Reform incubators of different generations, even the oldest still, says Mr Elshuis, meet every expectation. “The hatchery has been equipped with a computerised hatchery information system, which enables remote access and control to the hatchery’s key functions.
“But I come from generations of hatcherymen, who have always valued observation and first-hand experience as assets in this business”, he says. “I live right next to the hatchery, and I like to walk through the buildings regularly, to hear, see and feel what is going on in the incubators.
“Modern technologies are essential in today’s hatchery environments, but I think it is also important to balance that with personal understanding and knowledge of the job. It’s a bit like having a calculator to do maths: it makes the work much faster, but it’s still important to understand how to do the calculations without one.”
Generations of experience
Elshuis places great emphasis on efficiency in the management of the hatchery, with a focus on maintaining harmonious, mutual relationships with its breeder farmer and broiler grower partners. “The challenge,” says Hugo, “is to balance the scale of production with good communication between all the partners.” For this reason, Hugo Elshuis does not employ sales people or production advisors, preferring to uphold these important, generations-long relationships personally.
“Our fathers and grandfathers collaborated to build these businesses before us – and we can hope to leave a legacy that encourages our children to do the same.”
It is with these levels of trust and respect that Elshuis Hatchery operates, working with its partners to make collective decisions on aspects that affect all the businesses, from breed choice to how eggs should be delivered. This strong cooperation and involvement delivers excellent planning, processes and quality – and attention to details, such as the supply of eggs to the hatchery already placed safely in setter trays and ready for loading.
“The details come out of genuine care for the job being done”, says Hugo, “and invariably deliver real benefits: in this case, reducing transfer time and cost, and minimising the risk of cracks and contamination.”
After transfer to the hatchery, the setter trays are moved from the farm trolleys onto the setter trolleys, disinfected and passed through quality control, before being loaded into one of the hatchery’s 30 setters. Eighteen days later, the eggs are candled and placed into hatcher baskets for the final three days of incubation in one of 30 hatchers.
Respecting chick welfare
Newly hatched chicks must pass quality checks before being placed into transport crates. And in the chick room is the very latest example of Pas Reform technology in the Elshuis ‘collection’.
SmartCount™ is an innovation in chick counting and handling, that uses Vision Technology to deliver high capacity - 75,000 chicks per hour – counting, while at the same time maintaining low conveyor speeds. The system deploys a unique ‘dosing curtain’, to gently and accurately count chicks into the crates at the end of the conveyor, without separating them from their groups.
Fast counting with the minimum of stress appeals to Hugo Elshuis. It supports the birds’ well-being, allowing them to remain upright at all times on the conveyor, resulting in the minimum of stress to the chicks, while dramatically reducing throughput time. “Less haste, more speed – it is a principle that SmartCount™ seems to embody as a counting and analysing system,” he says, “at every point, the chicks are managed accurately and gently, clearing this part of their journey much more quickly, without stress.”
Modern technologies, efficiency and speed are blended with traditional values and experienced management at Elshuis Hatchery. With the experience of almost 100 years, Hugo Elshuis is equipping his hatchery for strong, continuing growth – and safeguarding a legacy that will tell its own story for generations to come.