Traditional Norfolk Poultry has something of a reputation when it comes to product innovation, having tried all sorts of different lines, breeds and products in recent years.
It was responsible for the launch of rare-breed Bourbon Red, Slate Grey and Naragansett Christmas turkeys, and has been a driving force behind the commercialisation of Norfolk Black turkeys.
The company also supplies a Norfolk speckled hen into Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, and produces a wide portfolio of brands – from Black Farmer to Jimmy’s Farm – in its state-of-the-art processing plant at Shropham.
But its latest venture goes a step further, taking the company into the realms of poultry breeding for the first time in its 25-year history.
The Norfolk Black chicken was actually launched into Sainsbury’s at the end of September – the culmination of almost three years’ development.
“We have been producing Norfolk Black turkeys for the past six or seven years, and have seen that business really take off. It has become almost as well known as the bronze,” says TNP director Mark Gorton. “Three years ago we then thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a Norfolk Black chicken as well?’ That was the lightbulb moment.”
Mr Gorton targeted Sainsbury’s as the preferred buyer, since the supermarket already took the company’s Norfolk Black turkeys.
“We could have just phoned them up, but wanted to do something a bit different,” he recalls. “So we got hold of some black feathered, naked-neck chickens and, when we had some Sainsbury’s buyers on the farm, used this flock to sow the seed of the idea for a Norfolk Black chicken.
“The naked necks were clearly the wrong birds for the UK market, but it was a good bit of theatre and went down well with the buyer. This gave us the encouragement to take it further.”
The next stage was to establish the parameters for what was going to be an entirely new breed.
“The first thing was that it would have to be black,” says Mr Gorton, with just a hint of irony. “It would also have to fit in with our high welfare, free-range production systems and grow to the right timescale – up to 63 days.”
Other traits it would have to display were good conformation to deliver a decent breast meat yield and, above all, good taste. “If you have the best story to tell and the best-looking chicken, but no taste, then you have nothing.”
With this specification, TNP then called in the breeders to find out what was possible. “Some thought we were mad, some thought we had had too much vodka,” says Mr Gorton. “But we have a long-term relationship with Hubbard, and when we talked to them, they quickly came on board.”
With the help of Hubbard’s business development executive Jim Hunnable, TNP started looking at different breeds and farming systems throughout Europe, as well as talking to the company’s geneticists about possible crosses.
“We narrowed it down to four particular French breeds, which on paper gave us what we were after,” explains Mr Gorton. “We then had to put them to the test, producing a number of crosses at elite stock level, and bringing the fertile eggs back to the UK for hatching and trial work.”
That was about two-and-a-half years ago, when the first birds were placed on one of TNP’s farms and tested against a range of different diets and management systems. Some crosses grew too quickly and others did not range particularly well so these were discounted, as were birds that were not the right colour.
The good ones were then sent away for further analysis and taste testing.
“We eventually narrowed it down to one specific cross and chose that for our grandparent stock, bringing eggs over from France to hatch and produce our own parent stock.”
It was at this time – about a year ago, and after a second set of trials – that Sainsbury’s gave TNP the go-ahead and committed to provide an outlet for the Norfolk Black chickens.
Mr Gorton says the company had no experience of running breeding farms. “But, as it is a unique product, we had to keep the breeding in-house. Hubbard has given us a lot of help and we are now in a position where we have three breeding sites – all ex-free-range egg laying units – plus a separate site where we rear the day-olds to point-of-lay.”
The results so far have been impressive. “We were expecting some problems with the first few hatches, and allowed a big window before placing our first commercial flocks,” says Mr Gorton. “But our first parent flock achieved 82% hatch rate, and we now have 90% hatchability and 95% fertility.”
Each breeder flock is placed at 13-week intervals in order to give a consistent supply of eggs. They come into lay at 26 weeks and are kept in production to 60 weeks.
The eggs are taken from all three flocks once a week, hatched by a third party, and the day-old chicks returned to one of TNP’s free-range growing farms.
The day-old chicks will have been vaccinated for infectious bronchitis and Marek’s disease. Vaxitek is used for the Marek’s, providing extended cover, bearing in mind the birds will be on the ground for nine weeks instead of five or six for standard broilers.
The birds are predominantly black, but with some mottled red feathers around the neck – particularly on the males – and they have black legs.
There are now several commercial flocks on the ground, varying in size from 500 birds in a mobile house up to 13,000 birds in a static house.
The day-old chicks are kept inside the light, airy barns for the first three weeks, with the temperature gradually reduced from 30C to ambient temperature over that period.
The birds have access to perches, straw bales and pecking objects, in fulfilment of Freedom Food standards. And to qualify as “free range” they have to spend at least 50% of their lives with access to the range.
They are fed a corn-based diet on an ad-lib basis. “The ration is top secret and has been developed to deliver maximum flavour to the finished bird,” says Mr Gorton. “But, while some corn-fed birds have a yellow skin, these do not. We do not see this as a problem as it’s the flavour that’s paramount.”
The birds range well, though to provide them with further encouragement the company has planted strips of game cover, at 90 degrees to the popholes, running out for over 100m. The birds also have green arcs on the range, to provide shelter from heavy rain or bright sunshine.
Lighting in the sheds is entirely natural and the popholes are left open 24/7, so that the birds can range from dawn to dusk.
There is no thinning – the whole flock keeps going until the birds are all slaughtered at 63 days old. This is about a week later than most of TNPs Hubbard 757s, with the extra week adding maturity and enhancing eating quality.
At this stage, they have reached a stocking density of 27.5kg/sq m, liveweight of 2.2-2.3kg and produce a 1.6kg carcass.
The first commercial flock was slaughtered and processed at TNP’s factory on 24 September, in time for the roll-out into Sainsbury’s stores on 26 September.
Sainsbury’s to be sole outlet
The Norfolk Black chicken is being sold exclusively through Sainsbury’s, as whole birds, breast fillets and leg and thigh pieces.
“Customers are expected to include people who already buy a Norfolk Black turkey at Christmas – so the interest is already there,” says Mr Gorton, adding that the birds pluck easily, so will not be covered in black dots.
The birds will be priced at the premium end of the fresh poultry market – part of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range. Mr Gorton is not too worried that the launch comes at a time when the economy is technically in recession and consumer spending power is more limited.
“People are still looking for something different. And, while the overall UK market for free-range and organic chicken has reduced, our own sales have improved, as we have picked up lots of new business.”
But, while Sainsbury’s will be the sole retail outlet, TNP also plans to push the product into the foodservice sector, targeting top-end restaurants.
“This project is absolutely unique and that gives us a great selling point,” says Mr Gorton. “We have got the Norfolk Black name trademarked and we have a good story to tell. But ultimately success will depend on taste, and we believe we can deliver that too.”