‘’With good entrepreneurship and well thought out choices a broiler grower really can make a difference,” says French broiler farmer Stéphane Dahirel. Poultry World paid a visit to his operation with three locations and a total of 130,000 birds in the town of Lanouee, Brittany, and asked Dahirel why he made certain decisions.
Since Mr Dahirel took over the farm from his parents in 1990, both the farm and the French broiler sector went through turbulent times. Broiler production in Brittany in general had its ups and downs. With large poultry processors like Doux, which relied on government subsidies for decades and were able to lean on the export of frozen whole chicken for the time being, it was the end of the subsidies era and there was a search for new markets. At the same time Mr Dahirel expanded his farm and further professionalised in broiler production. His number one poultry house, built with wooden braces and an asbestos roof and sidings, is a relic of the past. It’s not in use anymore, but housed turkeys many years ago. Nowadays Mr Dahirel has fully switched to broiler production and since 1990 he has built several new houses – currently five in total. All of them are modern and functional, without too many bells and whistles. ‘’Form follows function in all decisions I make,” Mr Dahirel says.
The market Mr Dahirel producers for isn’t totally standard. ‘’At the time I started with specialising in broiler production, the average live bird weight was about 1.9kg. Nowadays the birds are substantially heavier.” The poultry farmer receives his day old chicks sexed from the hatchery, which enables him to separately house the hens and roosters in one house. In the poultry house of 1500m2 which was visited by Poultry World, the stocking density is 16 birds per m2. These are standard Ross 308 birds, with the females going to the processors at 35 days and at 1.9kg. The males stay until day 48 and then weigh in at 3.3kg. The stocking density per m2 never exceeds 30kg. Mr Dahirel adds: “As broiler farmers we are constantly looking for the optimal balance between animal welfare on the one hand and producing food efficiently on the other. The current stocking density makes managing the flock really easy, with no use of antibiotics, hardly any use of medicines and no footpad lesions. For me personally there would be a greater challenge with a higher stocking density, but this is what the market is asking for at the time.”
The switch to the current production came in 2016, when McDonald’s France came to an agreement with a number of French processors to source the poultry meat of chicken nuggets locally. Producers’ organisation Gaevol, of which Mr Dahirel is the president, and feed coop Sanders came together and decided to produce broilers according to McDonald’s requirements. This meant having daylight in the poultry houses, a lower stocking density and higher bird weights. Mr Dahirel: ‘’McDonald’s asks for deboned meat. The processors to which we deliver our birds have specialised Japanese deboning equipment, which work best with higher bird weights.” The farmer acknowledges that he had to learn to manage the heavier birds. ‘’That wasn’t something we were used to, but together with the experts of the feed firm, we were able to work out new protocols. The feed is tuned to the heavier birds, we changed our lighting programme and we ventilate up to 1m3 per kilo per hour and use high pressure water misting systems in hot weather to keep the birds comfortable.”
Keeping the birds cool in the hot Brittany summers is one thing, but with heating his poultry houses Mr Dahirel chose not to follow the beaten path. ‘’Normally we use natural gas in France to heat our houses. That is a very safe and solid choice, but with growing taxation on the use of natural gas, it is becoming more and more expensive.” In a first round of efficiency improvement Mr Dahirel changed from gas burners in the house to a central heating system with heaters hanging from the roof. The next step was the switch from a gas fired boiler to a wood burning boiler. He recently invested in a biomass burner of 130 kW from the Austrian ETA firm. This boiler heats up 3,000 litres of water to 80°C in a buffer tank, which feeds the three heaters in the poultry house. ‘’The nicest thing of this installation is that it makes my farm partly self-sustaining, circular. We have our own woodlands, which guarantee a steady supply of wood. The installation cost us an investment of € 90,000, but the estimation is that the earn back period will be only seven years.”
Untill today only one of the five houses is heated with a biomass burner. On one of the other two locations Mr Dahirel invested in solar panels, 260 kilowatt. ‘’Well, you can only spend your money once. You have to make choices constantly,” he laughs. One of his other investments gives him at least as much satisfaction as the one in the biomass installation. He is very proud of his water treatment installation, which set him back € 30,000. The system uses electrolysis to convert salt into chlorine, which is added to the birds’ drinking water in three out of the five houses, at a cost of € 0.20/m3 of treated water. ‘’That helps us to mitigate bacterial growth in the water and that has a positive effect on the health status of the birds. That is where we make our biggest difference. Since we started treating the water, we don’t have to use antibiotics anymore. Our veterinary cost has dropped substantially and we have achieved a better FCR. Adding all those gains up, it gives us financial room to invest in our future. Perhaps in an extra biomass system.”