A broiler poultry enterprise is an ideal fit for the Hodgson family’s Cumbrian arable and farm contracting business.
The first broiler shed at Shaw Hill Farm near Wigton was put up in 2004 and has capacity for 57,000 birds, with a second shed of the same size added in 2010. The move has been successful for Karl Hodgson, who farms with his father Vaughan and brother and sister, Ryan and Samantha.
The broiler sheds were put up after the dairy herd was culled during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.
The family considered establishing a suckler herd, but decided to look for “something different” that would fit in well with the labour demands of the other enterprises.
Karl says: “Broiler production complements the overall business, although the Covid-19 outbreak has affected the poultry meat supply chain. This is due to the closure of catering establishments and lack of social events.
“Demand for our birds has been reduced and while we would normally allow just one week between batches, we have moved to a three-week break system. It has had a negative influence on our profitability, but there is little that can be done and the processor has been supportive. Our only option is to wait until the situation improves and encourage people to purchase British chicken which carries the Red Tractor logo.”
Day-old chicks are delivered in a temperature-controlled wagon by PD Hook and the poultry buildings are pre-warmed to 33 degrees C, to prepare for their arrival. Chick crumb is scattered on to strips of degradable paper laid down the full length of the shed, until the chicks are old enough to be able to rely wholly upon the pan feeders. The sourcing of high quality chicks is of paramount importance for keeping mortality rates to a minimum, Karl says.
Four diets are used for the growing phases, with two draws taken; one at day 32-33 at an average weight of 1.95kgs and a second at day 45 to remove 3.2kgs birds. They are contract-reared for local wholesaler, Frank Bird Poultry. The two flocks are housed on sawdust, topped up with home-produced straw.
Once a batch of birds has been removed, it two days to muck out and wash each building, with another day for drying and a further two days for setting up prior to the next chick delivery. Poultry manure is stockpiled in a covered building before being spread, to provide a valuable source of fertiliser for the autumn/spring sown arable and grass crops. The farm has not needed to buy in phosphate or potash for the crops since the broiler enterprise was established.
Karl says: “We recently top-dressed a 16-hectare (40-acre) block of winter barley at a rate of 3.7 tonnes/acre, spreading at 12-metres with our Bunning machine.
“The manure has dramatically reduced the crop requirement for bagged nitrogen fertiliser, so it will make a significant contribution to farm profitability.”
The birds are routinely checked four times a day and this is one of the most important elements of their management, as any potential problems must be detected early. The farm does not employ staff, although Karl’s fiancée, Emma, helps out in her free time. Karl has become more involved in the management of the birds since he finished a two-year course on farm business management at Newton Rigg College in Cumbria in 2017.
Technology plays a role in bird welfare and new equipment which measures CO2 and ammonia levels has greatly helped to reduce gas usage, as well as improving overall flock health. Top of the list for possible new developments is an anaerobic digester which would convert the farm’s forage crops into heating and electricity for the poultry sheds. The family has not ruled out the addition of a third broiler shed, but Karl feels that the renewable energy project should take priority.
He says: “Changes to the rules which apply to the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive mean it is not attractive to spend money on an anaerobic digestion system at present.
“It would represent a huge investment for the business and the time is not yet right, although I think it will go ahead at some point in the future. It is our goal to become carbon neutral.
“The sheds are currently heated using LPG gas and it takes careful management to get the air quality correct to ensure good flock health and keep the bedding dry. A borehole has been added to minimise the water bill. The farm soil is high in iron and manganese, which are removed through a filter system and the water is also treated to ensure that it reaches the correct pH. There are six drinker lines which stretch the full length of the 109-metre (360-foot) long buildings.
“The broilers represented a huge investment for us. Since we started out, feed prices have risen sharply and the margins are not as high as they were initially. However, poultry production works well with our other enterprises, providing an income for the family so that we can all continue to work at home. It is also a great help with cash flow.”
Karl joined the National Farmers Union’s Poultry Industry Production (PIP) programme to learn about the wider industry.
It was set up to engage the next generation of poultry farmers and provide insight into the wider aspects of the industry, as well as offering a platform for like-minded young people in the sector to share their experiences. The Covid-19 pandemic has limited opportunities for Karl, although he did attend a group visit to the Aldi’s supermarket headquarters prior to the restrictions. It made a significant impression.
He says:“I was surprised by the large scale of Aldi’s egg and poultry lines and the slickness with which distribution was organised.
“There were many thousands of boxes and palletised perishable goods under one roof and I learned that the distribution centre at Atherstone in Warwickshire was sending out 160 wagons full of poultry produce a day to more than 100 stores.
“We were assured of Aldi’s commitment to the Red Tractor scheme, which we were told was applied to 100 per cent of fresh poultry meat products. This was encouraging and reinforced the idea that our own Red Tractor assurance membership was being valued further up the food chain.
“One of the Aldi’s managers gave a talk on how to keep overheads low and stressed the importance of keep things simple; another thing that impressed me was the focus on benchmarking and that is something that is of interest for the future.”
Valuable contacts were made with other young producers on the course and Karl has kept in touch with some of the other delegates.
“It was beneficial to hear about what other producers were doing; not just in broiler production but also in eggs. Joining the programme put me out of my comfort zone to some extent and it has definitely improved my communication skills. This is important, because as farmers we need to be able to talk confidently to the public, in order to promote our industry.
“Nevertheless it is sometimes the smallest things which make the biggest impression; I noticed that white boards were a key feature of Aldi’s organisation and I have taken up this idea at home. It helps ensure that everyone working in the poultry sheds can see the daily tasks and other notes at a glance and tick them off as they are completed.”