Talking Turkey

Turkey farmers are preparing to order their poults for Christmas 2019 

A forest of Christmas trees and mulled cider and mince pies greeted more than 200 turkey farmers who attended an open day at Paul Kelly’s turkey farm in Essex in March to learn about trends in the turkey market and how to best benefit from what consumers want in their Christmas turkey.

Kelly grows traditional Bronze turkeys, and through his breeding company FarmGate Hatcheries supplies turkey poults to around 900 turkey farmers around the UK.

His team had decked out one of the buildings in full festive style and served hot turkey rolls to get everyone in the Christmas spirit, and ready to order their poults.

Kelly said the independent trade was “alive and kicking” with around 800 smaller producers generating 18% of the total Christmas turkey sales in the UK. A combination of national integrators and smaller regional poultry businesses supplied the rest of the Christmas market, he said (see box).

There were 5,756 independent butchers shops in the UK, said Kelly, but farm shops, farm gate sales and delis all provided good routes to market for slow grown dry plucked turkeys like the Bronze breed Kelly’s is known for.

One of the big challenges for turkey farmers supplying butcher’s shops was the current trend for ‘butterflies’ – the breast joint split down the middle and opened out. Due to the lack of supply in the UK, many butchers were selling cheap imported turkey butterflies at Christmas, often from Poland or Italy, with huge mark-ups. 

Kelly said butchers were able to buy imported butterflies for as little as £5.50 / kg then sell for as much as £13 / kg, making huge profits in the process. Kelly urged the farmers present to urge their butcher customers to buy British, and offer their own butterflies to butchers, which he said could be sold for around £9 / kg, still allowing the butcher to make a decent profit.

Some butchers want to support British farmers, said Kelly, but the product isn’t available. Consumers want butterflies because of the trend towards smaller families, and the fact they are easier to cook and carve.

“Currently butchers cannot get UK butterflies or breast lobes in any quantity. It’s not possible to compete on price with imports, but it should be possible to produce a few butterflies for the butcher.”

The rest of the bird can be used for products including sausages, pet food or even charcuterie, said Kelly, who has recently diversified into turkey charcuterie himself.

One farmer told the gathering he had already started offering turkey breast meat to butchers for Christmas, and last year had supplied two tonnes of breast meat at £12 / kg to five butchers in his region. One butcher customer had taken 300kg from him, he said.

Kelly pointed out if farmers are growing turkeys specifically for the breast meat market they have to grow the right breed, opting for a large bird that is between 18.5kg and 20kg at slaughter.

This year, Farmgate Hatcheries is offering nine breeds of turkey for Christmas production, and has published a guide to choosing the best breed of day-old poult to meet the needs of different producers. 

Over the last 30 years FarmGate Hatcheries has considerably widened its traditional turkey gene pool, adding breeds such as the Wrolstad, Roly Poly and Plumpy to its own white, bronze and black feathered lines  – developing one of the world’s largest pool of coloured breeds.

“Having so many different breeds may seem complicated and, of course, it is,” said Kelly. “But we recognise that our customers produce a spread of weights to meet their own individual requirements. With just one or two poult placements a year, they need a comprehensive selection of strains to build their best order.”

The range available runs from the Tiny with 22-week-old males making 6 kg eviscerated turkeys and females finishing at 3 to 4 kg through to the Broad Breasted Bronze (BBB) bred to achieve large catering weights, with males finishing at 15 to 20 kg and females 10 to 12 kg.

New gas stunning technology

The turkey farmers also had a tour of the processing facilities on site, including a new gas stunning system – already widely used by large processors – which is now being used by Kelly’s.

Over the past two years the company has been working with hatchery consultant Ed Hurford to pioneer a carbon dioxide stunning system.

The company secured £80,000 grant support from LEAF (Local Environmental Action Fund) to help develop the project. Last autumn Kelly Turkeys successfully trialled the technology on one of its farms, dealing with several thousand birds. 

A larger version of the Gallus Gas System has already been approved by the RSPCA and will be used by Kelly Turkeys in processing turkeys for the Christmas market this year.  Now development is progressing on the small-scale unit that will also be suitable for culling purposes.

“The major poultry producers have invested heavily in gas stunning technology and established its benefits in carcase quality and perceived welfare benefits,” said Paul Kelly.

Sales and marketing of the new system will be done through Gallus Systems, a joint venture between Kelly Turkeys and Ed Hurford’s company Gallus Solutions. 

“The Gallus Gas System is aimed at meeting the challenges of smaller poultry producers and moves one step closer in giving them access to the retailers looking for family-owned brands but requiring gas as a method of stunning,” said Ed Hurford.

“Complying with current legislative and welfare bodies, the system uses the preferred two-stage method of slaughter which was developed using advice from the RSPCA.”


Farmgate Hatcheries – key facts

* 41,000 breeders producing 2.6 million eggs

* The business hatches 26% of the UK’s turkeys and selects for carcase shape rather than FCR

* UK sales of £14.5 million

* One of two global turkey genetics firms – the other being Aviagen, down from 15 firms in the 1970s and five in 2006.

* Supplies seasonal poults to around 900 farmers who produce traditional dry plucked birds

* Three full pedigree production areas in the UK offering 28 pure turkey lines ranging from 2kg to 30kg finished bird. There is no staffing transfer for biosecurity.

* Ayrshire, three sites producing 18% of Farmgate Hatcheries poults

* Northants, two sites producing 38%

* Essex, four sites producing 44%


The Christmas turkey market – who supplies the turkeys?

(data supplied by Paul Kelly)

Bernard Matthews 24%

Avara Foods 22%

Independent turkey farmers 18%

Grove 14%

Gressingham Foods 14%

Traditional Norfolk Poultry 4%

Capestone 4%


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