Early spring might not be the most obvious time to start thinking about Christmas poultry, but if you’ve got an inkling to join the growing band of producers of table geese – and could even be about to order your first batch of goslings – do your homework.
Make sure you’ve looked closely at the other end of the production system and given plenty of thought to how you’re going to process and market your birds in eight months’ time.
About 300,000 geese are produced in the UK every year. It’s a specialist sector of the poultry industry but there’s no shortage of help and advice on offer from the British Goose Producers (BGP) – a sector group of the Britsh Poultry Council – for newcomers.
Eddie Hegarty, vice-president of the BGP, runs Norfolk Geese – the UK’s largest goose business supplying day-olds as well as finished table birds.
He has some timely advice for would-be goose rearers: “Start off small – say 25-50 birds -and do your market research before you start,” says Mr Hegarty.
“All goose producers are keen to encourage newcomers and are always on-hand to provide help and advice. The problem is that people perceive geese as an easy way to make money and that’s definitely not the case.
“Just because they require an extensive rather than an intensive rearing system, doesn’t mean they are less work. And as well as making sure you’re prepared for the commitment involved in rearing geese and bringing them inside every night, it’s absolutely vital that anyone going into geese for the first time makes sure they’ve made preparation to slaughter, process and market their birds at Christmas time.”
With retail prices at £9.50-£10/kg, it’s possible to make a margin ranging of up to £15-£20 per bird – but much depends on factors, including whether sales are to wholesale or retail customers. Returns also depend on the season, how the grass growth is affected by the weather, and how the birds are fed.
“Geese can be fussy feeders and don’t like sudden changes in diet. But it’s essential to be able to manage them correctly as they move into the finishing period in terms of what they’re fed. Balancing what they get from the grass with their cereal intake is the key to consistent growth rates and it demands good stockmanship. With a Christmas bird targeted at a specific market, errors in terms of growth rate can be costly,” says Mr Hegarty.
The BGPA annual “goose walk” held in October gives producers the chance to meet and discuss goose management. “The more you put into geese the more you get out, but rearing is only a part of that. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have the processing and marketing organised before you start.”
Norfolk Geese is supplying for the first time this year goslings hatched from second generation organic breeding stock and certified by the Soil Association. The hatchery, which places emphasis on maintaining the highest health standards for all its flocks, supplies its top selling Legarth strain and the new heavier strain of Super Stow which is now in its third year of promising trials, says Mr Hegarty.
Case study: Lizzie Murphy
Lizzie Murphy only began producing geese last year and bought 370 week-old goslings from Norfolk Geese to set-up her new venture at Netherdale Farm Monsal Dale, near Buxton, Derbyshire. She was advised at the time by Norfolk Geese that she was being too ambitious in her first year, and admits she learnt many salutary lessons in her first season.
|Lizzie Murphy began producing geese last year.|
She remains totally committed to her future as a goose producer, but adds: “I bought too many goslings for my first year as a goose producer. I didn’t start marketing early enough because I was too busy looking after the flock and I fed them too much. But you only learn by experience and I’m now looking forward to my second season – although I’ll be doing things rather differently,” says Mrs Murphy who won the British Goose Producers John Adlard memorial award for new entrants into goose production.
Fewer goslings, fed less and more time to be spent on marketing – those are the priorities of this year’s goose business at Netherdale Farm that was selling dressed birds last Christmas “over the farm gate” at £10/kg.
“Mortality rate is reckoned to be about 2% and I only lost six birds so I was pleased that all my efforts in the early stages of rearing paid off. But I didn’t realise how much space I’d need as the birds grew and that meant buildings that we’d intended to use for slaughtering at home had to be commandeered for housing.”
That led to birds being slaughtered off the farm – something Mrs Murphy hadn’t intended to happen.
“These are the things anyone new to geese production needs to be aware of. And it’s not easy suddenly having to find slaughtering facilities for a lot of geese just before Christmas. It just goes to prove that you need to be well ahead of things at every stage.”
Once the birds were able to graze outside they were gathered and housed every night. They were fed a little wheat in the mid-growing stage to supplement grass and moved on to a finisher diet six weeks before slaughter.
“But I fed too much and our birds were too heavy. Ideally they should have been 4.5-5.5kg but we had too many at 6kg and over and ended up selling these birds at a loss.
This year the farm will produce 150 birds and even by early spring a start had been made on securing markets for the finished birds.” As well as our own farmgate sales we’re supplying birds to the Chatsworth Farm Shop. Rearing geese is challenging for a newcomer but there’s a tremendous amount of help and support available from other producers and it has certainly spurred me on,” said Mrs Murphy.
Case study: David Lea, Lancashire Geese
Lancashire Geese, run by David Lea at Ormskirk, Lancashire, supplies thousands of goslings to individual rearers in spring and early summer, but also finishes 1000 geese for its own Christmas customers.
There are 900 birds in the farm’s breeding flock. Both breeding stock and finishing birds are run on grassland, but always have access to large wooden buildings with strawed floors. The breeding ratio is four geese to one gander.
Geese, which lay from February to June, are happy to use car tyres stuffed with straw, which are provided as makeshift nests inside the buildings. Each goose lays 40-50 eggs and will maintain that output for about six years with fertility at about 60%.
Over the years, the Lea family has developed and continually improved its own strain of table goose which claims to offer good growth rate and a high meat-to-bone ratio. Breeding was originally based on Danish genetics.
“We’ve got the genetics for growth, but it’s important to match that with correct diet all year round. Although our birds have day-time access to grazing, there’s always grain available in the hoppers. As well as feeding the breeder ration in the spring, we switch to a finisher diet in the last eight weeks before Christmas when birds are gaining most weight,” says Mr Lea.
Want to know more?
He says families who try roast goose at Christmas become regular customers. But like his late father, he is adamant that he will not try to produce a “leaner” goose.
“Geese carry more fat than other poultry but it’s not excessive. It’s the fat on a goose that gives it its distinct and succulent flavour. In fact, goose fat is now establishing its own market as being ideal for roasting and basting. Pound-for-pound, the goose fat is actually worth more than the goose itself,” adds Mr Lea.
Heading-up the promotion of the goose north of the border is Ian Logan whose family rears about 650 birds every year. The venture started off as a means of filling in the “winter gap” on the family’s 200-acre arable farm at Eyemouth, Berwickshire. Now their Alemill Fresh Farm Geese is a well established business and supplies major retail butchers in Edinburgh and throughout the borders.
Apart from the early rearing stage the birds – again supplied by Norfolk Geese – are fed solely on home-grown wheat and range over a six-acre block of grassland reaching an average slaughter weight of 4-6.5kg.
“Scotland is very traditional but goose is becoming more popular each year,” says Ian who acts as Scottish agent for Norfolk Geese by providing a collection point for goslings that go as far north as Caithness.
“We run all the birds as one flock and bring them inside every night. But one thing geese hate is a change in routine. If you can keep things the same from day to day they are easy enough to manage – but they hate any changes, even just moving them to a new field doesn’t go down to well at first,” says Ian.