In March, Hertfordshire broiler producer Tom Wornham was elected chairman of the NFU’s poultry board. We sat down with him, and the NFU’s chief poultry adviser Gary Ford, to talk about the union’s priorities.
Defra recently lifted its avian influenza Prevention Zone, which legally required poultry producers to maintain the highest biosecurity levels. How do you think that policy shaped up?
Gary Ford: While we didn’t have any commercial cases this winter, we had 20 wild bird findings – the threat of avian influenza is ongoing.
In 2015 we had a commercial case in July, so although the risk may have returned to a background level, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. The importance of biosecurity and vigilance must remain at the forefront of poultry producers minds.
We supported the prevention zone. As part of Defra’s core AI group, the NFU played a part in implementing it in mid-January, and lifting it (in May) was equally proportionate. By lifting it, then it means that, if the risk increases as winter approaches, Defra can potentially put it back in place ahead of a full housing order.
Gary Ford, the NFU's chief poultry adviser, left, pictured with new poultry board chairman Tom Wornham. Photo: Tim Scrivener
Would you support it being put in place as soon as winter hit?
GF: No. I think it needs to be triggered by something – to simply tie it in with peak migration wouldn’t be appropriate. It would seem that findings in the wild bird population is the appropriate trigger – to ramp up biosecurity as the threat increases. As for housing orders, it just has to be how the risk develops. We have a lot of intelligence on that, what’s happening in Europe, for example. The commercial poultry sector is becoming accustomed to the idea of avian influenza being present over winter.
What about backyard poultry producers?
We need to keep raising awareness, and support them in complying with things like prevention zones and housing orders. We’re also working with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to make the poultry register more streamlined. We’re keen that the register is updated every year, and we’re asking that the threshold for registration is lowered to one bird – at the moment it’s 50 birds. In that event, APHA would know exactly how many birds were in the area of an outbreak. I’m hopeful that will happen.
The NFU poultry board chairman and chief adviser sat down with Poultry World in late May. Photo: Tim Scrivener
Red Tractor recently updated its standard on window provision, asking for windows at the equivalent of 3% of floor space. It’s caused some consternation – what’s your take on the ask?
Tom Wornham: Our windows are at 1%.We put those in five or six years ago, but that was on the back of supermarket demand, so they financed it. But now we’ve been told we’ve got to go to 3% – it seems like an arbitrary number, not based on science. Although we grow for Hook 2 Sisters we are independent, and have supported Red tractor since the beginning. Our position is that we could install windows, but it would be a £200,000 investment for us – I’m not going to put that sort of money into infrastructure that is not going to pay for itself. With Brexit just around the corner, who knows what will happen – it’s not a justifiable cost, and I’m not prepared to expose our business to that kind of risk.
GF: We’ve seen a significant number of independent producers going across to Red Tractor, which is welcome – we’re big supporters of Red Tractor and it’s great to grow the brand, but historically there hasn’t been the demand in that sector for windows. The deadline is October 2020, which gives precious little time for farmers to invest six-figure sums to retrofit windows. Lending that money might also prove difficult, because at the moment, as Tom says, there is not necessarily a return on that investment. In my view, they need to phase that change in over a much longer period – particularly for older houses, of which there are a significant amount in this country. We don’t want to erode their standards, but have to be pragmatic – there’s now less than two and a half years to make these changes.
Sticking with Red Tractor – what did you make of Jamie Oliver saying he wouldn’t feed his children chicken produced to the standard?
TW: It’s a shame really, that he doesn’t want to endorse British production. It seemed like an ill-thought-out comment with unintentional consequences. Red Tractor is traceable, has good standards and covers all methods of production.
GF: Overall, we’re huge supporters of the Red Tractor – I believe we need it and other farm assurance schemes more than ever going in to Brexit. We need that strong brand, and retailers have been loyal to it. We want it to go from strength to strength.
How have you found producing poultry with far fewer antibiotics?
TW: We found the transition very straightforward. For us, there was no cost, the difficulty was taking the leap from having access to them on prescription after a postmortem. Five years ago we took the decision not to use antibiotics – we’ve been without them routinely for that entire time, and we’ve only had to use them three times. We’ve focused on cleaning and disinfection under the advice of our vet, we have a longer turnaround system. A huge focus has been on attention to detail, and water hygiene has played a big part.
Before that, the concept of putting some medication in the drinker was commonplace. The question is, what are you medicating against? Fear basically. After the first crop is comparable to the previous one, it builds confidence, and you do it again, but it just takes that leap of faith. What we don’t want to do is go antibiotic free. Having a broader range of antibiotics to use when necessary would be a good reflection of the work we’ve done in reducing overall use.
|Tom Wornham, chair, NFU national poultry board
Tom Wornham is a fourth-generation farmer working in collaboration with his parents, sister and brother in law on an 85ha farm with two poultry-rearing sites housing 130k and 65k respectively, spread over seven houses, growing for Hook 2 Sisters. His grandfather was a pioneer of broiler production, going into the business in 1958. Before being elected as chairman of the NFU’s national poultry board at the union’s conference this March, he served six years as its vice chair, and has also served as regional poultry chair.
What do you make of the slow-growing broiler movement, spearheaded by the broiler ‘ask’ which calls for lower stocking densities and more extensive production?
TW: As a sector we can produce whatever our customers want. But in the UK we eat a billion birds a year. If we double the length of time it takes to grow them, we need to double the space. A longer-growing bird will be a more costly bird.
The welfare of the bird we grow at the moment is good – they have good skeletal strength, good health, pododermatitis and hock figures are healthy – I don’t see any other reason apart from sentimentality why you would want to go down that route.
GF: We’ve got a whole range of welfare outcomes in standard broiler production, rather than two narrow ones – stocking density and growth rates. We would argue at the moment that the Red Tractor standard looks at a far wider range of welfare outcomes than the Broiler Ask does.
Gary Ford, NFU chief poultry adviser
Gary Ford has been chief poultry adviser at the NFU since 2013, having joined the NFU as a group secretary in 2009. Before this he was an agricultural manager in the broiler industry for 10 years, responsible for all aspects of production on company farms as well as contract growers. Gary has a degree in Law from the University of Staffordshire and a degree in Agriculture from Writtle College, Essex.
Is there any update on retailers’ cage-free egg commitments by 2025?
TW: What we’re looking for is some guidance and support. These individuals making decisions haven’t been told which way to go – they need support and security of contract.
GF: The industry needs the confidence to invest in a cage-free system. What we are seeing is conversion of some colony units to barn using the existing infrastructure. Conversion is fine, but I think a new site would be a significant leap of faith given the uncertainty at the moment. I would question what recognition do consumers have of barn, and what will retailers do to raise awareness?
Are you hearing about oversupply in the egg sector, given the pace of expansion?
GF: There are some concerns out there that, with increasing planning permission in place and with sites being constructed that we could get to a point of oversupply.
This is why we need clarification on cage free – I believe there is a certain amount of expansion on the back of retailer commitments to go cage free, but we’re not entirely clear at the moment about what it means.
What’s your position on Brexit Tom?
TW: I suppose the major concern for the poultry sector is the possibility of trading negotiations exposing us to products produced to a lower standard. The only ask is not to undermine our standards and production methods. Local food is also a factor – I produce chickens here 32 miles from the centre of London, 12 million people are on my doorstep and the food miles are negligible, as opposed to bringing it six-and-a-half thousand miles from America to potentially save a couple of pence per kilo. That, to me seems ludicrous.