High welfare and environmental standards are delivering a better bottom line for Derbyshire poultry producer Ian Johnson.
Mr Johnson, of ISJ Farming, produces 1.6m kilogrammes of poultry meat annually from eight crops of 80,000 broilers at Dalbury Lees, near Ashbourne. He also runs a pedigree Boer goat stud, selling £20,000 of genetics to breeders across Europe every year.
“Everyone talks about how important welfare is – and consumers say they are willing to
pay more for it,” he explains. “Too often, they won’t put their hand in their pocket, but good welfare does pay – and that is what we
do as a producer.”
Lower stocking rates and a better environment for his birds has seen Mr Johnson improve his margins – despite a considerable outlay and investment which has cost many thousands of pounds.
Rather than stocking his sheds at their 85,000 capacity, he has reduced broiler numbers to a maximum of 80,000 birds. “It costs but it means we get very good growth rates and a higher output which more than pays for itself.”
Other improvements include a sophisticated flushing system which drains drinking water from the sheds if it is warmer than 23-24ºC and replaces it with a clean, fresh supply at a much cooler mains-temperature.
“It means less bacteria and has helped us eliminate the need for antibiotics,” says Mr Johnson.
“We haven’t used antibiotics in four years. Instead, we use probiotics. They are more expensive and costs us more than £10,000 but the payback has been a 25% drop in bird mortality to just 3% – so again it has been worthwhile.”
Benefits to birds
Environmental improvements have generated similar benefits. Installing 3ft-high windows along the length of each shed has been good for welfare – but means each crop of birds feathers four days sooner, he adds.
A firm believer that “you have to measure it if you want to improve it,” Mr Johnson says the requirement that broiler producers install perches and introduce bales in sheds has no discernable benefit – despite costing him £2k annually.
“Anything we can do to improve bird welfare benefits my bottom line – although we prefer to concentrate on the things that have a measurable benefit,” he says.
The installation of a six-row Landmeco Pan Feeding System from Denmark has increased bird performance and improved biosecurity while reducing costs. It gives day-old chicks better access to feed and means better hygiene too.
Top businessman Alan Sugar – who once said the best entrepreneurs surround themselves with experts – is an inspiration. Adopting this advice means Mr Johnson has a close relationship with his suppliers.
“Our accountant Gary Brockway – of RWB Chartered Accountants – has been with us since the beginning and we work very closely with our other consultants too – as well as Maelor Poultry at Wrexham.
“It is a proper partnership – Maelor have retained their family values in what is now a big company. We get to know our bird placements months in advance and it helps us plan the best way to buy our inputs. We really are part of a team.”
The job has changed tremendously over the years. “I was 19 when I started out as a farm manager. I’m 53 this year but back then we would put the birds in the shed, feed and water them, and then empty the sheds once they reached their target weight.”
Today, the industry has changed enormously. Successful broiler production means producers must keep much more on top of the bird health and input prices, including energy costs – as well as changes in consumer expectations.
“The biggest threats to my business are politics, religion and Facebook,” says Mr Johnson.
“The public perception of what we do is far removed from the reality. As an industry, we need to be going out and promoting what we do – the investment, the welfare, the hygiene standards and the expertise of our staff.”
Some 30% of each broiler crop is thinned at 32 days with the sheds cleared completely less than a week later at 38 days. And despite producing 1.6m kg of meat from eight crops annually, nothing is wasted, with none of it going into landfill.
Nothing is wasted. A £150,000 biomass boiler which runs in tandem with a gas fuel system provides 70% of the required heat. One third of the farm’s electricity is supplied by a 50Kw solar panel installation.
Alongside the broiler business, Mr Johnson has established a Boer goat stud – a relatively recent venture which has been extremely successful and is based on the same farming philosophy: doing the best job possible with attention to detail.
Like the broilers, the veterinary strategy for the goat stud is based on prevention rather than cure. And the goat sheds are cleaned every time the broiler sheds are cleaned – which means they are mucked out eight times a year rather than once.
“When I started the goat business, I knew I didn’t want another commodity-based enterprise – so I went into it at the pedigree end,” says Mr Johnson. “Now we are the go-to place for seedstock for breeders across Europe.”
The secret to success is a willingness to pay for good advice and to ensure that the job is done properly. “When buyers come to the farm, they can see it is immaculate – they never question the price because they realise that they get what they pay for.
“We maintain that high level of management right across the farm. When it comes to goats and broilers, you could say we breed the best and eat the rest.”