Forty-one-year-old Stéphane Dahirel and his 38-year-old wife Marie-Astrid run a wheat and corn farm of 72 hectares that they took over from his parents in 1990. In addition to crop production, the farm also has five broiler houses at three different locations, extending to a surface area of 5,500 m². Four of them are multi-purpose — and can be used for chickens or turkeys. In 2007, the farm had 76,000 turkeys, reared to an average weight of 10kg.

Unlike most French broiler producers, Dahirel rears heavy birds, with male birds being slaughtered at 3.2kg. He belongs to the Gaevol group, a partner of animal nutrition concern Glon, and specialises in supplying boneless chicken to McDonalds via a poultry processor, a subsidiary of the same French feed company Glon.

Gaevol's heavy-chicken brand is called Princior. In 2007, the brand was applied to almost 35 million birds (males and females), and some 221,000 of these came from Dahirel's farm in Lanouee, in mid-Brittany.

McDonalds supplier

Dahirel is president of the Gaevol group, which has 421 members with 740,000 m² of poultry houses. It was not until 1996 that, together with other members, he began to raise heavy broilers.

The poultry processor Boscher, a supplier of Cargill Foods, which is in turn a supplier of McDonalds in Europe, needed chickens that provided an excellent supply of fillet meat. Boscher, which had just opened a new abattoir and cutting plant with a capacity of 40,000 metric tons, announced that it could, from then on, debone chickens with a live weight of 3.4kg.

While the production of cuts may be growing in France, chickens are usually slaughtered with a live weight of 1.9kg or less. To make the most of the deboning process, however, heavier birds are needed.

At the time of the plant's opening in 1991, the average weight of the best heavy broilers in France was between 2.7kg and 2.8kg for male birds at 49-50 days. Now, however, at the same age, it averages 3.2kg or more.

Although Dahirel had little experience in rearing heavy birds, with the help of Glon, he was able to adapt many of his procedures. He installed ventilation, which renewed the air at more than 1 m³/kg/hour, instead of the 0.6-0.8 m³/kg/hour normally practiced for birds weighing less than 2kg live weight.

Additionally, the houses now have dynamic cross ventilation, combined with high pressure spray systems (operating at 100 bar). Humidifying the air to lower the temperature is a necessity during periods of intense heat, which can occur even in Brittany, a region known for its temperate climate and absence of weather extremes.

Other measures were also introduced, including adapting the lighting system. This was changed not only to meet the needs of heavier birds but also aligned to the housing type. A feeding programme, specially developed by Glon for use with heavy broilers, has also contributed to the success of a type of production that is unusual in France.

Respecting welfare

Dahirel is also conscious of the need to prevent foot problems, including possible pododermatitis, and uses a very dry litter of crushed straw, shavings or buckwheat husks. But he is not a believer in the European Union criteria of using lesions as a welfare measure for farmed chickens, pointing out that even those birds reared extensively can have lesion problems.

On this farm, as on those of the other Princior producers, chickens are housed, separately by sex, at a density of 20 birds per m2. The maximum density on the floor at any one time does not exceed 36-37kg per m², as the females are dispatched for slaughter at 36-37 days, when weighing 1.6-1.8kg, or at an age of 42-43 days, at a weight of 2.1-2.2kg.

Currently, all males are reared for some 50 days, to 3.2kg live weight, being kept for additional time to enable them to reach the new required carcase weight (3.4 kg) before going to slaughter.

As the stocking density in the houses is not especially high, they are not overly equipped. Dahirel prefers to use rather narrow feed pans and pipette drinkers on the watering lines. One building, recently built at 15m wide and 100m long, has been given three lines for feeding and four for watering.

On the first day, feed is placed on biodegradable paper at the side of each line of pipettes. The feed consumption rate is currently close to 1.9. Mortality is reasonable, not more than 3-4%, and is sometimes as low as 2%. This means that there are no welfare problems on the farm. This is strengthened by systematic vaccination against Gumboro disease and infectious bronchitis.

Most of the birds placed at the farm are Ross PM3, a "mini breed" that is highly popular in France due to its good growth performance and meat yield, and lower chick price.

This farm, like all of those in the Gaevol group, adheres to strict cleaning and decontamination procedures between each restocking. There are controls to verify the absence of Salmonella from the arrival of a new batch (by analysing the bottom of the chick boxes) until the birds are dispatched to the slaughter plant.

These procedures are required by Cargill/McDonalds, and their details are all registered on a PDA. Dahirel uses his PDA to transmit all of the farm's technical data to the Glon technical service group over the internet via the Fermantel portal.

These data include death losses and culls as well as weight, feed and water consumption, and identification for traceability, including number, hatchery of origin and the number of males and females, along with any medicines prescribed by the veterinarian. From this data, a health certificate is produced that is sent to the slaughterhouse.

This is a farm where electronic monitoring goes hand in hand with good management and leads to excellent results. It also saves time compared with manual recording and reduces the risk of mistakes due to human error. Additionally, it means faster handling of the physical and financial performance results from all members of the Gaevol group.