Fresh from his honeymoon, Norfolk-based Robert Garner was greeted with news of the catastrophic H5N1 avian flu outbreak in neighbouring Suffolk. Andrew Shirley gets his reaction
Thankfully, there are no turkeys at Godwick Hall at the moment, but the Bernard Matthews disaster is still a real worry for Robert Garner and highlights that even successful diversifications are far from risk free.
“Initially I was shocked there was an outbreak in the UK, but deep down I knew it was probably an inevitability,” says Robert.
“Thankfully, DEFRA’s contingency planning appears to have worked to contain it successfully, but what really annoyed me was the reaction of the media. It sensationalised things when there was no need. It seems people will clutch at any straw to make a headline.”
Handling the media
Robert has been on a handling-the-media course run by the Traditional Farm-Fresh Turkey Association, which he thinks would help if there was an outbreak at Godwick, but he knows it would still be a nightmare facing the press.
“What this furore really highlights is that I wouldn’t want to be at the end of something similar. There is no respite from the media.
“I suppose the only positive thing coming out of all this is that what the media coverage has done is to bolster the cause for less-intensively reared, high-quality free-range turkeys like the ones we produce here.”
However, Robert feels that ambiguous product labelling laws could be misleading the public into buying inferior poultry. “I saw a chicken in a supermarket the other day that had a Union Jack on the packaging, but when I looked more closely all this meant was that it had been packed in the UK.
“In the light of the current situation with Bernard Matthews and Hungarian meat, it must be time we seriously look at the issue of food imports, especially labelling.”
Over 30% of Godwick Hall’s turnover is likely to come from turkey production this year and any bird flu outbreak would be disastrous for the business.
To safeguard himself, Robert has put in stringent biosecurity measures, but says he has been disappointed by the reaction of some to a few very simple precautions.
Anybody who comes onto the farm is requested to sign in a visitors’ book, but it’s difficult to make people adhere even to that, he says. “It’s not so much members of the public (who use a footpath) who don’t comply but delivery people. Not those connected with feed or poultry – more the arable side of the business.
“I’ve had to take it up with some people and if anybody consistently refuses to co-operate I’ll have to take the decision not to use them anymore. With these multi-drop vehicles you never know where they’ve been.”
Despite the problems, Robert is committed to expanding his turkey business and says he relishes the challenge. “Turkeys are still something relatively new to me and it gives me a buzz.”
After arable farming for 21 years, Robert isn’t keen to downplay that side of the business either but accepts that he will have to make some important management decisions in the future as he spends more time with his turkeys.
“Further mechanisation of the turkey side of the business will save time, but we will certainly be having to look more closely at our arable operations this year.
“We will be using min-till establishment on the oilseed rape this year, but whether we do it ourselves or use contractors has yet to be decided. The problem I can see is that investing £12,000 in new min-till kit does not really stack up.”
Meanwhile, father John is pleased that a few management tweaks of his own appear to have paid dividends when lambing the farm’s flock of commercial Suffolk half-breeds.
“Last year lambing took six weeks, but this time it looks like we’ll be finished in about four. Putting two teaser (vasectomised) rams in with the ewes for a few weeks before the proper rams really seems to have worked. It stimulated ovulation and the rams were able to go straight to it.
“The shorter lambing time makes the economies of the job so much better, especially when a contract shepherd costs £10/hour,” says John.
Ewe mortality has also been reduced to under 1.5%. “It vindicates the decision to throw the ewe rolls into the straw rather than troughs. There was always a lot of pushing and shoving to get to the troughs.”