French broiler production could become more competitive by following a northern European production model, with larger, more efficient poultry houses, by rearing heavier birds and investing in higher-quality poultry feed.

The recommendations have come from a year-long study conducted by the Institut Technique de l’ Aviculture (ITAVI), presented at this year’s SPACE,  which sought to identify why French broiler producers have been losing ground at home and in export markets, and to restore competitiveness without damaging the environment.

The 30-year run of expansion enjoyed by the French poultry industry came to an end in 2000. Since then, the sector has been in decline and is now thought to be stagnant, despite demand for poultry meat continuing to rise.

The cost of live chicken in France is the second-highest among major European poultry-producing countries, and the highest on exit from slaughterhouses, making imports increasingly attractive.

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Ainut.Image from BigStockPhoto.com | The cost of chicken fillets leaving the processing plant in France is more expansive than in other major European poultry producing countries, which makes imported chicken breast more attractive to consumers.

Forty percent of the standard broiler meat consumed in France is now imported. At retail level, imports account for only 7 percent of sales, while in the catering/restaurant sector, almost all broiler meat is sourced from outside the country.

Several factors upstream and downstream were identified by the study’s authors as contributing to these high costs, including a heavy regulatory burden, high labor costs, and out-of-date buildings and equipment. However, in developing strategies, they concentrated on how changes could be made solely at the farm level, evaluating several scenarios and testing impact on live and finished production.

Producing a heavier bird

The study authors looked at whether producing a heavier bird would make broiler production more efficient, and hence more competitive. Data for a five-year period showed that birds are sent to slaughter in France with an average weight of 1.9 kg.

However, carrying out thinning at this weight, and keeping the remaining birds for longer, while still respecting maximum stocking densities, would see the cost of fillet production improve by approximately 10 percent.

There would, however, be an environmental impact with this approach, as the birds would consume more feed, but positively, poultry houses would be better utilized.

A change in poultry feed

The study also looked at using a poultry feed that was a little energy deficient, but richer in amino acids than that commonly used in French broiler production.

This would improve daily weight gain and fillet yield. Although producer input costs rose under this scenario, the performance gains resulted in an overall improvement in production costs, with no impact on the environment.

Additional benefits

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However, it was by combing the strategies of keeping birds for longer and changing how broilers are fed, that more significant changes were noted.

Sending a heavier bird to slaughter that has gained more from feed would not only bring down the cost of the live bird, but also of the processed fillet. The end benefit would be greater than the sum of the two parts, the study found, and the industry’s environmental impact would be reduced.

Investing in new buildings

Poultry farm buildings and equipment in France have an average age of 25 years. Investing in new buildings that are more efficient, while representing an initial cost, can bring savings in energy consumption.

Investment in new buildings would bring about economies of scale, which would also help to put French producers on a better footing in regard to their competitors.

French broiler farms tend to be small in comparison to those of the country’s European neighbors. The average size of a French broiler farm is 30,000 head while, in Germany, the average poultry farm holds 60,000 birds and, in the U.K., this rises to 90,000 birds.

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French broiler farms tend to be small in comparison to those of neighboring countries and do not benefit from the economies of scale enjoyed by larger producers.

By combining changes to rearing practices and investing in new, more efficient, poultry sheds and equipment, the study’s authors concluded that live production costs could be reduced by 6 percent, while the cost of producing chicken fillets could be lowered by 13-16 percent.

This would almost close the gap with the country’s European competitors, which account for almost 90 percent of broiler meat imports.

Wider change needed

Modernizing broiler production practices, the focus of this study, however, is only one part of a much wider examination of French poultry production that needs to take place if the sector is to become more competitive and regain the market share it has lost to imports, the report's authors argue.

There are various points along the production process that need to be re-evaluated, along with the production chain as a whole, and a common strategy and common decision-making need to be developed.

Producing a heavier bird, for example, would necessitate changes to logistics and slaughterhouses, and such a change cannot happen in isolation.