Since East Anglia has such a large concentration of commercial poultry, it was only right that in 1992, Easton College built a poultry unit of its own to teach poultry production to young people on a variety of college courses.
Biosecurity arrangements, agreed with local industry, have allowed thousands of people a year to pass through its doors to see first-hand how poultry is produced, while protecting students who go out to work in the poultry sector.
This window on the industry is one of the great achievements of the unit. Except in time of very high biosecurity status, visitors to the college can visit the poultry unit, in accordance with strict hygiene rules. Through windows visitors can see poultry being reared in a unit that demonstrates identical methods to those used in industry.
In the autumn term we rear 1400 turkeys for Bernard Matthews which are processed for the Christmas fresh market. Two 2500-bird flocks of broilers are purchased from Crown Chicken in the spring term, sold to Pointers of Norfolk and this is followed by commercial pheasant-rearing in the summer term.
One of the lessons we have learned over the years is that the public understanding of how poultry is produced usually changes after a visit to our unit. While many prefer free-range methods of production, our standards of husbandry are high and we are proud to let everyone in to see for themselves so they base their opinions on experience rather than supposition.
We encourage students from across the college to help with day-old deliveries and catching to experience first-hand how food is produced. They form opinions one way or another, but always from their own experience.
The successful open window policy potentially brings hygiene issues which we have dealt with successfully for nearly 14 years. In the 10 years I have spent at Easton, we have had only one significant disease challenge where mortality was higher than normal and that was not for long. It was a mild case of TRT, probably a reaction to vaccination. During the recent avian flu outbreak in Suffolk, we decided to follow the rest of the industry and restrict visitors to essential staff only while birds were in situ. For this reason, we did not restock for the second flock in March because we wanted to use the unit for practical demonstrations and to let the teaching continue.
The biosecurity protocol is similar to that used in the industry, and gives a good example to all the students.
All visitors wishing to go into the pens must wear wellington boots and overalls provided by the poultry unit, and cannot wear this attire anywhere else
Footwear is dipped on entry to the unit, and on moving from pen to pen
Hand sanitisers are available outside each pen
Staff who plan to visit another poultry unit must follow the rule of that farm, which generally requires a 24-72-hour gap from one farm to the next. Our own NVQ assessors never enter our unit
We have plenty of Antec disinfectant in stock (free by sponsorship from DuPont) and use regularly for foot dips, etc
Turnaround times are as long as possible to give the unit some rest, and to allow us time to teach the students how to clean properly – a sometimes arduous task.
Several ex-students have reported an improvement in flock performance at home after attending a course at Easton. When I asked what they were doing now that they were not doing in the past, it appeared that the main factor was their understanding of biosecurity. Apart from the numbers of visitors we allow, we adopt the same standards of biosecurity as Bernard Matthews, whose arrangements are second to none – and that’s the truth. So far, this policy has worked well as flock performance demonstrates.
The feed conversion rate (FCR) of the college flock varies from at best 1.55:1 to 1.8:1, and liveweight for the last flock was 1.95kg at 34 days. We have noted that attention to detail is reflected in the flock result, mainly in the FCR. These birds are reared as far as possible by students at the college. Birds are sometimes weighed each day according to curriculum needs, and are inspected and handled more than a commercial flock, yet infectious disease is rare. We run an all-in, all-out policy and we don’t thin flocks.
Every year, we have at least one person wanting to include poultry in their full-time national diploma, writes Andrew Farley. It would be inadvisable for young people to study nothing but poultry full time at National Diploma level like I and many others did. We all know how flexible we need to be over a 40-year career.
But if 10-15 people studied here and included poultry as a significant proportion of their studies, I believe they would all get jobs, as the shortage in the industry seems to be in finding young people with the right skills. Here we can lay it on – farms to work on, industry support, good teaching, living accommodation at college, often with financial support. Poultry farming is an exiting and rewarding career. So, why do we not have more come to study?
Andrew comes from a poultry farming background, his father building the family’s first poultry shed (a Brookson unit) in 1960. Since then, Andrew has worked most of his career in the poultry industry. He obtained an NDP at Harper Adams, and has worked first as a lecturer, and now as a curriculum team leader at Easton College since 1997.
Farm manager’s jottings Chris Nix
All students are told that, on leaving a pen, they have to check six things, or the birds might be stressed the next time they enter the pen. Those are:
Food: Is there enough, and is the feeder working?
Water: Is there enough clean water, and are all the drinkers working?
Heat: Is the brooder working normally?
Light: Are all the bulbs working, and is the time clock set?
Air: Is the fan working, and is the air fresh?
Alarms: Are they set correctly?
This is a mental check list every farm manager takes for granted, but it takes months sometimes to “drill” students to remember. I call the poultry shed a life-support machine for the birds, and they are in control of it. They are told that if one of these six checks is missed, the birds could suffer.
By far the most difficult concept students grasp is ventilation. They cannot see the air, so they just keep guessing. I like to teach this in four stages:
Theory – predicting what they will find
Experimentation in the college unit using air speed meters smoke guns, etc, each having a go with all the equipment, including alarms, failsafe, brooders etc
Writing up what they found with flow charts and photos
Visit to a large-scale production unit to see the theory in action (only when AI is not a threat)
They then just about get the idea.
Main teaching points
Welfare codes and legislation
Biosecurity – changing attitudes to hygiene
Feed and water – what we feed the birds, how we feed them and why
Ventilation – matching the theory to practice, and getting a most productive environment
Record keeping – knowing where you are and where you are going
Day-old management – getting mortality to down to 0.5%
Monitoring performance – getting the weight right
The many facets of the poultry industry, its history and markets