A new performance house promises to take turkey production to the next level in Norfolk, as Philip Clarke discovers.
For too long, turkeys have been seen as the “poor relation” to broilers when it comes to research and development, with only a fraction of the budget spent on finding new ways to enhance production.
But leading turkey producer Bernard Matthews is determined to change all that, having invested over £500,000 in a new performance house, located at Foulsham in north Norfolk.
The project has been undertaken in partnership with nutrition company Devenish and, to some extent, replicates the performance house that that company developed for broilers in Northern Ireland in 2014.
The aim is to conduct an ongoing programme of research in an environment that replicates, as far as possible, the conditions that would be found on a commercial unit.
This, according to Richard Kennedy of Devenish, is crucial, so that any research findings can be applied in real world situations.
Equally important, however, is the ability to accurately record and evaluate everything that goes on in the performance house. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” he says.
The shed, which is the first of its kind in the sector, measures 75x25m and has been built on an established concrete footprint, surrounded by four other sheds that are in full commercial production.
Operating as part of a “brood and move” farm, the new shed is divided into 20 separate pens – in two lines of 10 – each measuring 8.6×6.4m. Walkways surround the pens, and there is another walkway down the middle.
Each pen includes a feeder line, a drinker line, a gas brooder and an individual weigher, so that bird weights can be assessed on a daily basis.
The house also incorporates a shower-in, shower-out changing area, with a barrier system to maximise biosecurity. Eight feed bins are located outside on a concrete pad, with feed augured to the top of the house, then gravity fed into individual hoppers above each of the 20 pens.
A Hotraco control panel takes care of all ventilation, feed and water delivery, as well as temperature and humidity, and can be operated remotely as well as manually. There are also ammonia and carbon dioxide meters to monitor the atmosphere.
The first poults have recently been stocked, with 687 put in each pen at day-old – equivalent to 12.5 birds/sq m. Only stags are being used for now, replicating the situation on Bernard Matthews’ commercial turkey farms aimed at year-round production.
After six weeks, two-thirds of the fully-feathered birds will be removed and placed in two other similar sheds to be grown on to slaughter weight at 20-21 weeks.
“The set-up allows for accurate evaluations of all sorts of products and management practices which we can then replicate with confidence on our commercial units,” says Bernard Matthews’ agriculture director Andrew Ballantyne.
The aim is to run four different replicates at a time – covering both feed and water – with each applied to five pens of turkeys.
“In each pen we will record exactly how much has been eaten, how much water has been consumed and what the environmental condition was at the time,” says Mr Ballantyne.
“The birds will be weighed daily and we will manually enter liveability data so that we can calculate every day what feed intake is, the daily liveweight gain and feed conversion ratio. We won’t have to wait 20 weeks until the bird is slaughtered. We will know at each and every stage what effect a particular change has had.”
In particular, the company is keen to use the new facility to assess its nutritional strategies, including the use of any feed additives or novel products from Devenish at different stages of the birds’ development.
The focus will be on things like nutrient density and early nutrition. “There are masses of opportunities to improve feed conversion which we want to understand better,” says Mr Ballantyne. “But we also want to learn more about changes to gut health and running antibiotic-free programmes.
“The trial facility may also help us with raw material evaluation, including the use of sustainable raw materials and novel ingredients. As well as meat yield, we will be able to look at things like leg strength and litter quality, and assess the influence of different breeds.”
There are also plans to install microphones in the shed to record the turkeys’ vocalisation, using that to learn more about bird behaviour.
“This provides us with a real opportunity to stay ahead,” says Mr Kennedy. “We can’t assume that what we knew five years ago still applies today. Turkey genetics has moved on, nutrition has moved on, consumer expectations have moved on. Having a facility like this can help future proof the business.”
Both companies are optimistic the new facility will lead to improved performance from the birds, increased profitability, and will help ensure environmental and consumer objectives are met.