Growing turkeys for the festive season can be a challenge. Rhian Price speaks to one producer to find out his secrets to success.
Rearing turkeys for the Christmas market is no easy feat. It requires months of careful planning and a watchful eye on weight gains.
But at Usk Vale Poultry, Pontypool, Monmouthshire, rearing 10 different breeds means owner Nick Davis and his son, Will, really have their work cut out to ensure the customers get the exact size bird they order this Christmas.
Traditionally, the farm reared a small number of turkey poults year round for the catering trade, when it was first established 30 years ago. But competition from cheaper foreign imports forced them to reassess their operation.
Instead they decided to switch to supplying wholesalers and butchers’ birds, both free-range and barn reared, just for the festive season.
See also: Biosecurity advice for turkey producers
The business has ballooned in recent years and they now have nine other contract-rearing farms all within the county, supplying a total of 50,000 birds each Christmas.
Christmas orders aren’t usually placed until early December, but as poults start arriving in June it means chick orders are a bit of a guessing game, admits Nick.
“After Christmas I will analyse how many birds we have slaughtered at each weight and base next year’s production on those figures. You just have to assume each customer will have the same order.”
Birds arrive at Maesmawr Farm at one day old, sexed, to make the management of weights through to slaughter easier.
“You don’t want stags and hens coming down the slaughter line together because the plucking machines need to be set for one particular size,” explains Nick.
Farm facts: Usk Vale Poultry
- Rear 10 different breeds of turkey
- All poults come from eggs laid in UK
- Supply 60 outlets with a mix of barn-reared and free-range birds
- Nine satellite rearing farms
- Contract process birds once a week
- Two units dedicated to rearing turkeys for Shoby Poultry, enabling year-round production
- Adopted a policy of trying, wherever possible, to buy British manufactured goods
- All packaging for the processed birds is also “made in Britain”
On arrival, most poults are brooded in traditional rings of 400 under gas heaters until they are six weeks of age. The house temperature starts at 27C and is dropped by 1C each week.
But this year they have also run a successful trial of whole house brooding using a recently installed new biomass system, which was fitted on one of the farms.
“Trials are ongoing here to try and achieve whole house brooding akin to the broiler industry. With each new crop, Lee, Usk Vale’s stockman, is gradually using larger circles and weaning birds off the canopy brooders earlier.
“It would save so much time not having to erect and dismantle the rings, likewise with the servicing and running of brooders.
See also: Tips for rearing turkey poults
“Turkeys are slightly different to broilers and do like the ‘mother hen’ effect the brooders give them, and we run the risk of birds smothering if they do not have this more intense heat. To date we have avoided this by running the house temperatures significantly higher than for conventional brooding, but it is early days and we are being extra vigilant until we prove the system works every time,” adds Nick.
“The key is to get them off to a good start and minimise mortality rates. They cost up to £5 at one day old so losses soon add up.”.
The poults are given water through nipple drinkers, but they gradually move over to bell drinkers from one week of age.
“They use the nipple drinkers quite excessively and we found they were getting quite wet under foot, but we have to change over very gradually to prevent dehydration.”
Birds are littered daily with chopped rape straw and are offered ad lib compound feed. Straw is pre-chopped, dust extracted and bagged, in house.
“By chopping [the straw] we have reduced the amount we use by 40%,” explains Nick.
Catering for different weights – from 3kg birds up to 20kg birds – means monitoring birds is critical.
From 10 weeks onwards weights are watched closely, but this steps up a gear the closer Christmas gets.
“With the best will in the world you can have a slaughter schedule and it goes out of the window, with birds both under and over performing. For that reason I am a bit of a control freak in this area and I check weigh every flock every week myself. Getting the weight right is absolutely crucial because if the customer wants a 12lb bird, it has got to be 12lb. It is very precise,” says Nick.
Birds are reared through to around 20 weeks when they are slaughtered, processed and packed at the farm’s own slaughter plant.
The first birds are sold in October and November into the Thanksgiving market and the final birds will be killed on 15 December. At peak, the factory is running seven days a week, slaughtering 2,500 birds a day, explains Will.
“The idea is to have all of your birds slaughtered before you start distributing. It is impossible for any turkey farmer to grow the exact number of birds for each weight category. The earlier you know these imbalances, the sooner you can juggle the sizes, so that no one customer is left with a massive shortfall, or surplus, of any one weight. Instead it is spread across all customers,” explains Nick.
Although preparation started in earnest late November, Nick admits they will still be working up to the wire on 23 December, getting birds shipped off to eager customers.
Marketing – a mixed strategy
Usk Vale Poultry’s free-range offering is starting to gain momentum and, in recent years, they have started hosting farm visits to educate customers about their high standards.
“We have open days for retailers and we supply a national pub chain who have brought their chefs around to see us. We hope these visitors will then do some of our marketing for us by cascading down to the public the secrets of our quality turkeys,” adds Nick.
As well as this, they’ve been doing customer research, led by Nick’s wife Maria, with “surprising results”.
“Two years ago we undertook a survey, and one of the questions asked was customer age and it was surprising; most were 50-plus.”
On the back of this they are now trying to increase brand awareness among a younger target audience by using social media, and they are trying to teach people about how to best cook the meat.
“The biggest problem with turkey is that people overcook it. Unfortunately turkey meat is very unforgiving of this and goes dry and stringy. This does little to help its image and may well be a reason why year-round consumption remains at a pitiful level.”
To counter this problem, Usk Vale now provides “pop-up timers” in their premium branded packs.
All this makes for a pretty hectic few months at Maesmawr Farm and Christmas is a welcome rest. So what is Nick’s preference when it comes to choosing a turkey to eat on Christmas Day?
“Whatever is left over – they are all equally good.”