Lloyd Maunder is seeking to become a centre of excellence for speciality chicken production. Richard Allison takes a look at the various systems and latest innovations.

Consumer demand for speciality free range and high welfare chicken has accelerated in recent months and to meet this extra demand, 2 Sisters Food Group has been investing in its Devonshire Red brand.

Back in January, 2 Sisters Food Group acquired West Country processor Lloyd Maunder with plans to make the processor into a centre of excellence for specialist chicken. The group believes that by 2010, specialist chicken will account for half of all birds produced across the group.

At the beginning of this year, Lloyd Maunder were processing 480,000 birds a week and now they are at 640,000 with the eventual aim of reaching 750,000 a week.

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To increase output, Lloyd Maunder has being making changes to its plant near Cullompton, Devon. “Secondary processing capacity was the limiting growth factor at the plant,” explains the firm’s site director Richard Maunder. “To increase capacity, we have just invested £750,000 in our fresh packing hall to improve product flow.”

The investment included an extra whole bird wrapping line with high speed labellers and x-ray metal detectors. Extra final case weighers and high speed conveyors to dispatch, complete the much improved layout to the fresh packing room.

Primary processing is the next area to see investment. “By the end of November, we plan to move from electrical water bath stunning to gas killing instead. Birds will be killed while still in their transport crates, so removing the need for live hanging,” he says. “Electrical stunning will remain in place as a back up facility.”

The primary investment is part of the £4.5m investment in the Willand site which also includes a new boiler plant and new efficient refrigeration plant, which will meet the Montreal agreement to phase out certain gases that deplete the ozone layer.

“The employees, who have recently moved to more efficient shifts, are very supportive of the investment being made. We are currently recruiting more people and once we reach our target capacity, we will be employing close to 8000 staff,” says Richard.

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Investment and innovation is not restricted to the processing plant, the firm is constantly refining its on-farm production and chick hatching operations.

“A key part in successful speciality chicken production is chick quality, as this has a big impact on the whole food chain. For example, each 1g of chick weight equates to about 100g of slaughter weight so we only use eggs weighing 50g or more,” says hatchery manager Mike Mitchell.

Richard’s cousin and commercial director Andrew adds: “This is particularly important for organic birds, as they go out on the range at 21 days – a week earlier than free range birds. So they need to be ready to face the challenges of outdoors.”

The latest investment in technology is an automated in ovo vaccinating machine for Marek’s Disease (Poultry World, August, p25). “It is more efficient than manual injection of hatched chicks and eliminates any risk of birds missing out on a full dose, so ensuring good disease control,” says Mr Mitchell.

“We have been using it for about six weeks and have not seen any impact on hatchability. For every 100 eggs placed, I expect to see an average of 84 chicks,” he says.

CASE STUDY: Robert Lanning, Conventional and Freedom Food

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“Windows” is the current buzzword at Devonshire Poultry and the first thing that strikes you when you arrive at Tower Farm is that you can see the chickens without entering the sheds.

Robert Lanning, a contractor farmer, has spent the past few months retrofitting double-glazed uPVC windows to his older sheds, equivalent to 3% of floor area. Light levels are now typically about 100 lux from the window to the first feeder line dropping to 60 lux in the centre of the shed.

“Watching the birds, they seem to move in the building as the sun moves during the day. Therefore, I’m convinced birds like it. They seem to like having both brighter and darker areas.”

In his newest sheds, transparent ventilation flaps act as windows and only account for 1.5% of the floor area. However, since their completion, the RSPCA brought in a target of 3-6% for Freedom Food. So he is now planning to add an extra window under each existing one.

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He is also continuing to develop enrichment, as he believes the industry still hasn’t got it right yet. In a typical shed, there is one football per 1000 birds plus CDs hanging on string, straw bales and wooden perches. However, Mr Lanning is no longer convinced about the value of footballs, as birds soon become bored with them.

In contrast, he believes straw bales are the best means of enrichment as birds are stimulated by pulling bales apart and running around with pieces of straw in their beak.

Hanging up maize cobs works better than CDs by giving birds a reward, but his eventual aim is to design a pecking block, possibly made from maize, molasses and peas that can be cheaply produced.

In his newer sheds, he is experimenting with a perching system with the aim of encouraging birds to jump around. “The idea came while visiting a multi-tier layer unit.”

On his other sites, Mr Lanning rears conventional birds where there is no enrichment. “We could put enrichment in, but we are not paid to do it. And with tight turnaround times, it is not economic as it requires extra time to clean out the sheds and put in enrichment for the next flock.”

Mr Lanning stressed that he is proud to grow conventional chicken and he sees Freedom Food as just a bolt-on. “I have no problem with the conventional system, welfare is high and it is a good product.”

CASE STUDY: Alec and Jonathan Martin, Free range

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Alec Martin has been farming poultry for many years, but for the past 11 years, he has been rearing free range chickens as one of Lloyd Maunder’s free range pioneers.

With his son Jonathan, Alec rears 35,000 birds in five houses in an all-in all-out system. The naturally-ventilated houses, each containing 5700 birds are based on the Lloyd Maunder model, developed after seeing the Label Rouge system in France.

The basic farm model is four buildings, with an upper maximum of six sheds. “This limit is so farms are in keeping with the spirit of free range, without compromising the expectation of the consumer,” says Lloyd Maunder commercial director Andrew Maunder.

“Houses have four times the number of pop holes so that we can close a whole side of the shed during periods of bad weather, says Mr Maunder. “This still leaves the correct area of access under the standards. And in summer, we can open them all up to get a cooling effect.”

Each farm, including the Martin’s, has a biodiversity plan with the aim of farming for wildlife.

As Mr Maunder explains: “When consumers buy our chicken, we want them to know that their purchase is supporting biodiversity on the farm where their bird was reared. The 59 farms involved have invested in a range of measures designed to encourage wildlife to flourish in harmony with birds. Some farmers have created environments that encourage barn owls or butterflies, while others have planted orchards.”

Over the years, the Martins have planted 4ha (10 acres) with trees and when they constructed the sheds, they excavated the soil and used it to construct half a mile of traditional hedge banking.

Devonshire Red

Producing speciality chicken is not just about taking an existing intensive system and adding some straw bales and perches, for Lloyd Maunder it was about developing a series of systems with a new slow growing breed at its heart.

“Initially, we went with a conventional Ross/Cobb type breed,” says Andrew. “But then we decided to go a step further by adopting a slower growing, more robust breed.”

So the Maunder family went to France to see the highly regarded Label Rouge free range system in practice and thought: “Why not put this in an indoor system.”

They set about developing their own breed. “We took a slow growing Hubbard hen and crossed it with two males, one white and one brown-feathered line. And the subsequent offspring is the Devonshire Red,” says Andrew.

“With this breed, we don’t need to restrict feed intakes, as it naturally grows at or below the RSPCA’s upper growth limit of 45g a day.

Lloyd Maunder runs a total of six production systems (see table) which include standard indoor, Freedom Food indoor, corn-fed Freedom Food indoor, free range, corn-fed free range, and organic.

Rearing systems at a glance

System

Stocking density

Breed

Age at slaughter (days)

Mortality (%)

Standard

38kg/sq m

Cobb

35-40

3-4

Freedom Food*

30kg/sq m

Devonshire Red

49

1.5

Free range*

27.5kg/sq m

Devonshire Red

56

2.5

Organic

30kg/sq m

Devonshire Red

70

6-7

* Both free range and Freedom Food indoor reared systems come in white (wheat-based) or corn-fed variants.