10 May 2002

Huge demand for free-range table chicken

THERES a buoyant market and money to be made from free-range table chicken, says William Stewart of poultry breeding company Hubbard Isa.

"There are more producers jumping on the bandwagon, but demand is growing, particularly for organically reared free-range birds," says Mr Stewart.

His evaluation of the UKs pyramid of broiler production highlights the opportunity for more free-range birds, not necessarily produced organically.

"At the bottom of the pyramid are about 16m intensively produced broilers a week. At the top there is the expanding output of organically reared free-range birds numbering about 70,000/week.

"But there is a big opportunity to fill the gap in the middle. It produces 250,000 free-range birds/week, but is ripe to expand and fulfil consumer demand for traditionally fed free-range reared broilers – birds that will finish at about 56 days."

Mr Stewart says organic standards for free-range broiler production is the "buzz topic" of discussion, as organic organisations formulate codes of practice.

"There are so many issues, particularly concerning feeds and whether or not ingredients such as amino acids are organic or inorganic," he says.

"Then there is the matter of what constitutes an organic bird. Is it a bird that can come on to a system as a day old or does it have to be bred on an organic unit from organically managed parent stock?

"These are some of the contentious issues being debated," adds Mr Stewart, who is working with the development of slower growing strains of hybrids to suit free-range systems.

Some producers have tried free-range systems using the white feathered, fast growing hybrids developed for intensive units. While some have had a measure of success, anyone now considering a free-range broiler business has the choice of several new hybrids developed for outdoor management.

Hubbard Isa markets three hybrid strains for free-range rearing. Unlike conventionally reared broilers that reach a marketable weight by 42 days, the free-range birds can achieve 2.3kg at 56 days.

"Whether to opt for free-range or organic free-range is the big question for those considering investing in a new broiler unit." &#42