Profile: David Speller, the chicken farmer and the robots

David Speller isn’t your average chicken farmer. He consistently tops Moy Park’s productivity league. And what’s even more impressive is that until he bought his farm 13 years ago, he’d never even been in a chicken shed.

Speller has made it his mission to push the boundaries of technology on his chicken farm and apply innovations from other industries – the 43-year-old from Chesterfield, Derbyshire was the first farmer in Britain, ten years ago, to install underfloor heating in his chicken sheds.

Since then he’s pioneered the use of CCTV and CO2 monitors in chicken sheds, and he’s currently working with several tech firms and universities developing “robotic noses”, literally roaming robots that have odour detectors to alert farm workers to the presence of disease in sheds. The first workable model will be ready for action in a year, he says.

All of this has propelled Speller to the top of the productivity league at Moy Park for the last six years running. But what makes Speller even more remarkable is that before he bought his farm in 2004, he’d never set foot in a chicken shed before. 

“Literally in the local paper was an advert: broiler farm for sale,” says Speller, who trained at Harper Adams and previously worked in arable farming.

“I had never been on a broiler farm, never been in a chicken shed, but it was on the doorstep and it seemed cheap. I thought it was well worth a go and I was able to raise a deposit. It was a 15 acre chicken farm, the guy was retiring, it needed a bit of TLC, and it really started there.”

Speller started rearing broilers, but soon realised he was sinking money into heating inefficient rickety old buildings. He decided to flatten the lot and start again.

“If I wanted a farm for the next 40 years, I needed to spend some money. I decided I needed a complete rebuild. Let’s not beat around the bush, let’s just drop it to the floor.”

Not for the first or last time, Speller went to the bank. His background was firstly in arable farm management, “driving a tractor” around onion farms, as he puts it, then latterly as a consultant for the arable sector, auditing European farm businesses with the EurepGAP Assurance scheme. So he knew his way around a business plan, and secured a loan for what would be the first underfloor heated chicken shed in Britain.

“People were telling me, the chicks need to be on a floor that’s 30 degrees, so I thought, why am I heating the roof to 35 degrees? Why don’t I heat the floor? Friends of mine had worked in Scandinavian farms where I knew the pig units had underfloor heating so I knew it was possible to do agricultural projects with underfloor heating.”

But it wasn’t straightforward. Firstly, the cost was enormous – and impossible to quote before the work started. And there were logistical barriers too to laying 100 square foot of heated flooring.

“There are only so many companies in the UK that build chicken farms and they build them to a set way that is efficient and works, and when you suddenly say to them, ‘no you can’t lay the concrete with that great big machine that cost half a million pounds because you can’t drive on the underfloor heating pipes’, you come up against a lot of barriers because you have to rethink how you do things.”

Speller was undeterred. “I just said tough. If it’s possible to lay a floor in an airport terminal or a shopping centre, you’ll have to do it a different way. And the companies said ‘ok, but we can’t tell you the cost’. So, they had to pump the concrete in rather than bring it in in dump trucks, with pedestrianised small machinery rather than great big machines. And they said, we’ll have to see what the cost is when we’ve done it. So that’s where it was challenging. The whole project went £300,000 over budget. And it was 100% borrowed.”

Challenging is perhaps an understatement. In total he borrowed £2 million. This level of debt and uncertainty would have tipped many people over the edge. And Speller himself admits, he came “very close” to failure on more than one occasion.

Even when the farm was up and running, Speller had to continue taking on work as a consultant just to pay the bills. “I was going in and doing the chickens at four in the morning, then on the road working from 8-5 with a local guy working on the farm who was paid to cover the alarm system, and then coming back and working in the evenings until 10-11 at night. So I was having to do two jobs and push performance at the same time.”

For some time, Speller’s financial situation was perilous. “I had to go to creditors and say, I can’t pay you, I can’t give you the last payment on the building, I haven’t got it.”

What got him through was two things: keeping the bank on side, and delivering great results on the farm.

“By working hard with the bank, and with my consulting background, they were able to see I was doing things in a logical professional way, and I could tell them what was going to be in the bank week by week. The only way of surviving was to do all of that and at the same time, get some very good results.  When people see the farm now, they say ‘you’ve had brilliant results’, and I say I had to pretty much sleep next to the chickens for a year to get myself out of a financial hole, because if I hadn’t I’d have been bust.

“We do a cycle every 49 days so we could see within three or four cycles that we were bringing in more money per cycle than we said we would. We knew then, this is going to work. It was pretty quick and that gave everyone some confidence,” he says.

But that wasn’t the end of his problems. Neighbours were complaining about the smell. “I tried everything,” he says. “I tried ozone, I tried spraying chemicals to absorb the odour, I tried catching the dust, I must have spent another £150,000 on various technologies trying to do something.”

It was no good. The neighbours were not happy, and the Environment Agency took a tough stance. “They threatened that if we couldn’t get it under control they were going to start giving me penalty scores, which they did initially, and if the penalty scores didn’t get any better then ultimately they would have to revoke my permit. It became really the most stressful thing. It was horrible.”

The issue came to a head when the Environment Agency came to the farm to monitor odour every day for two cycles. “At no point on those 90 days did they ever find an odour that was a nuisance,” he says. “They went to the few houses that are around us and went, look we can’t stop you complaining but we haven’t found a nuisance. We did do a lot, we did make it slightly better by changing our ventilation but ultimately I think it was a case of the regulator being more realistic with the residents.”

But all of that is history. Ten years after the sheds were installed, Speller is two to three years off them having paid for themselves. Now he’s looking to the future. His business has grown and expanded from being a single chicken farm to a large consultancy, Applied Group, of which Speller is managing director.

As well as farming, Applied Group also offers advice on farm planning and design, offers HR management and consultancy services to other agricultural businesses, helping other farms optimise their businesses.

“I have one farm with 200,000 birds on there at any one time, and we assist with another 2.5 to 3 million birds around the UK, so we are pretty big on consultancy,” says Speller. “Farmers come to me and say I want to build a chicken farm but I don’t know anything about chickens, will you help us? And that is the business model now that we assist other farmers.”

Applied helps other farms by remotely by installing data gathering technologies on farms, which feed information via the internet back to Applied where Speller and his team analyse it and offer advice on everything from stabilising the shed environments, improving bird health and welfare, assisting farm veterinary practices, and improving communication between the farm and its customers.

14 years after buying his first farm, Speller is now used to being an industry trendsetter. “We were the first to put CO2 sensors in chicken house, that is pretty much standard now. We were the first to put CCTV in.”

But he admits his latest project – robotic noses – is futuristic even for him. But he believes robots could help tackle one of the biggest threats the industry is facing – avian influenza.

Robots patrolling chicken sheds reduces the need for people to wander among the birds, potentially introducing disease.

“If I can put a temperature sensor on a robot, it can cover every square foot of that barn and can tell me the temperature profile. It is also down in amongst the birds so it can tell me how easily the birds get out of its way and the body temperature of the birds.

“Physically these birds are robust, but physiologically they are very susceptible. That is why we are developing robotic noses and if they could tell me the spread of disease through a house that will be far more useful that just knowing there is disease. Where did it start? That kind of information is invaluable.

“We are even working on one with cameras which can analyse the faeces,” says Speller. “It can tell how healthy the birds are depending on different types of droppings; it can tell me if there is a dead bird with a thermal imaging camera. Or if there are lame birds, it can alarm me at 3am to go and look at them, rather than waiting until 7am.”

Technology like this is particularly helpful when diseases such as avian influenza mean whole areas get shut down to outside visitors. “It is right to shut down and say minimal visitors, I agree with that, but then how do you support these farms? The technology and the precision involved in modern broiler farm and the vulnerability of these birds, the margins are so slim, you can’t just leave a farm manager to it for three weeks and expect him to get on with it. He needs help.”

Aside from avian influenza, Speller believes the biggest challenge currently facing the industry is staffing. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find farm managers who are prepared to put in the round-the-clock commitment required to successfully run a broiler operation. His HR consultancy business struggles to find good candidates and increasingly, it takes around three attempts to successfully place the right person in the post where they will stay.

“Recruiting farm managers is a real challenge because you want someone who is incredibly proficient. They have got to be in charge of a large business with a significant turnover, lots of technology, they’ve got to be good with animals and oh, can you work 24/7? You’ve got to work 12 hours a day and then be on call all night in case you have to answer an alarm. Oh and by the way you and your family need to live on site. You can’t live down the road in the town where you can go out at the weekend.

“And people don’t want it. People who do are few and far between. You don’t get long term farm managers and we’ve really got to look at how we address that.”

Once again Speller is looking to technology to provide a solution. “We need technology combined with a complete rethink. You know, how does the hotel sector work? That’s a 24/7 business. How does a 24 hour supermarket operate? Do they have one manager that works 24/7 and is on call for every delivery driver coming through every night? No. We need to seriously look at how we use technology and come up with a more viable structure.”

Speller believes more use of remote 24 hour monitoring stations – technology his business already uses – is one part of the jigsaw. “We have people who are watching the farm 24 hours a day for the farm manager and they’re dealing with the initial alarms remotely, and then if they need to ring the farm manager and get him out of bed, ring him, but only at the point you have to.”

And with that, he’s off again, talking about the possibilities for reducing disease, improving the lifestyles of farm managers, gains in productivity, learning from other industries. Speller has an enormous amount of energy, and if the past 13 years are anything to go by, there’s an awful lot more to come in the years ahead.

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