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The lowdown on broiler farming

Rearing broiler poultry is proving attractive, but it requires careful planning and a high outlay before you see returns.

  • Nearly nine out of 10 intensive meat farms are raising poultry to feed the UK’s growing demand for chicken
  • Set-up costs are not cheap – expect to pay around £350,000 for a shed to house 40,000 broiler chickens, plus at least £100,000 for support equipment
  • Environmental issues must also be taken care of, with poultry farms regulated by the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs requiring farmers to provide feed at all times as well as maintaining heating, ventilation and lighting for the birds

Intensive farming in the UK has increased by more than a quarter in the past seven years – and 86% of all such sites are poultry farms. More and more farmers are seeing the opportunities for high yields in the concentrated, contained site of a broiler shed.

“I grew up working on my parents’ arable farm, but its 130 acres were not sustainable,” says 28-year-old Yorkshireman Harry Shepherd, who runs Forest Poultry in Thirsk. “I looked at intensive farming and considered pigs and ducks. But I soon saw chickens gave the best return on investment.”

How does broiler farming work?

The farmer receives a “crop” of chicks as young as a day old, and grows them over the next couple of months until handing them over to slaughter. In many instances there is a partnership or other link between suppliers and distributors at either end of the chain that, says Shepherd, makes broilers a very straightforward business.

“I get a new batch every two months with feed from a company called ABN [part of AB Agri]. At the end of the two months I sell the grown chicks to Sullivan’s Poultry Group [also owned by AB Agri] and they pay me for the raised chicks, minus the cost of the feed, and replace the grown birds with new ones around six times a year.”

The initial outlay

Start-up costs are very high. Sheds aren’t cheap and a building housing 40,000 birds – a relatively small crop – can cost about £350,000. On top of the build cost, feeders, drinkers and heaters will add upwards of £100,000. All of which means an average site housing could take as long as 10 years to pay for itself – and there is the cost of utilities and the usual insurances on top of that. Shepherd’s projections and use of other land as security gained him a sufficient business loan from the bank.

However, broiler-shed maker Turkington Systems recommends that numbers of birds – and therefore unit sizes – should be determined not by how much cash you have or can borrow, but on what contract you agree with a processor to buy your crop. “Our advice is, like any business, to know where you will sell your birds and what kind of contracts you may be able to get,” says Turkington sales manager Chris Bradstreet. “That contract will likely also take in growth performance targets, the type of birds, the feed programmes. There’s no point doing anything until you know that.”

Planning and permissions
Poultry farms are regulated by the Environment Agency (EA). Again, it’s a good idea to open dialogue with them before putting in a formal planning notice. An environmental impact assessment (EIA) is necessary for sites housing more than 85,000 birds, as it flags up any pollution or ecological risks. Smaller sites would be assessed by the local authority, which may still refer to the EA, but in any event the agency will determine the potential environmental and ecological impact, particularly regarding ammonia deposits. Then there may be other objections to planning approval on grounds of animal welfare – though on an unbuilt site this will not be a reason for a local authority to deny permission.

It offers regular income, the option of using home-grown grain, and production of manure to benefit crops. The broiler sector is a promising area of potential diversification

Lily Hiscock
Associate, Andersons

“My first shed was for 40,000 birds,” says Shepherd. “But I applied for an EIA anyway because I knew I would want to get bigger. Now I have four sheds and over 300,000 birds. My experience was that the Environment Agency was extremely helpful and supportive. For instance, they wanted me to catch my dirty water in a tank, but simply gave me a checklist of things I needed to do to comply. The nearest village is about three miles away and there was only one planning objection from someone who complained that intensive farming is wrong. They’re entitled to that opinion, but it wasn’t grounds for the council to deny the application. We actually set the very highest animal welfare standards. And it’s very evident that if your birds aren’t happy, they won’t grow.”

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) has several recommendations for farmers concerning the welfare of broiler flocks, including maintaining heating and ventilation systems to prevent extremes of temperature, dust control, adequate lighting, well-drained resting areas and enough space so each bird can stretch its wings and not face interference from other birds. Regular inspections (at least twice a day) must also be made, and feed provided at all times.

Transport and access

Local authorities are likely to take road networks into account when considering permission – although interpretation varies as to what qualifies as a “good road network”. But, says Guy Maxfield, associate director at rural planning consultancy Indigo, “a site that can be accessed without impacting on local villages, or ecological or environmental areas, and without lorries going through residential areas 24 hours a day, will always be looked on more favourably”.

A learning process

Any potential broiler farmers should be warned there’s a fine line between success and failure. “Everything has to be just right,” says Shepherd. “I spent six months learning the ropes on a family friend’s poultry farm before setting up on my own. But even then I made mistakes with my first crop – the feeders were placed too high; my ventilation was on at the wrong time of day. Any little stress can tip the birds over – they weren’t fully feathered at 28 days, which they should have been. But I learned from my mistakes.”

A hungry market

British people are eating more chicken than ever before – and while leading supermarkets have pledged that from 2025 they won’t sell chickens that have been caged, this will not affect farmers keeping chickens in warehouse-style broiler sheds. In addition, the constantly increasing UK consumer demand for lean meat suggests there will be plenty of market to aim at during and post-Brexit.

Lily Hiscock, an associate at farm management consultants Andersons says: “It offers regular income, the option of using home-grown grain, and production of manure to benefit crops. The broiler sector is a really promising area of potential diversification.”

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