Diversity of markets helps family in organic poultry success

14th August 2012

Rodney Mee of Springfield Poultry says that Soil Association (SA) certification gives his customers the assurance they want, even though he has had the odd spat with its inspectors when he thinks they’re making life a bit too difficult.

On driving into Springfield Poultry’s car park at Steen’s Bridge, Hereford, you get a sense of orderliness, and as likely as not you’ll soon encounter company-founder Rodney Mee, who started the business with his wife Beryl in the mid-50s. Although he’ll tell you he’s not as involved as he used to be and it’s now down to his sons, Nigel and Stewart, he nonetheless seems to know all that’s going on. And that’s no mean feat at Springfield Poultry!

Not only does the business rear over 3,200 table birds a week – a mixture of organic and free-range – it also slaughters and processes all finished product on site, supporting a staff of 16.

Approximately 600 organic chicken per week and 500 organic turkeys per year are finished at the homestead with the free-range operation located at a separate site. The organic chickens are finished at ten to eleven weeks and Springfield has never been tempted towards intensive production, the sort that can finish birds in half the time. Nor do the Mee-family put all their birds in one basket, preferring instead to sell into a diversity of markets, including family butchers, multi-retailers, fishmongers, top-end fish shops and online.

“Based on the cost consumers are prepared to pay, the poultry industry in general has become frightened of producing too heavy a bird. As a rule butchers prefer table-chicken not to exceed 2kg,” says Rodney.

“But for organic production it is inevitable that finishing weights will vary, with perhaps a quarter of the birds finishing at between 2kg and 2.5kg. We have successfully developed our markets to accept this higher proportion of heavier birds, actually using it to our advantage by pointing out to our customers that organic is not about uniform rigidity.”

While Nigel Mee heads-up the financial and administration side, Stewart’s main concern is husbandry and production. The organic production-cycle starts with the delivery of 1200 day-old chicks, which are housed in two ark-houses of 600, where they remain for three/four weeks before being split into a total of four spacious finishing houses. The housing is simple and well ventilated: temperature is set at 90F on arrival of the chicks and reduced by 1F each day thereafter. No artificial air is generated.

Stewart says when it comes to finishing the birds it’s not about ramming protein into them to get a quick turn-round, but achieving steady growth for finishing at around ten weeks. Feeding policy is determined in conjunction with Hi Peak Organic Feeds, who specialise only in organic rations and support 100% organic diets. Hi Peak’s involvement with Springfield Poultry stretches back nearly 20 years, a time when there were very few making organic rations.

“It wasn’t very scientific. We placed two competing organic poultry rations side by side and the birds went straight for Hi Peak’s, so it wasn’t a difficult decision,” says Stewart, who believes Hi Peak’s organic only status is another way to add value.

Nowadays Stewart says technical know-how is of utmost importance and looks to Hi Peak’s starter rations to achieve good muscle-mass and frame within the first 28 days and follows-on with a finisher ration to optimise prime meat production at ten-week slaughter. “Unlike intensive poultry production, we are looking for steady growth, attuned to natural growth rates and able to yield a high quality meat to high welfare standards,” says Stewart.

Hi Peak’s Mike Burrows believes the efficiency of more organic poultry units could be improved if diets were tailored to meet breed and production requirements because every kilo fed is more effectively utilised.

“In the same way you wouldn’t feed an Olympian the same diet as a non-athlete, nor would you feed an organic table bird the same way as you would a bird managed for intensive mass-production. The balance of protein and energy can be critical, as are the sources from which they are derived,” comments Mr Burrows.

In looking to the future, Stewart Mee tellingly says there are many retailers who would sell his poultry tomorrow if they only knew of its existence. He therefore cites marketing as key and echoes a widely held view that organics should concentrate on a single message.

For those concerned about the future prospects of organics, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Springfield poultry is that it has demonstrated that there is a solid market for organic produce, and once you have an audience, they are prepared to listen and appreciate the welfare, environmental and eating benefits of organic food.