Croxton Kerrial, a village in the English county of Leicestershire, is home to the Botterill family. Gerarld, Anne and their son Richard have been rearing free range turkeys and geese at Lings View Farm for the past 25 years. Recently, however, important decisions about the direction of their business had to be made.
Demand for the Botterill's free range turkeys and geese had grown to such an extent that they wanted to expand production. The family's business, however, was being restricted by its processing facility, not only in terms of capacity but also by its ability to meet national and European Union's health, safety and welfare standards.
As recently as four years ago, the Botterills were killing, drying and wax-plucking, hanging and storing birds in a collection of old, converted farm buildings. Some were former cattle sheds and milking parlours dating back to the early twentieth century when Lings View flourished as a dairy farm with a capacity to process only 2,500 birds over the Christmas period.
Lings View now benefits from purpose-built, standalone processing facilities designed to facilitate work flow and with easy-to-clean surfaces. These were built with regard to the positioning of the farm's other buildings. Importantly, the investment gives the family the possibility to process the maximum number of geese and turkeys allowed under derogations from certain areas of the EU poultry health directive.
Richard Botterill explains: "We used farm labour and completed the job in three years at a cost of around £100,000 (US$143,775) half the price than if we had used outside labour. For the first time in 25 years of turkey and goose farming, we were able to process and store birds under one roof."
The cost covered the basic building structure, cold rooms, fridge plant and mains services but the facilities also needed to be equipped. The Botterills were able to reuse some of the equipment, including the overhead track, from the previous facility.
New equipment was bought, including flight puller and two Bayle pluckers and waxing tanks, but the Botterills were able to take advantage of the current economic climate and buy equipment from companies that were going out of business. This included good quality sinks, sterilisers, troughing tables and chilling panels, all of a high enough standard to satisfy health inspectors.
In preparation for processing, birds are starved and held in lairage for 12 hours before being transferred, one at a time, to a carousel to be stunned and bled. Turkeys are electrically stunned, because their bald heads make a good contact, while geese are rendered unconscious by dislocation of the neck. By the time the circuit ends, both species die by being bled out. The process maintains carcass quality.
Poultryman flight pullers remove the flight feathers and Bayle units rough pluck the breast and shanks. Overhead shackles carry the still complete carcasses feet, head, eviscera intact into the waxing area. A quick dip into the wax tank fits the carcasses out with a yellow jacket which is hand-stripped on the line once the wax cools.
With the wax go the feathers and stubs that are left from the earlier dry pluck, leaving a Grade A carcass that is also free from the skin tears that are inevitable with hand plucking. Mobile racks then take the carcasses into a store chilled to 1C, where turkeys and geese mature for up to 10 days, after which they are eviscerated and the feet and heads removed.
This 10-day delay puts the seal on the traditional farm fresh (TFF) method of rearing Christmas turkeys and geese, which starts with a 20-week plus rearing period on diets tailored to the slow-growing regime.
Botterill's Bronze Turkeys weights range from 5kg-10kg oven ready (O/R) and 6kg-12kg long legged (L/L) and geese 4kg-6.5kg O/R and 6kg-10 kg L/L.
To ensure a return on their investment, the Botterills needed to make greater use of their new facilities, keeping them in use between Christmases.
Before the UK's free range poultry revolution, the only non-Christmas activity for farm fresh producers nationally was limited demand for turkeys for the US Thanksgiving holiday in November.
To counter this limited market, small, Christmas-only turkey farmers added free range flocks to their pole barn-reared birds, or opened the barn doors to let their birds range free, bringing them back in overnight. This emergence of a year-round market for free range meat in the UK convinced the Botterills there could be year-round use for new facilities and pushed them to invest. Apart from a new processing facility, the farm has four free range mobile houses.
Since the end of 2008, the family has been rearing the slow-growing free range Coloryield chicken, a Hubbard strain bred in France. Eighty to 90 are now reared a week and marketed at the farm gate and to local butchers, allowing the new processing facilities to be used year round.
"They are good birds they forage well and develop strong legs that keep them going up to 16 weeks and more," Botterill said.
For Christmas 2008, female chicken went to 14 weeks, making 1kg-1.25kg, while males went to 16-18 weeks at 2kg-2.5 kg O/R.
Last Christmas, the Botterills produced 3,000 TFF turkeys and 1,500 geese and then held their collective breath, wondering how their premium market would fare in the prevailing economic conditions. By Christmas Eve, only 80 of their 4,500 premium birds were still in the chill room. The male chickens were sold out.
Botterill added: "The new building should allow us to reach the 10,000 turkey and geese limit for exempt producers. This figure is mainly governed by the size of the chill rooms, rather than the production areas.
"When we will reach that number is a good question. With the current economic downturn, it might take more time, but people will want to eat quality, slowly matured, free range birds. Quality always sells, and when the upturn comes we can easily expand to cope with higher demand as we have already made investments."