Hard farm data trumps luck for the cluckers at Josh's Rainbow Eggs.

There's a saying that you shouldn't count your chickens until they hatch. This is particularly true when it comes to farming. However, at one free-range chicken farm in Victoria, technology and a smart monitoring system is proving that having a handle on your farm's numbers and being able to predict when there's a problem is worth shelling out for.

Josh's Rainbow Farm came into being to fund Josh Murray's LEGO habit. At just nine years old he began tending to his family's 40 chickens and selling their eggs to neighbours and then expanded to taking them to town and farmers markets.

The eggs were from an assortment of chickens, which produced white, brown, blue, green and even pink eggs - hence the inclusion of rainbow in the business name.

With the support of his family, including his mother and Chief Executive Officer, Dr Tamsyn Murray, the business now delivers 15,000 to 18,000 dozen eggs to Woolworths, Coles and independent supermarkets each week across Victoria.


Farm/Enterprise Name: Josh's Rainbow Eggs

Farm/Enterprise Location: Monegeetta, Victoria, Australia

Type of Enterprise: Poultry (eggs)

Primary Markets Served: Woolworths, Coles and independent supermarkets

Staffing: 28

Property Size: 100 hectares

Property Elevation: 415m

Average Annual Rainfall: 800-900mm

Climate: Temperate

Soil Types: Loam clay

Website: www.joshsrainboweggs.com.au


The growth of Josh's Rainbow Eggs has been steep and fast, and with that growth comes increased risk. Poultry must be managed carefully and expertly to ensure good health, which equates to egg quantity and quality. Tamsyn likens their hens to elite athletes, which require optimum feed and conditions to perform.

Chickens are also inherently at risk of stress, even at the farm's free-range density of just 1500 hens per hectare. Something as simple as eggs being collected at a different time, doors not opening at the same time each day, their water being off for an hour or a visit from a hawk can impact their rate of lay drastically. When there is a problem - whether that be disease or even a mechanical malfunction - identifying the issue and actioning a solution in a timely manner is imperative.

'Primary production is not a factory, we don't just add ingredients and get what we want, we don't have control,' Tamsyn says. 'The stuff we can control, we have to nail it, we have to be at 100 percent.'

The growth of Josh's Rainbow Eggs has been steep and fast, and with that growth comes increased risk.

In a small operation, it can be easy to keep an eye on things, but with 12 sheds, 28 staff and many moving parts it's easy to miss signs that things are not right. Tamsyn needed to find a way employees could operate independently, identify red flags and take the appropriate action from their first day.


Smart mobile sheds

The solution started with the design of smart sheds, which have all the automation of a Sunny Queen or a Pace Farm shed, but give hens access to pasture.

The sheds, which were designed by the family through trial and error, include:

  • Sensors that alert when water runs out or there is a blockage;
  • Sensors on silos;
  • Four cameras in every shed, with playback capabilities;
  • Off-grid solar panels, with lithium batteries, that provide all power;
  • Plumbed water;
  • Doors that open at the same time every day;
  • Misters that are temperature controlled to keep sheds at 28℃ during summer;
  • Feed that is released every two hours;
  • Opening and closing nesting boxes; and,
  • Filters and a doser if vitamins and vaccines are required.

Since 2018 the Murrays have been building their own sheds and have settled on a design that is 12 metres by 40 metres, where the chickens roost and lay eggs, and they are encouraged to free range the paddocks.

The Murrays designed mobile smart sheds which have a litany of automation to keep the hens happy, healthy and productive.

The sheds are very large, and every four to six months a bulldozer is used to move them to fresh pasture. The older and smaller sheds move even more frequently. With 10 tonnes of birds plus the shed to move, it's quite an exercise. In wet weather, an excavator is sometimes used to tow the bulldozer pulling the shed.

There's a solar system on each shed that powers it on almost every day of the year. The solar system is monitored via an app because it can not fail. Once or twice a year the batteries need to be charged by a generator due to a lack of sunlight to charge its batteries sufficiently.

It's not just lights in the shed that require electricity, with lots of moving parts, including nesting boxes, needing automation to work. Without power the nesting boxes won't open which means the hens are forced to lay their eggs wherever they are. It creates complete and utter chaos and the hens are extremely unhappy.

IT support

Josh's Rainbow Eggs employed its first full-time IT person three years ago and now also has a chief technology officer, who consults to the business.

Josh's Rainbow Eggs employed its first full-time IT person three years ago and now also has a chief technology officer, who consults to the business.

Everything is recorded on mobile forms, from egg collection, to traceability in the grading room and even putting a box on the shelf in Woolworths. When eggs are collected the data is entered into the system and a traffic light alert shows the employee if they're in the red, amber or green. If the egg quantity or weights are down that will flag an issue in the system and the collector will have to stay where they are, so as not to spread potential disease to another shed.

'The sooner you catch something the better,' Tamsyn says. 'It's very stressful and the stakes are really high. We need to know if a shed is sick.'

Different staff members have access to different dashboards, so they can sound the alarm if something is 'mismatched', as Tamsyn calls it. 'I can see the mismatches because I've been doing this for so long. Teaching your team to see those mismatches is a very long process. That's why the technology is so important.'

Automation and reporting also extends to the packing shed.

Grading shed

Automation and reporting also extends to the packing shed, with smart tools like an auto crack detector, the envy of many small egg producers. Eggs roll under tiny drum sticks that tap on the eggs and microphones can 'hear' if there are any cracks.

Another tool pulls out eggs if they have no yolk or another abnormality, and candling (a light-penetration grading process) is also done by machines.


Inbuilt formula to change

Data is also collected on individual flocks because every flock is different.

The system has been refined with this principle in mind: Red flags are important, but only the ones that matter.

Dismissing data outliers due to human error and being able to recognise why the change has occurred is important. For example, a 5% reduction in production for the week in one shed was explained by reviewing footage that showed a hawk sitting on its curtain.

Another common issue was if eggs were collected early, which meant that not as many hens had had a chance to lay yet. The dashboard would turn red indicating that a low egg count could be due to an illness or problem with something in the shed.

However, they now have a formula in the background that can adjust the expected lay rate at variable times, therefore eradicating red flags that are not problems at all.

'We have to get rid of false alarms otherwise we spend all our time running around like a headless chook,' Tamsyn says.

'We have to get rid of false alarms otherwise we spend all our time running around like a headless chook.'

They now have years of data to call on, so accuracy is increasing and false red flags decreasing. Data is also collected on individual flocks, because every flock is different. Tamsyn describes the system as insurance and peace of mind and says Josh's Rainbow Eggs wouldn't be the same business without it.

Continuous improvement to secure future success

For those wondering, Josh still works in the business four days a week, while simultaneously studying business and marketing at university. With the help of his family, he's built something far greater than the LEGO creations he once dreamed of.

There's still more to improve, with Tamsyn next wanting to automate the sheds' blinds, so they allow sun in through the day and close in the evening. The extreme growth of the business shows that somewhere over the rainbow, dreams really do come true. You just have to work hard and smart for them.