Successful Organic Poultry Conference

17 October 2012

The elegant Clevedon Hall in Somerset was the venue for the recent Organic Poultry Conference which was attended by more than 50 poultry producers, industry suppliers and advisors.

In his welcome speech, Bill Yeats, chair of the Organic Poultry Working Group, talked about the difficult times being experienced by the organic poultry sector. Sales through supermarkets were falling, but increased sales were reported by independents, such as Riverford and Able & Cole, and there was a surge in organic sales in mainland Europe.

Bruce Pierce (Senior Researcher at the Organic Research Centre) challenged the group to think about the following questions :
• What will our food products look like in the future?
• What will future poultry systems look like?
• What feed can be obtained from the range?
• Will 100% organic feed be possible?
• What breeds can make best use of the range?
• Can we have dual purpose breeds?

Chris Atkinson outlined the Soil Association’s vision for 2020 and the Organic Poultry Roadmap.

The future of feeding was discussed by Becky Nelder of the Organic Research Centre, and Mike Burrows and Peter Griffin of Hi Peak Feeds. One of the key issues facing the organic poultry industry is the introduction of 100% organic diet by the end of 2014. The use of novel feeds may help feed mills achieve this target, for example, sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), black soldier fly larvae (Hermetia illucens), mussel meal, Spirulina, and grass pea (Lathyrus sativus), as well as making better use of available raw materials such as dehulled peas.
However, it is not just a question of using 100% organic feed, the management of the range has an equally important role to play. In an enhanced range, birds can acquire some of their dietary needs by feeding on seeds and insects etc, although this is difficult to assess. In one trial of a 100% organic diet, chicks were given a higher light intensity from day 1 and were introduced to the range at 6 to 8 weeks. By the time they were moved to the laying houses they were ranging well and welfare was good with no feather loss.

Breeding for future was outlined by Brian Piggott (Piggott’s Poultry) and Mike Colley (FAI Farms). Most suppliers of day-old chicks and laying pullets offer a range of hybrids with different characteristics to suit a variety of environmental conditions. The perfect meat bird is a robust, hardy bird with a good gait score which thrives on a 100% organic diet and gives a good breast yield for the customer. The culling of day-old male chicks is an issue that concerns consumers, so a possible way forward could be the improvement of the dual-purpose varieties.

Alison Bond and Jessica Stokes introduced the new guide on feather cover produced by the Assurewel Project, a collaboration between the Soil Association, RSPCA and the University of Bristol. They explained that Soil Association inspections now include a welfare outcome-based assessment of laying hens, scoring individual birds rather than looking at the flock as a whole. Producers are encouraged to carry out self assessments of their flocks. Jerry Saunders explained that he had been scoring his flocks at Orchard Organic Farm and found the assessment to be an excellent management tool, enabling him to pick up on welfare problems early on.

Finally, Lee Holdstock (Trade Relations, Soil Association) gave a market update. About 70% of organic poultry products are sold through the main supermarkets and sales have declined since 2008. There has been an overall decline of about 6% over the last year, but there are exceptions, with Sainsbury’s showing a slight increase. One reason for the fall may be the shift to more shelf space for economy range products at the expense of the premium products. Looking at market share, Ocado is achieving organic sales 10 times that predicted for their size, and Waitrose achieving four times. There has been a rise in sales through box schemes and for export to Europe to meet the increasing demand.

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