IT has been a year of ups and downs for the UK’s poultry sector – margins have improved for many egg producers, but profitability has plummeted in the poultry meat sector.

But there are reasons to be – if not overly cheerful – perhaps not as gloomy. This time last year, the sector was reeling from the worst autumn on record for avian influenza.

While Europe as a whole was badly hit, the UK fared worst – between 10 September and 2 December 2022, there were 398 outbreaks in 18 European countries.

Close to 30% or 115 of those outbreaks occurred in the UK, with many in East Anglia. Cases were far more sporadic as 2023 got underway, and we haven’t seen the infection levels return this autumn, which will be a relief to the sector.

Feed prices have also gotten over the shock of last year’s invasion of Ukraine. While still at historical highs, they drifted downwards over the first half of the year and remained stable over the past six months – a welcome development in itself.

January

We started the year by looking at how A J Forster turned around its poultry farming business – part of our Sustainability Hub series, which continued through 2023 and beyond.

Later in the month, Avara Foods unveiled its ‘roadmap’ to ensure farms in its supply chain would not contribute excess phosphate into the River Wye; in the short term, this has meant selling all manure off-farm to a specialist processor starting January this year.

Noble Foods also announced activity in the Wye catchment area by joining the Water Roadmap, part of the Courtauld Commitment 2030.

Meanwhile, Moy Park announced a new scheme to monitor its greenhouse gas emissions in real-time.

By the end of the month, the 16-week marketing derogation for housed free-range hens had ended, triggering their change to barn.

This year, Europe changed its rules so that eggs from housed birds can continue to be marketed as free-range for as long as an order lasts. Defra has yet to make a solid commitment.

2 Sisters Food Group said it planned to close its Llangefni processing site, sparking Welsh Government alarm over this significant employer on Ynys Môn (Anglesey).

February

We reported in depth about Noble Foods’ first line of carbon neutral eggs.

ForFarmers and 2 Agriculture called off a proposed joint venture following scrutiny from the competition and markets authority.

In the middle of the month, Defra announced new farm equipment grants to buy kit that improves production efficiency and welfare.

Avian influenza outbreaks had slowed significantly, and Europe changed its rules to allow vaccination – a first step towards France inoculating ducks later in the year.

Here in the UK, Defra set up a task force to examine the principle of vaccinating poultry.

Sainsbury’s came under fire for stocking Italian barn eggs, citing domestic supply challenges. Sussex egg producer The Macs Farm said it was “absolutely disgusted” given they were producing just down the road.

March

King Charles paid a visit to the Animal and Plant Health Agency’s Weybridge headquarters to thank staff tackling the UK’s biggest ever outbreak of avian influenza.

The RSPCA said it would give evidence in a judicial review over broiler welfare (it was dismissed in late May)

2 Sisters confirmed it would and subsequently closed Llangefni following a consultation with employees.

Egg prices jumped 30% across Europe in the 12 months to March, demonstrating how much cost had been placed on the supply chain.

Defra secretary (at the time) Thérèse Coffey rejected calls from MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee to improve compensation for poultry farms hit by avian influenza. A legal challenge to this is currently underway.

Dutch researchers said two of the three vaccines they trialled against avian influenza were effective. We also reported on interesting research from Germany, testing drinkers to try and detect bird flu early.

Moy Park revealed its net-zero broiler units – Beech Farm in Lincolnshire was built from the ground up with sustainability in mind.

And Red Tractor abandoned plans for more frequent audits on poultry farms.

April

Sainsbury’s launched new lower-plastic packaging for whole birds at the same time as new lower-stocking density birds came into production.

Defra set a date for the end of the housing order – April 18 – and CIEL released a report making recommendations about avian influenza management.

In Europe, France made the first move and ordered 80 million avian influenza vaccines to dose birds from this autumn.

There was a substantial drop in feed prices in April, taking the price of our basic layer ration back close to where it was before the invasion of Ukraine.

While feed was dropping, so too were broiler chick placings as the sector struggled with profitability.

May

Wynnstay announced it would combine its poultry feed and pullets offering with Humphrey Feeds & Pullets.

The new outfit was branded as Wynnstay Humphrey Feed & Pullets.

New figures revealed record poultrymeat imports in 2022 just as the British Egg Industry Council challenged retailers over imported shell eggs.

Morrisons said it would offer direct egg contracts to farmers in Northern Ireland. The Co-Op followed Sainsbury’s in cutting broiler stocking densities to 30kg/sq m following a mass member vote in favour of the adoption of the Better Chicken Commitment at its AGM.

Brazil recorded the first-ever cases of avian influenza in wild birds.

Avara Foods said it planned to close its Abergavenny site, a ‘cut and pack’ operation that predominantly prepared turkey products.

Gary Ford, former NFU chief poultry advisor, was named as the new chief executive of the BEIC.

June

We spoke to Poultry Health Services vet Marianne Curtis about regulated salmonella testing on broiler farms. Another vet practice, Avivets, announced a new practice in Shrewsbury.

Northern Ireland lifted its Avian Influenza Prevention Zone.

NFU Scotland was the first to call for an investigation into the poultrymeat supply chain as producers struggled to turn a profit in the face of crippling and – by now – unsupported energy bills.

The BEIC launched Version 8 of its Lion Code for egg producers on the scheme’s 25 anniversary. Noble Foods rolled out a project to get eggs consumed by children at breakfast in school in partnership with charity Magic Breakfast.

The US approved the sale of laboratory-grown chicken meat produced by two Californian companies.

Meanwhile, the British Poultry Council said British exporters of poultrymeat had faced costs ‘well over’ £100m because of Brexit arrangements.

July

Early July saw the lifting of the Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) in Great Britain, a reflection of the lower risk of disease incursion. However, poultry gatherings remained banned.

Feed prices levelled off after sharp drops in the first half of 2023 and were to remain relatively stable for the rest of the year.

Our egg market update recorded a continued year-on-year rise in chick placings for the ninth consecutive month.

A new report from the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) highlighted areas livestock production could target to cut carbon emissions and reach net-zero goals most effectively.

There was a lot of net-zero news: ABN joined a £5.9m project aiming to make more of home-grown legumes in poultry rations, and a £1m collaboration to develop modular insect farms was also announced.

We also reported on ways slower-grown poultry might reduce its carbon footprint.

August

St Ewes Team recieving world record

In another sign of the egg market recovering, Tesco lifted its restrictions on buying shell eggs.

It was a month of winners. Yorkshire-based Soanes Poultry celebrated winning four Great Taste Awards, and in the southwest, St Ewe’s celebrated a world-record 300-mile egg and spoon race for charity.

At the Royal Welsh Somerset poultry farmer Andy Darch won the Unsung Hero category in the M&S Select Farm Awards.

Stonegate announced a new avian influenza insurance package for producers in partnership with NFU Mutual.

There was a spate of AI outbreaks in Scotland, mainly in pheasant release pens, and across the UK, wild bird detections were higher than a year previously, leading to fears about the coming autumn.

Avara Foods said it would stop the sale of poultry litter from its supply chain to farms within the River Wye Catchment Area.

September

September marked the return of Poultry.Network Live, with record attendance. Our reports from the day follow.

There was a fifth delay to the introduction of EU border controls for imported foodstuffs, meaning European poultry producers effectively undercut their domestic counterparts.

A new review paper highlighted the importance of eggs in an environmentally sustainable diet.

Retailer Lidl said it would offer farmers financial incentives to move into egg farming.

Dutch researchers began field trials of avian influenza vaccines following successful lab-based enquiries. France started to vaccinate domestic ducks across the entire country.

Our meat market report revealed a steep drop in late turkey placings, reflecting lower confidence following the Autumn of 2022.

October

St Ewe’s hosted HRH The Princess Royal, who toured the firm’s new egg grading and packing centre.

Red Tractor launched its Greener Farms Commitment – a voluntary module looking to standardise carbon footprint reporting. It would be fair to say it did not go down well with the broader agricultural community.

The NFU ultimately announced a review of the assurance scheme’s governance.

Stonegate staff took on a 240-mile charity bike ride from their headquarters to Paris, ultimately raising £10,000 for charity.

Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, Imperial College London and the Pirbright Institute used gene editing techniques to identify and change parts of chicken DNA that could limit the spread of the bird flu virus in the animals.

Numbers of turkey poults placed on UK farms were down by 17% in September, effectively the final month of the seasonal placings window.

Defra figures revealed shell egg imports doubled in the first eight months of the year, compared with the same period last year.

November

All the award winners

2 Sisters said it would donate one million fresh ready meals to people in need in the run-up to Christmas.

Griffiths Family Farms announced plans to build a novel Kipster barn egg system to supply carbon-neutral eggs to Lidl stores in the UK – subject to planning.

RSPCA Assured said it would introduce new requirements for verandas and natural daylight in its assured standards for laying hens – a move that did not go down well with producers or the broader egg sector.

The British Free Range Egg Producers Association held its re-vamped conference, exhibition and awards at the Telford International Centre.

The Netherlands reintroduced a national housing order after two cases of avian influenza hit poultry farms in the country in quick succession – just days after lifting its final regional restrictions.

Our egg market report covered a continued surge in layer placings – October saw 4.2 million for the month.

December

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued an alert following a rise in cases of salmonella poisoning linked to poultry products imported from Poland.

The British Poultry Council Awards celebrated achievement in the poultrymeat sector with a ceremony held at the House of Commons.

Defra said it would allow vets to conduct remote video inspections of poultry on premises in avian influenza disease control zones.

There were renewed calls for energy support for poultry farmers after the horticulture sector was successfully included in a new scheme.

And the government made new funding available for improving smaller abattoirs.