Turkey production has been part of the Davis family’s farming business in Monmouthshire for 30 years. Laura Bowyer reports.
Trading as Usk Vale, the Davis family’s turkey business has three elements: contract rearing, contract slaughter, and production of poultry for the Christmas market.
Nick Davis, who runs the 53-hectare (130-acre) Maesmawr Farm, overlooking the Llandegfedd reservoir, Glascoed, with his wife Maria and son, Will, says: “We process 50,000 turkeys for the Christmas market, 15,000 of which are free-range bronze turkeys, with the rest white and barn-reared.
“At the same time, we are rearing and processing 4,000 large ‘roaster’ chickens, also for the Christmas trade.”
Nick started the business by growing and processing stag turkeys all year for the catering trade. “We were killing 1,000 birds each week of the year, but eight years ago we decided to stop this continuous production as the margins shrunk and eventually became negative.”
Cheap, imported meat was to blame, claims Nick. The business battled on for four or five years but the price just kept falling.
He says: “Stopping year-round production was the right decision to make. To this day, the price of imported breast meat has not risen to a level where any UK producer can make a margin. Therefore we had to up our Christmas production in order to increase profitability and also look to alternative revenue sources.”
Nick wanted to use existing resources for this, namely labour, the slaughterhouse and ‘growing farms’.
He says: “This has actually worked out well, with two farms now growing turkeys to nine weeks of age throughout the year for Shoby poultry and contract slaughtering.
“Although we do not contract slaughter every week, it has had the desired effect of maintaining key staff throughout the year, who are flexible and prepared to work on both the growing and processing sides of the business. It also keeps the slaughterhouse equipment moving, which, otherwise, would literally seize up.
“This additional revenue has also allowed us to regularly update the premises to meet the ever increasing regulatory burden, speed up processing and, hence, do more birds in the short four-week window in the run-up to Christmas.”
Along with Christmas, Usk Vale identified the American and Canadian Thanksgiving markets as opportunities to sell its products.
Turkeys destined for Christmas arrive around June or July time as day-old poults. These birds begin their lives on the farm being ‘brooded’ where they are kept in circular pens of 400, kept warm by an overhead heater.
“At the brooding stage, attention to detail is crucial,” says Nick. “We need to give the birds as many places to take feed and water as we can to ensure their survival and vigour.
“Flock mortality is about 3-4 per cent and this is due largely to birds which do not thrive at this early stage.”
Initially the poults are fed a 28 per cent protein compound feed. As the birds age, the level of protein in the diet decreases and energy levels go up.
Poults are kept in these broods for one week. The artificial heat is maintained for a further five weeks and gradually reduced until the temperature becomes ambient.
Birds are reared in traditional farm buildings either in Usk Vale’s 13 buildings or one of their contract rearers’ farms. This means the birds are reared in natural light and ventilation, which Nick believes improves the flavour and texture of the meat, and they are grown to maturity to achieve the right carcase size.
Nick says: “The principles of growing a good turkey are no different to those of other livestock, with good stockmanship being, perhaps, the most important of these. We are blessed to have our stockman Lee, whose dedication is second to none.”
Usk Vale uses nine contract rearers, all of which are located in Monmouthshire. All poults are brooded at the Glascoed site and then moved to the other farms at six weeks of age.
Barn-reared turkeys are kept on straw which is chopped in-house, reducing bedding costs by about a third.
Free-range birds have constant access to the outdoors, achieved by the use of twin electric fencing. Birds have the option to find shelter in polytunnels, which also houses their feed and water.
Birds have access to environmental enrichment, with straw bales to perch on and CDs and plastic bottles to play with.
“We produce birds ranging from 3kg to 20kg, with the average size being 6kg.
“The slaughter process is relatively quick and with our system we can comfortably process 16,000 birds each week.”
A vet and meat inspector have to be on-site at all times when birds are being killed and processed. The business is also audited by the Food Standards Agency annually.
“Currently we do not sell to supermarkets,” says Nick. “We supply butchers and wholesalers.
“We like selling to wholesalers even though the margins are tighter and try to have one wholesaler in each region of the country, although we currently have a gap in the North and would like to find a reputable business to work with there. These wholesalers then sell and distribute the birds for us.
“During the Christmas rush, we are not able to give the level of service nationwide to individual retailers. We also sell a couple of hundred birds from the farmgate at Christmas to customers who have been with us from the start.
“To manage supply, we stockpile birds in coldstore in Newport on pallets, graded by weight. On December 10 we bring the birds to the farm, pick and pack orders. On-farm, we have 7,000sq.ft of refrigeration space, which may sound a lot but is never enough.
“Demand from individual butchers for Christmas turkeys decreases by about 5-10 per cent each year. We have to actively go and look for new buyers each year in order to standstill.
“I do not think this is because butchers are losing custom, as people are loyal to these businesses at Christmas, but rather because breasts and boned turkey joints are becoming more popular at the expense of whole birds.
“Although we predominantly sell whole birds, we would like to sell more jointed birds and breasts but we cannot compete with cheap, imported meat.”
Alongside Nick, Maria and Will, Usk Vale employs a further six full-time staff. From June to November they take on another 10 and a further 15 are employed for Christmas work.
Alongside the turkey business, the Davis family has always run a flock of sheep. Historically the farm has been home to Mules, with lambs being sold through Hereford market and St Merryn, Merthyr Tydfil.
More recently Usk Vale has established a flock of pedigree Texels, headed up by Will.
The family began the flock in August last year, starting with foundation ewe Forkins Una. Sired by Knock Travis and bred by Alastair Gault, Co Antrim, the ewe changed hands in a £15,000 private deal last year.
Will says: “Una has since bred our highest selling ram lamb, Usk Vale War-Lord, sired by the 42,000gns Glenside Valhalla and selling for 5,000gns at the English National Sale at Worcester this year.
“We were also presented with the opportunity to buy the entire flock of in-lamb embryo recipients from Jimmy Douglas’ Cairness flock. To us, this was too good a chance to miss.”
At the minute, Usk Vale is not interested in showing, due to time constraints with the turkeys, and is instead focusing on sales.
The business is using breeding technologies to make use of the genetics available and progress the flock as quickly as possible.
Quality, rather than quantity, is at the forefront of Will’s flock, which is evident in his success at the Texel Society’s Welsh and English National Sales, winning the Youth Development Programme ram lamb class at both events, open to flocks founded in the past five years.