TEN years ago, 25-year-old Harry Shepherd was told he was too young, didn’t have enough experience, and wouldn’t have a hope in hell of starting a poultry business from scratch.
He did it anyway, and now runs a substantial broiler enterprise. Aaron Finucane reports.
Determination, dedication, and vision are at the heart of Forest Poultry’s success, the business built from the ground up by young farmer Harry Shepherd.
But it’s not been without its challenges, and the pressures the broiler industry now faces are being felt across businesses large and small.
“There’s been a lot of hard work and long hours, but to see the business grow from one shed and 40,000 birds to 18 sheds and just shy of a million birds on the ground at any one time is very rewarding,” explains Mr Shepherd.
“Vital to that progression has been focusing on bird welfare, with our dedicated staff, and recently, support from our financial backers.”
But the sector is under intense stress, with risks accumulating in the form of avian flu, soaring operating costs, and disruption to the marketplace from imported birds, all holding the potential to jeopardise profitability.
“For Forest Poultry to navigate the challenges and continue to thrive, our focus has to be on efficiency and performance,” he adds.
After returning home to the 43ha family farm near Thirsk, North Yorkshire in 2012, Mr Shepherd soon realised it wasn’t big enough to accommodate his arable farming ambitions.
So, he looked at intensive enterprises that could be run using a small amount of land, eventually settling on broiler production.
“It’s funny – you wouldn’t have caught me near a broiler shed before then,” he says.
“But I’m so passionate about it now, I couldn’t do without it. And it’s a quick turnover. If we get a batch wrong, or we think we can make improvements, it isn’t long before changes can be implemented. It really helps us refine the system.”
Once settled on broiler production, Mr Shepherd formed the Forest Poultry business structure, with himself as the main shareholder, and his parents as directors gifting 5ha of land to the enterprise with a £50,000 investment to be paid back over five years.
The next step was to obtain funding to build on the 5ha acquired by the business, and with 30ha offered as security, Mr Shepherd approached the banks for £350,000.
“I was only 25 and fresh out of university with a short spell of agri-contracting under my belt.
The banks didn’t want to know,” he explains. “It was a case of being too young, with no relevant experience to back it up. So, I took that on board, and went away to work for six months unpaid on a nearby broiler unit.
“When I went back to the banks, most of them still weren’t interested, but Natwest came through and we were able to get moving on the first building phase.
Our relationship with Natwest has proved vital, and it has continued to back us throughout our journey.”
Looking back, Mr Shepherd sees that first step as one of the highlights of the past 10 years. “Securing funding, getting through planning, and bringing that first phase on-line was a major achievement. And we prepared carefully with future expansion in mind.”
During the first build, and with his sights firmly fixed on the future, Mr Shepherd accounted for placement of the water pump house, ducting for further sheds, additional feed storage, and a water tank able to supply six sheds. He estimated the next phase of expansion would cost around £100,000 less as a result – which proved to be true.
“There’s been a lot to be pleased with over the years. The additional shed we built in the second phase was exciting, but it was really the third phase in 2015 that made a big difference,” says Mr Shepherd.
“We put up another four sheds on the original site, taking our capacity up to around two million birds a year. Until then it had just been me on the job – I was even sleeping in the control rooms. But with the added capacity, I could finally justify taking on some staff. And it was at this point we were able to bring online the biomass boiler.”
And his staff are vital to the business’s success. “Good performance relies on dedicated staff who treat the birds and the business as their own. Communication, training, and respect have been crucial to building an efficient team.”
Forest Poultry then moved into four years of consolidation and saving, before starting the next expansion phase in 2019, building a six-shed farm capable of producing nearly two million birds a year on a newly acquired site, now called East Farm.
And in February 2023, to circumvent tougher planning regulations and higher costs, the business expanded further, but into a four-year-old rental unit capable of producing another two million birds a year.
Extracting peak performance from the birds has been a learning curve, explains Mr Shepherd. “I learnt a lot from that first crop back in 2013, and in retrospect I didn’t fully appreciate everything that goes into getting a flock to perform at the highest level.
“I was pretty much on my own doing the whole job, so largely it was trial and error. As a result, our European production efficiency factor (EPEF) was down at around 330.
“We still hit a reasonable margin because feed price was favourable, but that wasn’t where we wanted to be. An EPEF of 380/390 is about average, but we aim to be consistently above 400.”
Forest Poultry prides itself on excellent welfare standards, which is crucial to hitting peak performance, says Mr Shepherd. “If welfare isn’t where it should be, birds just won’t thrive. Good litter is essential, and we’re very hot on that. All the team know how to spot an issue and act quickly to correct it.
“Preventative water testing and treatment have been key to maintaining healthy birds with good water intake. We use a hydrogen peroxide pump, which pulses 50 parts per million into the water systems.
“We also like to manage feeding pans so they are just empty prior to the next feed.
Using feed clocks, we do six feeds a day, so fresh feed is delivered just as the old feed runs out. That maintains an edge of appetite for the birds, and they always have fresh feed in front of them. Feed conversion rates are excellent as a result, and feed waste is minimal.”
Across all three sites the farm now operates at an excellent average EPEF of 410.
Forest Poultry also works closely with its vets to manage and prevent disease challenges, and is working on developing a transparent relationship with its chick rearers.
Mr Shepherd also collaborates with other farmers via a WhatsApp group, to understand what is and isn’t working for them.
“Biosecurity is a priority, especially with the threat of avian influenza (AI),” he says. “It could potentially bankrupt us if we got it. Just the cleaning cost alone per site would be around £800,000 and we’d need to be empty for 12 months after.
Today’s challenges and the future
“One of our neighbours only two fields away went down with AI not too long ago,” Mr Shepherd explains. “All our sites have been in an AI Prevention Zone (PZ) as a result, and no matter how good your biosecurity is, it’s a serious risk.”
Being in a PZ certainly brings extra cost, including licenses and vet attendance for every movement.
“The licenses are only valid for 24 hours, meaning the processor must schedule a specific day to process AI restricted birds, and the producer must be able to fill the abattoir for that day.
“The abattoir can process around 100,000 birds a day, which means we need to send some of the birds – to make up numbers – before they’ve reached peak weight. That drags our average weight down significantly. All things considered; AI has cost the business around £130,000 [over the winter].”
But AI isn’t the only stressor; rising feed, fuel, and energy costs have all impacted bottom line.
However, as the business has expanded, performance has continued to improve, and the biomass boiler has enhanced the business’s sustainability. All the units are on borehole water for washing sheds, again mitigating input costs.
And though realistic about the very tough challenges the industry is facing, Mr Shepherd is positive about the future.
“We’re looking at ground-mounted rotating solar arrays for all three sites, combined with battery storage now the technology is in an improved place.
We’re also in talks with an electric company to get an anerobic digester up and running that will be fed in part by the 10,000 tons of muck we generate annually.
“And we’re producing a healthy low-fat high-protein meat, which has traditionally done well in more difficult economic times. Providing we can protect our market from imports, avoid AI, and become more energy independent, we can look forward to a buoyant future.”
- Two sites owned – six sheds on each
- One site rented – six sheds
- 930,000 birds on the ground at any one time with expanded environmental permit expected to take birds to over a million.
- 6.5 crops per year
- All birds are Ross 308 genetics from Aviagen supplied by two hatcheries, PD Hooks and Annyalla
- Six full time staff
- Birds supplied to Sullivans Poultry Group
Poultry.Network Sustainability Hub
The Poultry.Network Sustainability Hub is a project showcasing and supporting the UK’s poultry sector as it moves to a more sustainable future. Find out more here.
All our Sustainability Hub Sponsors