James Mottershead is chair of the NFU’s poultry board. He spoke to Chloe Ryan about avian flu, energy prices, and the risk of chicken shortages in the UK.
As a is poultry farmer with over 20 years’ experience, James Mottershead well understands the challenges facing the industry. His broiler farm in Shropshire places 205,000 birds each cycle, and he currently supplies Maelor Foods. Until 18 months ago, Motterhead was trading broilers in the wholesale market and prior to 2007, the farm grew turkeys until costs mounted and it became unviable.
One year ago, he was elected as chair of the NFU poultry board, having first become involved in 2015, when he saw an advert for the Poultry Industry Programme (PIP). Encouraged to take part by Charles Bourns and Gary Ford, who was then the NFU’s chief poultry advisor, Mottershead joined the scheme. Then at the National Egg & Poultry Awards in 2021, others urged him to step up to a more prominent role. “And the rest is history,” he says.
The problems at the moment are multiple: overproduction in the broiler market, under production in the egg market, avian influenza, and sky-high production costs.
“It is challenging but I think there is some respite on its way,” says Mottershead. While those who are tied into electricity contracts are struggling, those buying it at the spot price are faring better. “It is coming down into the affordable territory,” he says.
Despite this, it’s true that some broiler growers are thinking about leaving the industry, for similar reasons egg producers decided to leave sheds empty a year ago.
“There has definitely been an overproduction in broilers,” he says. Pre-Brexit, processors would simply trade excess broilers internationally, but the additional costs and paperwork mean that is a less viable option currently. “It is more difficult to export to the EU. So faced with those challenges, processors are thinking let’s cut back production and try and control things where we are.”
In addition, imports of poultrymeat are up. Data from the European Commission shows the UK imported 742,000 tonnes of poultry from the EU in between January and December 2022, up 2.3% on the previous year. At the same time, poultrymeat exports from the UK to EU were down -24.2% to 208,125 tonnes during the same period.
“We are almost back to 2014 / 2015 import figures for poultry meat,” he says. “Imports are coming from Ukraine into Poland, then being shipped into Spain and then into the UK. And that has had an effect. It has been very hard to export meat into the EU but we have a deluge of poultrymeat coming into the UK that has swamped an already swamped market.”
This oversupply means there is a real risk that a similar situation that emerged in the egg sector will be replicated in broilers, with low returns leading to a dramatic cut back in production, leading to shortages.
“I know of several producers who have left sheds empty, decided to do some refurbishment work. I think come April, May time, that will be the decider. A lot of the processors have gone to the market with well justified cost inflation increases and they have been unable to get anything back out of the marketplace.”
Lobbying politicians is one of the roles at which the NFU is considered particularly effective. But recently Therese Coffey declined to provide any additional support to poultry farmers whose farms had been struck by avian influenza (see page 4). Her appearance at the NFU conference was also poorly received by many farmers who were disappointed at her dismissive and combative response to Minette Batters, who challenged her on problems within the egg sector.
So how receptive generally is Mottershead finding Defra? “We have good meetings with officials,” he says. “Defra are starting to listen more of late. As much as we get irritated by some of the things they say, we have got to try and keep that relationship open because otherwise you are out of that arena. I couldn’t go into a room and act like a bull in a china shop because I would be out of that room and out of those conversations.”
It’s certainly not all plain sailing though. The NFU is currently supporting a group of producers in seeking a judicial review against Defra who believe they have been treated unfairly within the rules of the legislation. Mottershead is cautious about discussing the case, but notes it is “common knowledge we have supported them on launching a judicial review. We are waiting to see from the courts to see if they will grant that judicial review.”
One area where government response has improved is response times by APHA vets. Back in the autumn at the peak of this year’s AI outbreak, when there were multiple outbreaks per day, there were often delays in getting vets to farms to carry out culls.
This has now improved, thanks to a combination of the recruitment of more vets and fewer new outbreaks.
“They are coping,” he says. “But heaven forbid we had an outbreak of another notifiable disease, being able to react to additional pressures is a concern.”
Boom and bust
Looking at the well-publicised problems facing egg producers over the past year, Mottershead says ending the cycle of boom and bust must now be the focus. Now prices are going up at the farm gate (up 24% year-on-year to 108.9 pence per dozen in the fourth quarter of 2022 up 9.9% on quarter three) more pullets are once again beginning to be placed.
“That is the problem,” he says. “We need to get out of the boom and bust cycle because no-one wins in that. We are starting to see pullet numbers starting to go up but it is gradual and I think a lot of the independent packers would say prices are extremely good for what they would normally expect.”
He welcomes BFREPA’s work to campaign for better contracts that reflect all inflationary costs like electricity, rather than just feed.
However, he stresses that some producers favour the risks and rewards of the open market – he himself traded broilers on the wholesale market until 18 months ago – and so ultimately it is for the producers to decide.
“I think you’ve got to have fair contracts, but also options. Not all people want locked in contracts. I can only compare it to being a broiler producer in the open market to being in the integrated market where you are working on managed margins. They take the risk out of it.
“There will be some businesses that want to have all that risk taken away and there will be some producers that want a lot of risk because they see an opportunity to make even more. You speak to some of the independent broiler producers and they would hate the idea of moving to managed margins. They like to buy their feed and that is their choice.”
Best laid plans
Looking to the year ahead, Mottershead says his focus will be on AI, and trying to ensure producers have the confidence to keep producing. This will mean making it easier for poultry businesses to get insurance. “But that is going to take a lot of lobbying to get across the line.”
Ultimately, he says: “I would like to see fairness returned back into the marketplace.”