Joice & Hill – Where Quality Genetics Come First

We learn how Joice & Hill is staying one step ahead of the market in a vital sector of the food chain.

Joice & Hill Poultry is the UK Distributor for world-class breeds of egg-laying hens. You might have heard the old question about which came first, the chicken or the egg, but whether it’s breeding stock, eggs for processed foods, or even eggs used in the manufacture of vaccinations, the whole process starts with Joice & Hill and their parent company, Hendrix Genetics.

Four times a week Joice & Hill will process a set of up to 300,000 eggs that hatch 21 days later, meaning that at any one time at the company’s hatchery there can be over 2 million eggs in incubation. But Joice & Hill is about far more than sheer quantity.

“We sell on three main factors,” explains Nick Bailey, Managing Director of the company. “The first is the strength of our breeding programme. From a genetic perspective, we offer strong, robust products that will lay more first-quality eggs than our competitors. You can only really achieve that with our second factor, good quality, healthy, viable, well-vaccinated chicks. The quality of the laying hens the egg producer gets is dependent on the quality of the chicks the rearing farm gets from the hatchery. Finally, you need good management on the farms. We have a team of six people who support rearing companies and egg producers with flock management, nutritional and technical advice.”

Of course, finding good quality people at every level of the company can be a challenge in this day and age.

“There’s a huge shortage of good livestock-orientated people in the UK, especially since the UK voted to leave the EU,” Nick Bailey acknowledges. “A lot of farm positions across the industry over the last 10-20 years have been filled by people from Eastern Europe with good animal husbandry skills and experience with livestock, but many have chosen to go back as a consequence of the UK’s changed position on migrant workers from Europe. This has left more vacancies in the livestock sector, and many other agricultural and food processing sectors.”

The shortage has affected the employment base of the entire industry, even companies that, like Joice & Hill, only have a few Eastern European staff in the first place. However, following a year of low job security, furloughs and even working from home, some people are starting to see the appeal of the agriculture sector.

“We’re starting to see interest from people wanting to be involved in food production and agriculture again, people looking for different careers,” Nick Bailey points out. “It’s an interesting sector to be in, you’re working in the countryside, working with poultry. I have travelled extensively with my career, met many interesting people and been involved with a dynamic and innovative sector that brings great food to the table.”

To bring more people into the sector Joice & Hill has run apprenticeship schemes in partnership with a local education providers. Nick Bailey is clear that Joice & Hill has a great offer for prospective employees and that the company takes its responsibility for staff care and development very seriously.

“We’ve had a policy for the last two years of paying above the minimum wage, targeting the Real Living Wage,” Bailey says. “Although not yet a member of the foundation but we have that as the minimum pay level within the company. So, whether you’re working as an egg collector or hatchery operator you will get a real living wage and the possibility of achieving more senior positions such as a supervisor or farm manager. Training and mentoring are a vital part of developing a great team and keeping valuable staff.”

Counting Your Chickens

As well as ensuring they have the right staff, of course, Joice & Hill must ensure they are stocking the right breeds to meet the needs of the market, 6-18 months in advance of anticipated supply.

“There are risks in our business, but we won’t risk our clients’ success by sending them chicks that are below rigorous health status criteria and so we monitor supply flocks, the hatchery and our chicks very closely. That’s the supply risk, but there is also a commercial risk,” Nick Bailey tells us. “We need to know how many chicks our customers will buy and how popular each of our products will be based on how the market perceives them. Demand for individual products can change over time, so we must anticipate evolving market requirements and match our genetics accordingly.”

This is important because Joice & Hill provide roughly a third of the UK’s laying flock or 14 million chicks a year and doing that successfully means guessing how many of each breed the market is going to want. They literally need to count their chickens before they hatch.

“Because of the costs involved we can’t afford to get it too wrong,” Bailey says. “The eggs are expensive to produce because of the high value of the parent stock. They are expensive eggs and if we cannot turn them into chicks and they are processed we get very little of that value back. We have to target 95% hatching egg utilisation.”

To achieve that level of success, Joice & Hill needs to know its customers and market well.

“We watch trends very carefully, and we ask our customers what their intentions are and that usually enables us to guess quite closely how many we’re going to sell, but occasionally we get it wrong,” Bailey says. “Over the last ten years since we took on the full distribution of the Hendrix portfolio and our sales went from 6 million to 12, then back to 9 and now 14 million. The time cycle involved is a long one, so the parents we’re placing this month are still in production towards the autumn of next year. We have to know now what we think we’re going to sell next year.”

This means Joice & Hill isn’t just watching trends, it’s anticipating them. For example, if you buy eggs in Britain regularly, you will notice they are usually brown. This has been true since the 1970s. The nutritional content of a brown or white egg is identical, but white eggs were easier to produce. As demand for brown eggs grew, the industry learned to produce them more efficiently until the price came down and white eggs almost completely left the UK market. Globally other markets such as the U.S. remained white, but the UK went almost 100% brown. But now Joice & Hill is investing in the Dekalb White, a white egg-laying breed, in the belief that this offers important advantages to the evolving UK egg sector.

“White breeds are still more efficient and some like the Dekalb White, are also very well suited to free-range egg production systems. Dekalb White hens show better liveability, better egg-laying persistency, lower daily feed consumption and better feather cover compared to any brown breed available in the UK. So, they offer some real benefit in terms of sustainable egg production, the ease of management and efficiency, especially as the carbon footprint of food becomes more important,” Nick Bailey tells us. “In Europe, about 50% of hens are in enriched colony cages and 50% cage-free farms (a mixture of barn/aviary, free-range and organic housing systems). In the UK, the amount of free-range is steadily growing and now accounts for well over 60% of eggs produced here. With Dekalb White you get more eggs for less feed and the product is not nutritionally different.”

This drive towards sustainability is reflected in Joice & Hill’s plans for its own facilities, with the company adding solar panels to its hatchery roof as part of its refurbishment.

When we ask companies about the future there are a number of recurring trends. Often, they will talk about exciting new opportunities, big plans, or sometimes even potential challenges on the horizon. But when we ask Bailey about the future of Joice & Hill, his mind immediately goes to the company’s responsibilities.

“As quite a key part of the food production chain, we need to do a few things,” he insists. “We need to conduct our business and look after our animals in a way that meets the expectations of consumers and society. We need to supply the market with the right genetics that meet the growing need for sustainable free-range production, and we need to support this with the right technical support. We need to feedback the needs of our market to keep the Hendrix Genetics R&D department aware of how their products are performing and what improvements are needed. Most of all, we need to play a role in training a new generation of livestock workers and farmers.”

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