Saturday, March 23, 2019

Forest Lodge Farm: Catering for turkeys

March 5, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

Turkey production is a year-round business for one Essex family. Judith Tooth reports.

Driving down the long track to Patrick Wreathall’s family farm in the Wid valley, the sounds of gentle gobbling can be heard. The Christmas turkeys may be long gone, but here there are turkeys all year round.

A series of open sheds house 40,000 birds a year, with an average of 800 ready to go each week. The A12 may be a bit of an eyesore but, with one end of the farm close to one junction, and the other to the next, access to the main road network couldn’t be easier.

This makes  transporting the turkeys for processing a seamless process. The prevailing wind carries away the sound of the traffic, and, with a network of fields and woodlands across the valley, it’s still a great view.

“It’s great to go into Suffolk and see nothing but the stars, but I like the hub of Essex, I like the action,” says Patrick.

Patrick’s grandfather moved his family to Crondon Hall, a little further down the hill, in 1955, just after Patrick was born. Today, Patrick, his wife, Jane, two of their three sons, Duncan and Thomas, and Patrick’s uncle, Alan, run the mixed farm in partnership. Owned, rented and contracted land adds up to around 350ha, used to grow winter wheat and oats, and spring barley and beans.

“One of the biggest successes here is having turkeys and arable together. We produce enough straw for the turkeys and don’t need to skimp on littering down, and we can muck about 80ha a year, using spreaders from Agrihire, which keeps the ground in good heart – we’re not on very good soil here so it really benefits from the muck – and we don’t need to apply any artificial phosphate and potash.”

Main enterprise

Turkeys, however, are the main enterprise, and keep the five partners and two workers busy all year round. Producers like the Wreathalls benefited from TV adverts in the late 1980s and early 90s featuring the late Bernard Matthews promoting turkey as a healthy, cheap and convenient food rather than a once a year treat. Demand peaked with the BSE crisis, and has since settled to a steady demand, with a spike at Christmas.

Nine-week old birds arrive from Shoby Poultry in Leicestershire and leave at 18-19kgs. Rather than running a batch system, the farm is a multi-age site with around 15 sheds – turkeys do well in the big open airy sheds – so that a continuous supply is available to processors.

Orders come through at the end of one week for the next; some weeks 3000 might be needed, and another week, none. Patrick is very proud to have never signed a contract with turkey production.

“We don’t really need to select: if the turkeys are 20 weeks old, we pull up outside the shed, walk them into a pen and load them on to a module. My father would say, if they are outstaying their welcome, you’re looking at them, and if there aren’t enough, you’re looking for them. Five of us can load 500 turkeys in under an hour – we have to pick each one up – and none of us needs to go to the gym.”

Distribution

The birds are loaded on to the farm’s own lorry, a six-wheeled Scania 440 with trailer, most going to another farm in Essex with its own processing plant, and the remainder to Luton and London. They supply the catering trade: carveries, airlines, schools and hospitals.

While the year-round turkeys are nearly all stags – a British peculiarity, according to Patrick – and need to be a uniform size for mechanised plucking, the extra 6000 that the farm produces for the Christmas market are nearly all hens. A mix of strains ensures birds of varying sizes are produced.

“When people sit down to a Christmas turkey, they could be a family of four with a 4-5kg bird, or they could be a party of 20 or 30 needing a 12kg bird. All our turkeys are the same age, but we have a mix of different strains to get different sizes. We hang and hand-pluck them all on the farm. The hens are easier to pluck and usually the finish is better.”

The Christmas turkeys are bought as day-olds in the second week of June, reared on a neighbouring farm – from a disease point of view it’s better not to have day-olds on the same site as older turkeys – and arrive at Forest Lodge Farm five weeks later. Of the 6000, two thirds are barn reared whites, and one third free-range bronzes.

Local businesses

“With the Christmas turkeys, it’s nice to have the local provenance, to look after them from the word go. We run our own farmgate sales, supply local businesses for their staff Christmas boxes and supply local butchers.

“The 2000 free-range birds run on 1.5ha of grass, but they don’t like to come out much. They don’t like bright sun or wind, but they do like still, rainy days, and they often come out in the evening and go in at dawn.”

Turkeys don’t like damp straw, either, and a second barn for storing straw – all square bales – is due to go up this year, so that it doesn’t have to be stacked outside. The sheds are littered three times a week using a JCB Loadall and Spread-a-Bale.

“I’m very keen on mechanisation: anything that makes life easier.

“While Duncan looks after the arable land and Tom spends more time with the turkeys, I can’t emphasise enough how all of us work with everything: everyone has to be flexible. Turkey work always has to come first, so our arable policy is to go for high horse power second hand equipment, so we can get out and get on.”

Feed is local, too. Patrick is a great supporter of local companies. Most comes from Marriage’s, just a few miles away in Chelmsford, which, in return, takes the farm’s wheat. He also enjoys talking about farming to local people: although not part of Open Farm Sunday, he often chats to the many walkers on the local footpath that passes through the farm’s three farmyards.

For the past five years, Patrick has been chairman of Essex NFU: “Jane and I were both in Young Farmers, and our youngsters, too, and it’s great to meet up again with friends and associates we had then.

“It’s a case of putting a bit back now. More importantly, it’s good to get together with other East Anglian members at regional NFU meetings. I like meeting like-minded people, and enjoy learning about different attitudes across the country. And I really admire the people who go right to the top, like Minette Batters, Guy Smith and Stuart Roberts.”

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