2011 Farmers Weekly Awards Poultry Farmer of the Year finalist, sponsored by Vion

Nigel Joice, Uphouse Farm, Fakenham, Nortfolk

High bird welfare and low-cost poultry production may seem like conflicting objectives to some, but at Uphouse Farm in Norfolk, the two go hand-in-hand.

 

Nigel Joice has been growing chicken on the site since 1997, initially with an eight shed unit, funded in part by the sale of 200ha of arable land. A further eight sheds were added in 2004 – taking total production to 5.5 million broilers a year.

“Welfare has always been top priority at Uphouse,” he says. “To be able to sleep at night, I have to know my birds are living in a good environment.”

Biosecurity is an integral part of this. Arriving at the farm entrance, all vehicles get a good soaking from the automatic jet sprayers, to minimise any disease risk from visitors.

There has also been significant investment in the sheds, which are now among the most sophisticated in the country.

For example, they are all kitted out with misting equipment, to raise humidity at chick start, for evaporative cooling in extreme heat and for disinfection at the end of every flock. “Having a sterile start is hugely important.”

Computer technology connects all the poultry houses with the farm office and all staff houses, so the birds’ environment and feed/water consumption can be checked 24/7, with adjustments made as necessary.

But Nigel believes strongly that computerised technology is merely an aid to good management. “The computer that can see, smell and listen does not exist, but the good stockman does,” he says.

As such, close attention is paid to staff welfare too, providing top-quality housing and insisting they each get a week’s holiday per crop. “Our workforce is dedicated and enthusiastic,” he says. “If something needs doing, they’ll never leave it to tomorrow.”

To motivate staff and improve overall bird performance, Nigel is also willing to experiment with different technologies.

For example, he is evaluating two different LED lighting systems as an alternative to putting in windows. “I’m dead against windows, as they will increase our carbon footprint, without any advantage for the chickens.”

Another example is his massive investment in green energy, sinking £1.8m into a new Energy Centre. This incorporates two 500kW biomass burners, fired by woodchip for now, but with a clear intention of switching to poultry litter when the law allows.

Three kilometres of pipework takes hot water to all 16 sheds, which is then pumped through Draper recirculation units – two to a house – to provide heating for the birds. “With no direct-fired gas heaters in the houses, we are expecting a huge improvement in the environment.”

Never one to stand still, Nigel is already mapping out “phase two” of his green energy project, which will involve electrical generation from the Energy Centre.

But it’s not all about technology, and equally tight control is applied to the business side. “I do all the paperwork myself. I don’t have a secretary. It makes sure I have my finger on the pulse.”

Feed is supplied by two companies – ABN and Vion. “They know this, so it helps keep them on their toes!” Nigel also incorporates up to 15% whole wheat into his ration, and makes use of forward purchasing and options, to iron out the volatility in the commodities markets. And with gas and electricity, a broker is used to ensure that the best prices are obtained.

On the marketing side, all birds are sold to Banham Poultry at Attleborough. “We work closely with Banham and Morrisons, with regular meetings to listen and react to current requirements,” he says.

Maintaining close and positive relations with all players involved in the business – as well as in the wider industry – are paramount to Nigel’s success as a poultry farmer and his satisfaction as an individual.

“We are profitable, but we work bloody hard to be profitable,” he says. “We knock the spots off those who are operating on a managed margin.”