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Lessons for broiler farmers from across the globe

Nuffield Scholarships afford study trips for people involved in UK farming to tour the world to find lessons for their own sector or business. Here, we summarise the findings of Patrick Hook, of hatchery business PD Hook.

The UK poultry sector must do more to invest in people for the industry to thrive, this is according to Nuffield Farming scholar Patrick Hook.

Although the British Poultry Council (BPC) has had an industry scholarship at Harper Adams University since 2011, more needs to be done.

Writing in his final Nuffield report, Mr Hook says the scholarship is a successful way to recruit people at graduate level into the industry, but retaining the students in job post-placement is key. “The scheme will not necessarily succeed in filling the volume of people needed at all levels of industry.”

Mr Hook explains the UK industry is in need of skilled people but there is not the volume of people in the system to promote from within.

New Zealand poultry farms can take advantage of the country's relative isolation to help control disease. Photo: Patrick Hook
New Zealand poultry farms can take advantage of the country's relative isolation to help control disease. Photo: Patrick Hook

Poultry sector needs to be a more attractive career choice

“The industry is not perceived to be attractive to younger people; with most agricultural students choosing to opt for arable and large stock-based sectors. It needs to work with schools and colleges to educate younger people about the prospects of a successful career within the poultry industry.”

Countries such as the USA, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand all rely on skilled migrant labour to fill vacancies on farm and in factories. With Brexit on the horizon, access to skilled permanent and seasonal labour from overseas will be crucial to the success of the UK poultry sector.

During his Nuffield Scholarship, Mr Hook looked at how universities and companies in the United States and New Zealand attracted students into the poultry sector. He was impressed with the USA Universities’ Extension Services and poultry science courses offered across several institutions in helping recruit, develop and retain young people in the industry.

Universities also engage with industry and provide support and research that in turn offers real benefits to businesses. In addition, this engagement allows students to secure jobs on completion of their degree and, due to the demand for people in a growing market, career opportunities are very good.

Challenges and opportunities for the UK broiler industry

Mr Hook’s Nuffield report, entitled: “2050: The challenges and opportunities for the UK broiler industry” also looked at genetics, something he insists will continue to have a crucial role in the sector’s success.

The challenge is to improve Feed Conversion Ratios and growth rates while maintaining and improving breeder and hatching performance at the same time. In this context, broiler breeders continue to become heavier as a result of selection pressures to benefit broiler performance.

But this was putting pressure on the breeder’s ability to maintain and increase egg numbers and fertility. He argues the industry could not go down the road of the turkey sector and artificially inseminate breeders due to their inability to mate effectively.

The industry, he says, needs an efficient broiler grown in 25 days and one which remains cost-effective as a day-old chick through optimum breeder and hatchery performance.

New and innovative farming systems for poultry

Another area covered in the report is new and innovative farming systems, which took Mr Hook to the Netherlands to see the development of Hatchtech’s HatchCare and Vencomatic’s X-Trek and Patio systems. Both companies are offering systems that afford chicks early access to feed and water.

There have been proven benefits to chicks’ welfare and performance at day-old and on farm. However, adopting early feed and water systems may not be possible across the whole of the UK supply base.

Mr Hook suggests there is a role for the British industry to educate customers and consumers of the benefits of current hatchery practices to day old chicks’ welfare and performance – and that chicks can live off their yolk for 2 days post-hatch with no issues.

However, the sector needs to recognise the importance of delivering chicks to farm as early as possible post-hatch, he says.

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Public perception

Further to the image of hatcheries, farms in both Holland and Hungary have started investing in cameras and remote-control systems on-site, which shows consumers the industry has nothing to hide, and that the highest standard of welfare is maintained at all times.

Customers and welfare groups are continuing to put pressure on the poultry sector to remove antibiotics from the supply chain, and Mr Hook urges the industry not to underestimate their power and influence.

To completely remove antibiotics from the supply chain would prove challenging in managing key welfare measures and the industry needs to educate both its customers and the end consumer about the need for use of antibiotics to manage bird health. High standards of hygiene, biosecurity and welfare are key to good performance and the success of the industry.

Mr Hook notes the work being carried out by Alltech in developing different antibiotic-free strategies. The company is able to grow different types of algae to produce Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) – a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid found throughout the human body. In the algae, DHA is contained in a dry form after processing. A single gram of algae can be grown to 20 tonnes in 2 weeks. DHA is already used in eggs and other proteins across the world and sold for consumer health benefits.

Check out the interactive Poultry Health Tool – with the latest insights on the 40+ most common poultry diseases.

Avian influenza

Perhaps the most significant challenge facing the global broiler industry is avian influenza and the role of biosecurity, according to Mr Hook. In the UK, one of the challenges is deciding the size of a new farm or hatchery with the constant background threat of AI.

“There should be a mechanism in the planning system that factors in other poultry sites within both 3km and 10km of the proposed build. This would allow existing producers to challenge plans – if deemed high risk to their business – and reduce the risk of dense areas of poultry developing.

“Furthermore, guidance should be issued within the planning process concerning the formal biosecurity procedures that will be adhered to on site.”

Commenting on vaccines to combat AI, Mr Hook says it is something that may be used in the future, although in its early stages, and current products don’t not offer protection for all strains.

“It creates trade barriers for countries, such as the UK, where if birds were vaccinated this could potentially affect the recognised disease status of the entire country. In addition, the application of vaccine could potentially create a level of complacency across the global industry and a resulting reduction in the level of on-farm biosecurity.”

During his visit to New Zealand, Mr Hook noted the strict quarantine regulations that restricted the country’s ability to import live poultry. This included higher generation breeding stock, and, if birds were brought in, they had to quarantine them for a period to ensure there was no risk to the country’s disease status. This had helped New Zealand’s disease-free status.

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