The importance of agriculture to the economy in Northern Ireland is difficult to overstate.
Within that, the pig and poultry sectors both have a huge role to play, being one of the biggest employers and generating significant tax receipts for government. And Devenish Nutrition has grown alongside the farming industry, seeking to aid efficiency throughout the supply chain.
“As an agri-tech company our focus is on research and development,” says Dr Heather Hayes, poultry technical manager at Devenish, who is tasked with overseeing the firm’s purpose-built poultry performance house. “Our primary focus is to improve cost per kilo and profitability – that’s the most critical metric for a poultry farmer.”
The company was relying on booking limited trial facilities at different universities, but as Dr Hayes explains, there was a need to jostle with other companies for the space. “Historically we were paying for one-off trials, but we’d run one and then couldn’t get that facility for another year.”
Replicating the environment was also an issue with these ad hoc trials, and that led the company to invest in a farm set up specifically for in-house experimentation.
“We wanted a large number of birds in a commercial setting, with chicks from a commercial hatchery and stocked at a commercial density,” Dr Hayes explains. The decision was made to design and build a trial facility that could house both broilers and turkeys, and provide replicable, consistent results.
“The choice of farmer was also critical; we wanted a first-time grower, so he had no pre-conceptions of how to rear birds. He’s a small farmer in a poultry-dense part of the country.”
This creates a trial unit typical to Devenish’s main customer base; mixed agriculture in a country where disease can be a threat due to the density of other livestock, both monogastric and ruminant. “We want the research that comes out of here to be immediately applicable,” says Dr Hayes.
The shed is a 48ft x 200ft Turkington wooden-frame house, split into 36 individual pens, set away from the walls to keep a uniform temperature throughout. Capacity is 11,664 broilers or 3,600 turkeys.
Each pen is individually fed from six one-tonne bins, each bin split into threes, allowing several different feed treatments to be run per trial. At the beginning of the crop, the system can be programmed to weigh and distribute each pen’s ration automatically.
Pens also contain automatic scales that constantly measure birds’ weight, though this is also done manually each day.
Birds can be followed right through to the factory, if necessary, for example with eating-quality trials.
One of the first products to have been sent through the performance house is Alphastart, a pre-starter feed designed for amino acid sparing and efficient protein utilisation. It also contains a specific mix of vitamins and trace elements.
“The earlier the intake of feed and water, then the earlier it stimulates the gut and immune system development. That stands the bird in better health and development,” explains Dr Caroline Donaldson, poultry product development manager for Devenish.
“The lifespan of a broiler is 37 days. If you think of it like that, the first day is 3% of its life.” On this basis, three days is almost 10% of a bird’s life – a significant period to get things wrong.
Research results show a steady decline in finished weight at 42 days if chicks are not able to get nutrition in those crucial first few hours – and make good use of it.
Devenish developed its Alphastart mini-pellet to tackle this. Dr Donaldson says it is tailored to the immediate nutritional need of chicks and designed with easy absorption in mind. “It is a small 2mm pellet, it’s more palatable and easier for the birds to digest.”
Alphastart is scattered across chick paper by the farmer, and it’s recommended each bird gets 60g in the first four days. “It’s much more targeted than standard starter crumb.”
The product was one of the first to be taken through the performance house in a large scale trial, and chicks fed Alphastart were found to have higher early liveweight gains, better uniformity and took to the starter more readily than the control.
Devenish’s new poultry performance house reflects commercial reality.
From its start as a provider of home-mix feed services in 1952, Devenish is now the largest privately-owned pre-mix company in the UK.
The focus has shifted from trading goods to today where 90% of sales are derived from products it manufactures. About half of total sales come from poultry pre-mixes.
Devenish now develops its own products alongside integrators, and academia in Northern Ireland and beyond.
The firm has expanded in the USA, where it seeks to replicate the UK operation with two factory sites in Iowa and Minnesota. Sales reps also cover the Middle East and parts of Africa. Last year it bought organic feed specialists Hi Peak, based in Sheffield.