What beef farmers can learn from the poultry producers

While it may seem churlish to try to draw comparisons between intensive poultry and the production of suckled calves, the meticulous attention to every facet of management and performance that underpins David Speller’s broiler unit near Chesterfield must prove that there are lessons to be learned by the beef sector.

Working with a system over which you have total “push button” control – in terms of environment and feeding – is the template of livestock production operated on this award winning unit. But it’s certainly a world apart from the plethora of unpredictability that is very much the norm for our traditional management of beef cattle.

Although beef farmers can never be expected to achieve the same level of control, there are elements of the cutting edge management at Mr Speller’s unit that should be examined more closely by the red meat sector in an attempt to emulate them in part to help create a much tighter and more effective approach to performance and cost control.


This poultry unit, which always has 180,000 birds on site, is staffed by one man for five-hours a day – an indication of the degree of computerisation that is responsible for every aspect of management.

And when any minor changes may have to be made they can all be undertaken, if necessary, by accessing the software through a mobile phone. On a recent visit to China, Mr Speller was able to make changes to the ventilation of one of his broiler sheds in Derbyshire via his mobile.

But it’s how he’s able to monitor every aspect of his costs of production – and the level of performance he demands to generate maximum profit from the 1.2 million birds he produces every year – that could be a valuable management stimulus to beef producers.

One of the most fundamental aspects of Mr Speller’s business is that he knows the birds on his unit are gaining 25% of their bodyweight every day. There is no guesswork over weight gain. He knows the level of performance to expect because the birds are the product of decades of genetic selection for optimum growth. So is that the challenge, via the use of Estimated Breeding Values, faced by the beef sector?

Mr Speller is also acutely aware of the financial impact on his turnover should any minor aspect of his management fail. A “blip” – even for a few hours – can mean fractions of grammes of lost weight gain that quickly multiply into significant cash losses through poorer growth.

Applying that approach to beef production should stimulate greater awareness of the knock-on effect of time-delays in marketing, forced extensions to the length of finishing times and short-falls in management – all of which can seriously erode margins.

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