The cull hen market – which takes 30m laying birds and six million broiler breeders a year – appears to be on a roller-coaster ride.

In the slipstream of the recent publicity surrounding poultry production in the UK – compounded by a deepening shortage of meat worldwide – some producers are now earning up to 10p a bird.

But that’s not the whole story. Others are still at the mercy of processors who are only prepared to offer a culling service and refuse to pay anything for spent birds cleared from sheds.

And in Scotland some egg producers are paying 9p a bird to have sheds emptied while others have undertaken on-farm slaughter to reduce costs.

It’s not long ago that emptying free-range sheds and cage units was a cost that had to be carried by producers. After three years of paying to have hens removed the sudden turnaround in value is generating a new and welcome income for some producers, but not all.

There are still large numbers of poultry producers who find it difficult to locate processors prepared to pay them for cull hens, even though both the domestic and export markets for this standard of white and dark meat are increasingly strong.

Processors refusing to pay for cull hens say they can’t understand how others can. They believe that because they no longer charge to remove birds – and even provide their own catching teams as part of the service – it’s helping producers.

One large midlands-based cull hen buyer was typical of those contacted.

The company says it was “very rare” for birds to be paid for and if they were it would depend on the number of birds involved and their location. The company said its new policy of not charging producers to clear units had been welcomed, but it didn’t expect cull hens would become a source of income to producers in the future.Egg producers who are now being paid for hens are getting anything from 5p to 10p a bird, depending on how many birds are involved and who provides the catching teams.

A north-east free-range producer who was about to clear 10,000 birds from his unit – and was providing his own catchers – was pleased to be getting 8p a bird. “This is the first time we’ve been paid anything so it’s a nice bonus. In the past we’ve had to pay up to 10p a bird to get rid of them.”

And even earning just a few pence a bird is better than facing a hefty bill.

One free-range producer from the midlands says it had cost him around £1000 a shed to clear each shed of 6000 birds. And with welfare and health matters to the fore, many producers have preferred to use their own catching teams – paid for at the rate of £65 per 1000 birds caught.

De-populating free-range sheds using your own catching-team still incurs a cost, but with some of these birds now valued at 10p each, it’s turning the culling operation into one that earns instead of costs.

Case study: Duncan Priestner
The return of the export market for meat and other material generated by UK cull hens looks likely to maintain some income for producers in the foreseeable future although any hike in values is unlikely, according to Cheshire producer Duncan Priestner.

He’s got around 100,000 birds a year to move and says major processors are now looking for supplies of meat from cull hens.

From a situation that has seen him paying up to 22p a bird to clear hens from his barn and free-range units, he’s now earning 4-6p per bird after paying for his own catching teams.

“The export market to West Africa is now open again and hopefully that will sustain a market for dark meat,” says Mr Priestner, who is vice-chairman (eggs) of the NFU’s Poultry Board.

Case study: Noble Foods
When it comes to the value of cull hens it may not be a lot but it’s better than nothing, says Andrew Joret of Noble Foods at Tring, Hertfordshire.

“On average producers are no longer paying to have birds removed. If they are using their own catching teams costing 6-7p a bird, there may be a few pence per bird left over.

“It’s not a lot but it’s an improvement on having to cope will cull hen removal as a cost to the business – and the more hens a producer can offer should help lift the price he gets per bird.”

Mr Joret said that within the last two years the cull hen market has moved from a situation where producers had to pay around 15p per bird to have them removed to one that now sees spent birds generating at least some income on the back of the improved worldwide prices for chickenmeat.e_SClB”We’ve come from a situation where 10% of cull hens sold in the UK were sold whole as complete birds – largely to the ethnic trade – to one where the vast majority of carcasses are split with most of the breast meat used by the home market.

“The export market is now a major buyer with China – via Hong Kong – taking wings while West Africa is accounting for legs.

“At the time producers were paying up to 16p a bid to have them removed from their units it was because there was no export market operating – and this supply of meat relies on an export trade,” says Mr Joret.