The finalists of the Poultry Farmer of the Year Award run three very different enterprises, covering organic eggs, intensive broilers and free-range chickens and turkeys. But they have one thing in common – they are all first-generation farmers who have built their businesses up from nothing.

Ian Johnson
Cherry Tree Farm, Ashbourne, Derbyshire

Working smarter, not harder, is the life and business ethos of Ian Johnson who, with his wife Sarah, has developed “future-proofed” broiler sheds on his farm in Derbyshire.

His interest in farming started on family holidays in Wales, where he stayed on the farm bale-carting while the rest of the family went to the beach. “I told my parents then I was going to be a farmer. They said I might be able to work on a farm, but I’d never be able to buy one.”

Ian’s first job in agriculture came as a broiler farm manager for Daylay in Monmouthshire, before taking on a range of roles in broiler production and processing further north.

But it was in 2006, when Ian was working as an area farms manager for Dove Valley and the company was taken over by Moy Park, that he took the opportunity to buy what was the oldest company farm near Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

The 40-year-old buildings, which were being managed by Sarah at the time, were demolished and, with the help of a hefty bank loan, three new state-of-the-art poultry sheds were put in their place.

“My last job at Dove Valley was to build a future-proof shed, with respect to IPPC and Red Tractor standards. I brought that knowledge here to Cherry Tree Farm.”

The roofs of the sheds have no chimneys, so there is no light or noise emission, and all the windows have a U value of four – similar to domestic houses.

As exhaust air leaves the back of the shed it is deflected off three surfaces before escaping, leaving all the dust behind. This minimises smell and means any run-off of rainwater from the roofs can go straight to land.

The three sheds have all been cut into the hill and clad in dark green to make them less obtrusive, while tall hedges around the site minimise the visual impact for neighbours. Ian insists all lorry movements take place between 7am and 7pm, and he always has a stockpile of salt to help with gritting in the winter.

Ian has also learnt to work closely with the Environment Agency and local planners. “It is far better to develop a good relationship with these people, so I invite them out to the farm and find out how we can work together.”

From humble beginnings, the business was ticking along nicely – testament to the Johnsons’ sheer hard work and careful planning.

But then, two years ago, Sarah crashed her motorbike and was off her feet for six months, while Ian then got an ear infection that turned into a life-threatening condition. “This changed our outlook completely. Rather than looking to put up that extra shed, we decided to focus on working smarter.”

Since then, there has been an even greater emphasis on production efficiency and “keeping it simple”.

Contractors are used extensively and every operation is budgeted to the penny.

Draper indirect heating systems have been fitted at a cost of £84,000, leading to 30% gas savings, drier litter and heavier birds. The environment is computer-monitored, with high-tech alarm systems to alert Ian if anything is awry.

Every input is monitored by the Fancom F38 computer package which is accessed via the internet. Ian has also invested in solar energy to cover 15% of his electricity requirements.

The attention to detail is truly impressive, from the annual checks of all electrical cables and the paperless record-keeping system, right down to the colour-coded buckets and wellies.

All this ensures Ian operates the farm with minimum stress, healthy profits and, above all, optimal bird welfare.

“Our business plan is to pay off all of our debt by the end of 2013. We are determined not to have to borrow again.”

A word from our sponsor

NatWest“NatWest has been supporting UK agriculture for more than 200 yeards and following my recent visits to the three finalists for the Poultry Farmer of the Year awards, I continue to be encouraged by their enthusiasm and innovation.”
Ian Burrow, head of agriculture and renerwable energy Natwest

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Meet the other 2012 finalists

Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details on how to books tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash