Neil Leeming has been managing director of the Tom Barron Group for the past decade. As the company embarks on its next phase in the hatchery business, Philip Clarke went to meet him.

You are about to start distributing Novogen layers for Groupe Grimmaud instead of Hendrix breeds to the UK and Irish market. What is the background to this venture?

For the past four or five years we’ve been unsure about where we are going to be with Hendrix Genetics. Hendrix changed their business model and wanted to get into downstream operations in a big way and we were not going to be part of their plan. We also felt we were losing influence with the breeder, even though we had been associated with ISA for the last 47 years. We’re a small downstream distributor in the UK and they’re looking more at the global market.

We had to look at a solution and were just waiting for the launch of Novogen in 2008. The results and the progress that the Novogen products have made in such a short period of time around the world are very encouraging.

What do you make of the Novogen Brown?

The genetics and the testing of the product are, I believe, better than what we’ve got in the UK at this present time. We’ve seen finished results in barren cages, in enriched cages and also in free range and organic. All the results are what we expected or better: good egg numbers, egg mass, shell colour, shell quality; and, of course, the bird is feed efficient and also very calm. It adapts well to each environment.

Where have you got to with launching the product?

We placed two breeder flocks in July and December 2011 and another in February 2012. So we now have three parent flocks on the floor, with 16,000 birds in each. We will have five breeder flocks by the end of 2012. We hatched our first commercial chicks in January of this year and currently have 100,000 in rear at our base in Preston, plus day-old chicks going out to pullet rearers and farmers. The first 30,000 pullets are being transferred into laying houses in early May.

How will you convince people to try something different?

We need to get people to see the product. We’re going to have flocks in rear and in lay close to Preston so that customers can come and see the birds and also see the eggs being packed. It’s all right producing something, but if the packers aren’t happy with the product, well, it’s going to fail.

Will you be taking on any more Hendrix flocks?

We’ve still got ISA Shaver and Warren parent stock, but by April 2013 we will have depleted them. I could still take in breeder flocks until 2014, but there is no point being positive about the new product and negative about the old. We’ve got to drive the new product. Yes, we will see a dip in sales, but we’re prepared to accept that in the short term, optimistic that the bird will achieve good market share in the future.

With the new contract, you also have an option on the Novogen White. Any interest?

There is a niche market for white eggs in the kosher market and manufacturing, but I don’t think I’ll be putting a breeder flock down just for a few thousand chick sales. Unless consumer choice changes, at the moment we’re sticking with brown.

Turning to wider issues, how do you see the egg market developing?

We’ve just seen prices increase of late – maybe some producers haven’t seen enough. The supermarkets haven’t given the packers much of an increase and that has a knock-on effect to the producer.

We don’t know how long there is going to be a shortfall of eggs, but I think it could be here for a while yet. There hasn’t been the restocking, and chick placing is down across the board because there hasn’t been the confidence there. It’s concerning going forward whether people will be able to restock, because banks have been ruthless on a lot of small businesses.

How do you view attitudes in the poultry sector? Do you think people need to be more open about what they do?

Everybody has their own agenda – how they do things. But you’ve got to work with each other. It’s such a small industry that, if you kick one, the rest limp.

Do you think beak trimming has a future in an industry that is always being told to improve its welfare?

It’s always going to be an issue going forward because birds do need to peck, to find their status and for feed. But infrared beak treatment has done an excellent job for the industry and should not be banned by 2016; I personally believe we need more time.

The Environment Agency wrote to hatcheries recently about supplying chicks above an individual farmer’s IPPC limits. Did you get one of those letters?

Yes, we’ve had a letter, and we have had to send a letter to all our customers asking them to forward copies of their sites if they are over 40,000 chick or pullet placings. It should not be our responsibility. It’s just another bit of legislation that they (the Environment Agency) don’t want to monitor themselves. They want someone else to do the job. It’s is up to the individual company or farmer to monitor it, not the hatcheries.

What was your career path? How did you get to head up Tom Barron?

In 1978, after studying at Myerscough College, I started work for the company as a herdsman on one of the dairy farms and, after seven years, became manager of the two dairy units on the estate. In 2001, I became managing director of Tom Barron Ltd, the core business being poultry through its hatchery and rearing facilities for the laying industry. We have diversified in the last few years through acquisitions. We bought Fayre Game, which is the largest quail producer in the UK for meat and eggs, and Clifton Dairies which processes milk from our own dairy farms and local farms within the Preston area

Tell me about the quail production business. How is it performing?

The business has moved on a lot in recent times, growing the sales in both meat and eggs for the UK market. We have our own self-contained breeder laying farm and hatchery, and only a few miles away our own rearing facilities. Also, we have the only licensed quail meat processing plant in the UK, and recently we’ve invested in a small egg cooking and peeling plant, with an eye on the corporate hospitality market. Both the meat side and the egg side go hand-in-hand with each other. Female quail can either be processed for meat at five weeks, or they can be laying eggs at seven weeks. It is an exciting little business.

What do you do outside of work?

I used to play rugby most weeks, but now I watch my local club Preston Grasshoppers and maybe the odd home international. I also like to trap shoot at weekends, and spend time with family and friends.

Tom Barron Group

The family business began more than 100 years ago when founder Tom Barron developed a hobby into a poultry breeding business that achieved international success in egg laying tests as far afield as North America, South Africa and Australia.

The company has been supplying chicks of layer breeds for more than 80 years from its hatchery base in Preston. Tom Barron also provides growing pullets of a range of breeds and undertakes contract rearing for other suppliers.

It was one of the first to introduce multi-tier systems for floor rearing in the UK and all of its commercial rearing farms are now fully equipped for multi-tier rearing.

In 2005 the group acquired Fayre Game, the UK’s largest producer of quail and quail eggs, with breeding, hatching, rearing and processing facilities, providing fresh and frozen products for major retailers.

Further expansion followed in 2005 with the purchase of Clifton Dairies, a major supplier of milk and dairy products to retail and wholesale outlets, and with a dedicated supply agreement for kosher milk.

Clifton Dairies processes all the milk from Tom Barron Farms’ two dairy units and also purchases milk from local farmers in the Preston and Lytham areas.