Shirley Copeland might not have planned for a long career in poultry, but the award-winning broiler grower has shown what it takes to succeed. Michael Barker reports
In these days of highly specialised and often narrow-focused businesses, EC Drummond is something of an anomaly.
In addition to a substantial poultry enterprise, the Herefordshire-based family business also farms arable, top-fruit and soft-fruit crops across 2,850ha of land, giving its managers great autonomy to run their farms to the best of their ability.
One of those managers is Shirley Copeland, who was named Grower of the Year at the 2023 National Egg & Poultry Awards in recognition of her outstanding production performance over many years running EC Drummond’s broiler farm at Pershore in Worcestershire. The site has 12 houses and grows around 320,000 Ross 308 broilers for Avara Foods, with a high focus on technical excellence that has seen Copeland achieve a seven-crop average EPEF of 439.53, including growth rates of 107% against the Avara standard and a topline average FCR of 1.46.
Copeland, it’s fair to say, didn’t necessarily intend on a career in poultry, but has learnt on the job through a number of roles over the years. Hailing from near Edinburgh in Scotland, she first gained a position in the butchery department at poultry processors DB Marshall, where her late husband Albert worked, before switching to quality control. When Albert moved to a new job at GW Padley in Lincolnshire, it was a similar story. “At that time I wasn’t intending to be involved in the farm or anything, but they were building a new site and they asked if I would be interested in working alongside him,” she explains. “We had three little children and I was given the opportunity to have them with me, so I said okay.”
The Copelands’ move south of the border mirrors the story of Shirley’s current employers. EC Drummond describes itself as “a sustainable agribusiness with family at its heart”, having been founded in 1956 when Eric Drummond Sr moved from Scotland to Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, where he farmed 90ha of potatoes, cereal and blackcurrants as well as raising sheep and cattle. He was later joined by his son Eric, who took over ownership of the business in 1979. It was Eric that recruited Albert to run his new poultry site at Pershore, and while Shirley originally wasn’t planning on getting involved, once again the lure proved too much, and the rest is history.
Copeland is full of praise for the level of trust that the company – now run by Eric’s son Sam – have placed in her and Albert over the years. “The difference with other businesses is that you do have quite a bit of autonomy on site, which is unusual,” she points out. “The way I ventilate the chickens is maybe a bit different from other people, as is how I organise the staffing. If you want to get something new for the farm you can go and get it, within reason. It’s the closest thing to running your own place really. I can’t praise the company enough, because they’re just a nice family firm.”
A good atmosphere is a special thing to have, but Copeland stresses that hard work is essential too and there’s no doubt that meticulous attention to detail is her mantra. Everything is computer controlled with AgroLogic technology, and the company does its own wheat blending on site and finely monitors everything from water and feed consumption to ensure the best performance is achieved. The site has recently installed solar and is in the process of adding a water treatment plant as part of a plan to recycle rainwater, while a misting system was also installed this year to help keep the birds cool during extreme weather.
It’s all part of an intense focus on production efficiency and quality that has propelled the company to being one of the best in the business. “We tend to be in the upper quartile in the league tables,” Copeland says. “I like to be at the top! No day is a half day – you have to be 100% on point every day because you can completely lose the crop by not paying attention to detail.”
Like other businesses, EC Drummond has a relentless focus on biosecurity and goes to great lengths to keep avian flu out. Copeland says that while the farm has not yet suffered an outbreak, it remains highly vigilant to the threat. “My message to the staff is that the only way that AI can get it is if we take it in with us, so the more that we can be biosecure the better. I can be pretty certain that nobody is breaking our crossover barriers and there’s nobody that isn’t following the rules and regulations.”
Despite her many years in the industry, Copeland believes you always have to be open to change and not simply rest on your laurels of what has been done before. At the end of every crop, for example, she sits down with her staff and conducts a frank analysis of what has been done well, what could have been done better and what needs to change.
Copeland’s team includes an assistant manager, stockman and an apprentice, and she reports to senior broiler area manager Tom Wareham. As one of a relatively small number of women in the poultry industry, Copeland believes having a good gender balance can have benefits for a business. “My assistant is a woman as well and I think EC Drummond generally have more women than most companies in the poultry industry,” she adds. “It may have just happened like that rather than being a deliberate policy, but I like to think I have showed that it can be done and it’s a good mix to have men and women on site, as women tend to do attention to detail a little bit better. It’s a worthwhile industry for women to get into, definitely.”
The award win meant “a huge amount” both to the company and to Copeland, who says that even months later she still has people offering their congratulations. It adds to an impressive list of industry accolades for the Copeland family, which seems to have poultry in its blood. Albert achieved the significant success of making the 400 Club, while their son Gordon is also a poultry manager and has achieved the prestigious gold award. “Back when we worked at Padley the achievement was getting into the 220, 230, 250 Club,” Copeland recalls. “Now we are up to 440 and I actually received two certificates a couple of days ago from the MD of Avara. It’s hard work, and about attention to detail. You have to have everything right.” What’s more, both of Shirley’s nephews are also in the poultry industry, having moved down from Scotland themselves.
Copeland might not have planned for a career in poultry, but having made such a success of it she isn’t ready to give it up quite yet. “I’ve not got a long time left to go because obviously I’m getting on a bit, but I still have a great love for the job,” she says. “I haven’t got a full plan for the future. I suppose the time will come, but not yet.”
Shirley Copeland’s husband Albert passed away suddenly in June, shortly before she was crowned Grower of the Year at the National Egg & Poultry Awards 2023.
Albert’s career ambitions had played a great role in Shirley’s own entry into the industry. “He was a dairyman to start with, but we had young children and he wanted to provide more for the family,” she says of the early days. “He went into chickens in Scotland and was offered a job working in dairy in Wales and another one in poultry, so we sat down and had a chat and decided that he would take the chicken path.”
The Copelands moved south to join GW Padley, where Albert developed a great relationship with his manager John Carter. Following Carter’s death, Albert moved to EC Drummond, where strong links were once again forged. “Albert and Eric [Drummond] had an amazing working relationship, and they never ever had a cross word through the long time they worked together,” Shirley says. “When Albert passed away Eric was the first person I called, which speaks volumes. The company was very supportive and all the family came to his funeral. I know they’re all there for me if I have any need for any support.”