Johnson & Swarbrick – a profile of the goose business

By Roger Ranson

‘A happy bird is a tasty bird’ is the maxim that underlies the reputation that Johnson & Swarbrick have built up for their Goosnargh ducks and chickens, and it is now equally true of their geese.

The name Goosnargh is well known among many top chefs around the country stemming from a meeting 30 years ago between Reg Johnson and upcoming local restaurateur Paul Heathcote. The chef challenged Reg to produce a bird to rival the highly acclaimed French chicken Poulet de Bresse and Poulet des Landes.

Reg set about creating a corn-fed chicken that would satisfy top restaurants, while Paul went on to become one of the country’s leading chefs. When Reg died suddenly almost two years ago Paul wrote: “Over the course of three decades, Reg and his family business have become the very best contact for every well known chef in Great Britain who prides themselves in cooking with the very best produce.”

The ingredients of that success were seen by members of British Goose Producers when they met at Goosnargh, near Preston, Lancashire, for their annual farm walk. Today the business is run by Reg’s stepbrother Bud Swarbrick, his daughter Kara and Bud’s son Adam.

In welcoming the guests Kara said her father was always interested in experimenting with rearing different birds and in the summer of 2006 reared their first flock of geese.

Since then it has become routine to obtain goslings as day-olds in June, brood them in nursery sheds for the first six weeks, and then allow them out to graze. This business has now expanded to around 1,000 geese a year, taking advantage of their existing restaurant customers up and down the country and also supplying local shops including the supermarket Booths. Their customers look for geese with oven-ready weights from 4 to 7 kg (8.8 lb to 15 lb). 

During the brooding the goslings benefits from the way heat is provided. Two years ago the farm began to grow miscanthus, elephant grass, primarily for fuelling their new biomass boiler. Hot water from the boiler is piped to each brooding house and then warms the environment through a heat exchanger. Contrasting with the moisture generated in a gas-fired system, the dry heat helps to maintain the litter in prime condition.

The litter itself is also derived from the miscanthus. Some 40 acres of the crop are grown, and in the first year this was cut and stored in big bales. When the miscanthus was harvested early this year it was put through a forage harvester and then stored in a giant Ag Bag a 50-metre long sausage with white polythene skin. The finely chopped product is equally ideal for fuelling the boiler or spreading over the floor for bedding.

Much emphasis is placed on the home-mixed ration. Maize makes up 50% of the ration for the ducks and chickens, blended with wheat, soya and vitamin supplement. Geese, which do derive additional nourishment from the grazing, get a simpler feed based largely on wheat.

The mixing plant runs at around five tonnes / hour delivered direct into trailers so that it is always fed freshly milled. The plant produces around 30 tonnes / week to feed each week around 2,200 ducks and 2,200 chickens throughout the year.

The birds are reared to eight weeks of age to achieve oven-ready weights of 2.4 to 2.8 kg for the ducks and 1.5 to 1.9 kg for the chickens. Once the birds are killed, the geese and ducks are hung overnight for a minimum of 12 hours before being dry plucked and waxed.

It is the combination of slow growing on a maize-based diet, and overnight hanging before plucking, which the family believes enhances the quality of the product.

Johnson & Swarbrick are indeed great ambassadors for top quality, local produce – hence their enthusiasm for the SALSA food safety standards which they recommended to the visiting farmers. Safe and Local Supplier Approval is a non-profit making venture between the NFU, Food & Drink Federation, British Hospitality Association and British Retail Consortium.

“Within our family Bud, Adam and I all have different responsibilities for the farm’s daily routine after Reg was taken from us far too early in November 2015,” said Kara. “Even today we’re still finding our feet in some areas, and a lot of credit has to go our excellent staff. Without them we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

The business has 25 full and part-time employees, many from Poland and with the firm for a number of years.

The most recent diversification has been into feathers.  Reg Johnson was always looking for new ideas and adventures to augment the day-to-day farming activities and with his wide industry contacts, he’d heard that his pal from Norfolk, Michael Shingfield, was moving out of the feather business and selling his feather washing plant at Hingham.

Reg took his family across the country to take a look at Michael’s plant – and a handshake later he had done a deal to buy this machinery. Over one weekend the plant was dismantled and re-housed in a new shed at Goosnargh. The feathers go into a wash tank which will hold 70 to 80 kg for around 25 minutes, go into a large spin drier and are finished in a heat chamber. They are stored in blue plastic sacks up to three metres tall and weighing 40 kg ready for delivery.

That was three years ago and the feather business is steadily expanding. Duck and goose feathers are purchased from farms that dry pluck, mainly in the South and Wales.

“We use only dry plucked feathers as they keep better and doesn’t readily break down,” said Kara. “During the season we deal with farms in many parts of the UK and we’re always looking for more.

“As newcomers to the market, we’ve seen prices fall by 60% from when we made the investment into the plant. We discovered quickly that the market is very much dependent on world supply and demand.

“All our feathers go into the production of high quality pillows and duvets. We are now buying in each year around 30 tonnes of duck feathers and five tonnes of goose feathers. We’d like to expand this business but there are fewer producers of dry plucked ducks nowadays and, of course, the goose season is so short. We could supply much more to our customers in the UK and Germany if only we could obtain more.”

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