Strong demand but high costs for the turkey industry this year

On-farm producers have faced a host of challenges this year, of which rising feed costs and access to labor have been the most significant.

As they placed orders for turkeys in early summer, there were real concerns about the limited availability of migrant workers and the inadequacy of domestic workers who would be needed to process the birds when they were ready.

See also: What to consider before embarking on seasonal turkey production

The turkey business sector – mainly Bernard Matthews and Avara Foods – then made the decision to cut production by around 10%, which made headlines on the “Christmas cancellation”.

But seasonal small producers were also in a delicate position – aware that demand for local British food has remained resilient throughout the Covid pandemic, but wary of birds which would be expensive to keep and which they could struggle. to transform.

In the case, however, most remained with similar poult rankings to last year, according to traditional turkey breeder Kelly Turkeys, and their decision appears to have been justified.

Commercial producers are catching up

Commercial growers have stepped up production in recent weeks as more workers have entered service.

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths said placements had been reduced over the summer months in anticipation of a shortage of workers later in the year to handle them.

But the introduction of temporary visas from September and some successes in sourcing local labor have allowed large-scale operators to once again step up production of faster-growing birds, displacing turkeys year-round supply chains to the seasonal Christmas market.

“The product offering has been streamlined a bit, with processors offering fewer value-added lines and more whole poultry and crowns, but things have certainly improved,” Griffiths said.

Bernard Matthews boss Ranjit Singh Boparan was able to say earlier this month that “Christmas is saved” as he reported the hiring of 900 additional temporary seasonal workers for his factories, filling job shortages at the busiest time of the year.

“Everyone should be able to get their Christmas turkey this year, which is great news,” he says.

Temporary visas

Following prolonged industry lobbying, the government finally agreed in September to allow up to 5,500 poultry workers in the country on temporary visas, to help fill labor shortages. work in slaughterhouses and farms.

By the close of the program on November 15, it is estimated that approximately 3,000 visas had been issued and that these foreign workers are now taking their places.

“For many smallholders, an extra pair or two of hands has made all the difference,” says Richard Griffiths, managing director of the British Poultry Council, who is confident the Christmas demand will be met.

But there is no doubt that the cost of labor has increased significantly, which will weigh on the margins.

“The job market is very tight,” says Tom Glen, NFU Poultry Advisor. “While it is good that the temporary visa system is available for both small and large producers, it has arrived very late in the day and has increased costs.

“Producers also have to pay more, both to retain staff and to attract new employees. It’s a competitive workplace. Many local workers do not want temporary jobs anyway, poor rural transport makes it difficult for some to access farms, and there is no time to train them in the skills required.

Cost increase

In addition to paying more for labor, feed costs have been another challenge, with feed grains on an upward trajectory for much of the year.

Feed wheat, for example, has hovered around £ 200 / t for much of the year, and is currently £ 30-40 / t ahead of last year’s levels – and rising.

The NFU estimated in August that an average 5.5kg bird would cost around £ 39.94 to keep, up from £ 37.12 last year, a 7.3% increase.

Costs will no doubt have increased since then, with energy and packaging also more expensive – and those August estimates did not include the cost of visa applications for those using the government’s temporary visa program.

But the effect on margins will vary wildly from farm to farm, says Glen.

“If they booked food late, had to recruit more local labor, or had to use the visa system, they may well consider even larger cost increases and margins will be under pressure – but it will vary. “

Glen is optimistic about the overall outlook for the industry, however, and anticipates a sell-off.

“We have already seen panic buying in October, when there was talk of a shortage. There is no doubt that many families will want to make Christmas even more special this year and will pay a little more for this quality British product.

Visa program helps secure additional workers

Seasonal turkey producer Anthony Harris says he is on the verge of selling his produce, having benefited from an increase in orders in October as customers sought to secure their birds for Christmas.

But finding the manpower to kill and prepare the 3,000 white and bronze birds he raises at Bridgers Farm, near Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex, has been particularly difficult – and expensive.

“We normally employ eight Polish regulars to do the slaughter and butcher, but only four have resident status, so we had to use the temporary visa system,” says Harris.

“Thanks to this, we were able to secure two more workers – one who was here before and a new one.

Anthony Harris with turkeys

Anthony Harris © Lee Crawley

“It was quite expensive,” he adds. “In addition to the visa fee of £ 240 each, the administration fee associated with recruiting through one of the four licensed labor providers brought the cost to around £ 1,500.

“For three weeks of work and for a small business like mine, that’s a lot of money.

Mr Harris also managed to retain a regular English laborer to do the stunner and found three premises to help with the weigh-ins, boxing and bookkeeping.

“We have generated some interest from the locals, but you have to be very selective to make sure which ones you employ will last throughout the course – it can be hard work. “

To make this more likely, Mr Harris increased his hourly rate from around £ 12 last year to £ 13.

Culling will begin on December 1, with the team treating 350 to 600 birds per day.

“It usually takes us eight days to kill and dry pluck, then they are hung up for 14 days and another six days to get the oven ready. “

Overall, Harris says he sees a significant increase in costs this year, having paid 8% more for his food and 11% more for labor.

“I was a little later than I should have to fix my flow [supplied by Duffields], and we also plan to have to run our coolers harder this year – it seems like it’s been a while since we’ve had a cold December.

To compensate for this, Mr Harris introduced a general price increase of 7% on birds he sells direct from the farm, although the butcher trade – which takes about a third of its birds – remains very competitive, with breasts from Poland at bargain prices.

“At least retail demand is strong and farm store sales are also increasing,” he says. “Last year we sold two weeks before Christmas, with the help of Covid because no one was taking a vacation abroad. I think it will be the same this year.

Farmers offer drive-thru turkey collection service

Hampshire farmers Simon and Alex Bridger will operate a safe drive-through turkey collection service for the second Christmas at their Ashford farm in Petersfield.

The Bridgers launched the service last year to keep staff and customers safe during the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than selling in the existing store. It was such a success that they decided to relaunch it.

The pandemic has seen more and more people look to buy local produce and support farmers, says Ms Bridger, with meat traceability being the main selling point. “Last year we were overwhelmed, and it looks like we will be overwhelmed again this year due to panic buying.”

Simon and Alex Bridger sitting on balls with turkeys in the background

Simon and Alex Bridger, Ashford Farm © MAG / Colin Miller

This season some 1,250 turkeys have been raised on the farm – two-thirds Bronze, one-third White and 50 Norfolk Black.

Another Hampshire farmer, Paul Tanner, has also recorded strong sales for the turkeys he raises at Great Oaks Farm, Lymington, New Forest.

Starting November 30, around 4,000 poultry will be processed by 20 workers – all dry plucked and hung for at least 10 days to intensify the flavor.

“We have gained new customers since Covid and are one month ahead of sales,” Mr. Tanner said. “Customers ordered their turkeys early, worried they might not have any. We hope for a good year. Only time will tell.

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