What to consider before going into seasonal turkey production

Seasonal turkey production can offer low start-up costs and good margins, but there are pitfalls for those who don’t plan ahead.

Before taking the plunge, potential entrants must carefully consider marketing, disease risks, cashflow issues and a swathe of rules and regulations.

NFU poultry adviser Aimee Mahony offers advice on getting started and tips to avoid some of the most common mistakes.

See also: Advice to help turkey producers win back sales

Do your research

About 10 million turkeys are sold in the UK each year. However, the market is changing, with shoppers preferring smaller joints or cuts.

This may be driven by smaller family units or meat-free options being offered alongside the traditional roast meal.

It is worth considering at the outset what size birds customers may want and then having a range of breeds to produce a variety of weights.

Securing a market is key to the survival of a start-up seasonal turkey business.

The first question potential turkey growers should ask is whether there is sufficient demand in their area.

“You need to research and tap into as many sales outlets as possible. This includes local residents, butchers and farm shops,” says Ms Mahony.

Word of mouth has proved to be one of the best ways of increasing sales, and attending food fairs and farmers markets or hosting local tasting events will help to establish a customer relationship.

Advertising is also key but doesn’t have to cost a lot – many seasonal turkey producers use social media. The NFU also holds annual turkey marketing meetings across the country.

Health management

Producers must have an up-to-date health and welfare plan, and regular reviews should be held with a vet to improve practices continually.

Rodent control is a big issue in health and hygiene, and a training course is now necessary to administer poison. Other health factors to account for include the weather at the chosen site.

Weather conditions can contribute to disease levels, particularly on wet sites. Histomonas, or blackhead, has become an increasing threat to poultry flocks in recent years.

Rules and regulations

If you keep more than 50 birds, you must register with Defra, and flocks with more than 40,000 birds must hold an IPPC environmental permit.

Producers slaughtering poultry on-farm for commercial sale are required by law to hold a Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (Watok) Regulations licence/certificate of competence for slaughtering. This applies even if only a very small number of birds are being killed.

Turkey growers should also be prepared to face inspections from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (Apha) and the local authority.

Beyond government laws, turkey producers will face strict standards if they choose to sign up to an assurance scheme.

Turkey standing on drum outside

© Artur Widak/Nurphoto/Shutterstock

Housing requirements

Many people considering seasonal turkey production will look to exploit shed space that is otherwise unused. But it’s essential to assess the space requirements and ensure housing is cleaned and disinfected before poults arrive in early summer.

Over the six months running up to Christmas, the turkeys will grow rapidly, and accurate calculations need to be made to ensure they will not exceed assurance scheme stocking densities, Ms Mahony warns.

For example, Red Tractor Assurance sets out a complex formula for stocking densities to allow enough space for birds.

When applied, the formula allows 21.7 birds per sq m at 1kg liveweight, and the stocking rate declines to 2.9 birds per sq m for 20kg turkeys.

Equipment list

Only a minimal amount of equipment is needed for seasonal turkey production. But when poults first arrive, they will be relatively small and will need heat lamps to help them keep warm.

Clean, fresh water must be provided in drinkers and intakes should be monitored throughout production, as changes in consumption is often an early indication of disease.

Red Tractor standards

  • 1 bell per 200 turkeys before six weeks
  • 1 bell per 100 turkeys after six weeks
  • 1 large cup designed for turkeys per 100 turkeys

Likewise, feed intakes need to be recorded and reviewed for any changes in consumption.

Feed provision will have to be adapted as they grow, so consider the equipment needed at the outset.

For example, crumbed feed should be offered at low levels on trays, but as birds grow larger, pelleted feed can be offered.

Red Tractor feed space allowances

  • Pan and chain feeders – 1m per 200 turkeys less than 42 days old
  • Pan feeders – 1m per 100 turkeys older than 42 days
  • Chain feeders – 0.75m per 100 turkeys older than 42 days

Feeders and water drinkers are, of course, essential. But good-quality fencing is also a must, and start-up producers do not always appreciate this.

Birds can jump and fly on top of things, and once they know they can escape, it will become a habit. Fencing is also needed to keep out foxes.

It should be at least 1.83m high, good-quality, dug-in where possible, and include electrified strands.

Land used for ranges should be well-drained, with grass cover. Good drainage will prevent puddles that can harbour parasites and disease.

Shelter provision or continual access to housing is necessary throughout the day to protect birds from poor weather conditions and overhead predators.

Training and labour

Anyone looking after birds needs to know what they are doing. Labour can be hard to come by, but most seasonal producers with a few birds try to find a reliable source of staff that will return every year.

Due to the uncertainties around Brexit, producers using non-UK workers have experienced shortages and have to pay more to attract workers.

Predicted costs

Running costs vary with individual business structures and types, but the NFU calculates a figure per turkey each year.

Costs components 2019

Feed (August 2019) £10.59
Poult £3.98
Brood £0.56
Farming (gas, litter, shavings and all labour) £3.64
Plucking £2.67
Packaging £1.48
Distribution £0.85
Overheads (building depreciation, machinery, admin rents, insurance) £8.87
Waste removal £0.04
Total a turkey £35.85
Source: NFU

Case study: Tom C Copas, Copas Traditional Turkeys, Berkshire

Turkey production can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also go horribly wrong without careful planning, says Berkshire-based farmer Tom Copas.

Farm facts

  • All birds are free-range, organic and reared to between five and seven months old
  • 10 different breeds of bronze birds provide different weight ranges to meet buyer requirements
  • Flocks of 2,500 to meet Organic Farmers and Growers standards
  • Ration – wheat, oats, soya, maize, sunflower oil
  • Ranges include cover crops and cherry orchards for extra nutrition, cover and enrichment

Mr Copas, who runs the farm with his family, said one of the first things any new entrant should consider is cashflow.

The seasonal business means invested cash is going to be locked up for 12 months at a time.

Anyone considering setting up must work with a lender that understands the nature of the business and payback terms must be clearly established, he advises.

Once available funding levels are set, the timescales, business size and target market should be carefully researched.

“Are you planning to sell live to a retailer? If so, you will need volume and scale.

“If the local market is the target, then additional investment in facilities and staff will be needed to pluck, process, pack and sell the produce,” Mr Copas says.

Retailing turkey is changing – some high street butchers are struggling and finding a secure outlet can be tough.

People’s diets are also changing, as are demands for different cuts such as turkey crowns and smaller birds. These elements must also be researched.

Time-wise, it would be possible to start a seasonal turkey venture in the same year as beginning production because poults arrive in May. But a longer lead-in would ensure the business is on a more robust footing.

A major time factor comes in what standard birds will be reared to. RSPCA Freedom Food, Golden Turkey Association or organic accreditation will all take time to achieve and incur extra costs.

The Copas’ feed bill is about 30% higher because it is entirely organic.

The site
Whatever the size stipulated, the range must provide stimulation for the birds. Turkeys are very curious, and range enrichment is essential.

It could be necessary to drill cover crops for extra foliage so the birds have something to peck at.

It’s worth remembering that because access will be required into December, good drainage is needed.

Housing and security
Rigid construction offers the most secure option, but it’s worth noting that this will be more costly and there are standards that must be met for popholes, ventilation and insulation.

Polytunnels offer a more straightforward and lower-cost entry choice, but there will still be requirements for additional heat at the brooding stage, with birds coming in as day-old poults.

A drawback with polytunnels is security. Predators will damage the polythene covers and kill birds unless surrounding fencing is secure.

Fencing costs amounted to £7/m at the Copas’ unit – and cutting corners is a false economy, says Mr Copas.

Along with physical security, the unit must also have a high level of biosecurity. Diseases such as avian flu and blackhead have to be kept out. Newcastle disease alone can result in 80% mortality rates within 48 hours if it infects a flock.

“I walk through the birds while spreading out straw bedding and have a really good look at the individuals and the flock behaviour as a whole,” he says.