16 August 2002

Egg enterprise gets producers talking turkey

By Wendy Short North-east correspondent

SMALL sheds and loose boxes scattered around odd corners of the farm should be earning you money, but how? For Co Durham producer Ian Watson, hatching and rearing turkeys for the Christmas market has provided the answer.

For a 10-week period starting in July, Mr Watson and his wife Rachel work long hours to hatch and rear about 9000 turkeys destined for the Christmas market. This is in addition to looking after a sheep flock, suckler herd and their two young sons. Half the birds are sold as day-old chicks and the rest leave the farm at four to five weeks old.

The couple are both experienced turkey rearers, having traditionally bought in day-old chicks and reared them for sale at a few weeks old. But they only started hatching eggs in incubators last July after their beef cattle and sheep were culled in the foot-and-mouth crisis.

West Hindon Farm, Barnard Castle, has now been fully re-stocked. However, the couple are continuing to build their poultry enterprise and find that buying in eggs and rearing the young turkeys makes a significant contribution to farm income.

There is a ready market for the birds, sold in batches of anything up to 250 at a time. Their customers are mainly smallholders and farmers wanting a few birds for family and friends, although they are also popular with some independent butchers.

"Once the turkeys have survived the first few critical weeks, they are simplicity itself to look after and can be accommodated in any spare building," says Mr Watson. But before that age it is a different matter.

To make a profit, at least 80% of all eggs must hatch successfully and mortality should not rise above 3% in the young chicks. "If you are not careful, you can get very high losses," says Mr Watson.

"Eggs must be fresh to ensure they all hatch out within a short period. Otherwise the incubator door has to be opened frequently and that causes a drop in humidity which can seriously reduce the number of viable eggs."

The problems continue once chicks have hatched. "Young birds are checked every hour at first as there is still a lot that can go wrong. They must be kept warm under heat lamps, but that means the water also warms up and it can encourage bacteria to develop. So, drinkers are refilled four times a day. It is also important to separate any small chicks to give them more room and extra attention."

An old cow byre has been converted to house the incubators. Once the chicks have hatched, they are moved to a purpose-built shed. "Previously, we had chicks in almost every building on the farm," says Mr Watson. But looking after them was labour-intensive and back-breaking because the equipment was at floor-level.

"Again due to lack of space, we also tried rearing them outside in old-fashioned chicken coops last year. They went outside at 10 days old and stayed healthy with no artificial heating. But it took a lot of time to get round all the pens."

Only minimal investment is required for chick-rearing, Mr Watson points out. A simple brooder for 70 or 80 chicks can be made from a sheet of 2.4m x 1.2m (8ft x 4ft) plywood, cut lengthways and bolted together to make a circle. Then all that is needed is a heat lamp and some feed and water containers.

Depending on market conditions and size of order, a day-old chick will usually cost about £1.85, with starter crumbs costing £180/t.

Anyone who prefers to begin with an older, less delicate bird should expect to pay about £4 for a four-week-old turkey.

From six weeks onwards, birds can be offered a starter ration costing about £160/t. Mr Watson estimates each bird will eat about 50p/month in feed through to finishing. &#42

CHRISTMASTURKEYS

&#8226 Use empty buildings.

&#8226 Good income source.

&#8226 Hatch or buy?