Robert Burton joins growing band of TNP free range chicken growers

As demand for free range and organic chickens and turkeys gathers pace increasing numbers of poultry farmers are choosing to grow for TNP.

After 25 years running his own intensive broiler operation Robert Burton has made the switch to free range chickens. At his Tivetshall St Margaret, Norfolk farm he grows 10,000 corn-fed birds from day-old to finish at around 70 days.

The improvement to his lifestyle has been remarkable, as he explains here:

“I actually retired four years ago and had given up chickens altogether. It had started to become a bit of a rat race, too pressurised, too intense.

I was growing up to 200,000 birds and there was no time to enjoy family life. However, in January, 2011 I decided to come out of retirement – although I didn’t really need to – to grow free range chickens for TNP. It’s working out fine, and I’d say things are now done at chicken speed rather than rat-race speed.

With the intensive system everything was quick, quick, quick and had to be done by the book. I was used to getting the temperature in the sheds absolutely spot on. You had no time for error. The birds had to grow at a certain speed. If they didn’t you didn’t make any money.

Now things are done on a more natural basis. The sheds are run at different temperatures. The free range birds are either in or outside the sheds: it doesn’t matter which. On a hot day they get hotter, on a cold day colder. I found the hardest challenge regarding the change to free range was to let go of all that technical stuff and let the chickens do their own thing.

Certainly, I notice the birds are happier. Their behaviour is different: there’s a lot more space in the sheds, because there are fewer birds anyway and many are outside. Also, because they have more room to move around their health is a lot better, and they are fitter and stronger

With the intensive system they were finished at four and a half weeks. Now they are doing the same thing in twice the amount of time for the same weight.

I’m not knocking the conventional industry. It did quite well for me. I made enough money to retire at 49. But it’s very intensive, although the birds are fine and welfare is closely monitored. However, it is a fast and a constant treadmill.

Free range has completely refreshed me. It’s enjoyable and most of the time it doesn’t feel like work. I’m 54 now and I can spend time with my sons – Henry, twelve, and Alfie, who’s coming up to ten. They are very keen on rugby, hockey and cricket.

Between us, my wife, Emma, and I have been to every single sporting match they’ve played in. This is something I wouldn’t have done if I’d stayed in intensive broilers.’

How TNP helped Robert set up

TNP makes it as easy as possible for a farmer – and not necessarily an experienced poultry grower – to establish a free range poultry operation. However, the one essential requirement is an area of suitable pasture with, ideally, some woodland. (If woodland isn’t available TNP will plant trees).

Robert Burton’s three-acre site has both mature woodland and trees planted by TNP, who also supplied and erected strong, fox-proof boundary fencing.

The woodland is on one side of the chicken shed, the pasture on the other. TNP modified the shed, previously used for intensive growing, by inserting ‘pop holes’ in its walls to allow the birds to go in and out at will, and by installing polycarbonate roof panels to provide plenty of natural daylight.

TNP supplies Robert with day-old chicks, which he rears under canopy brooders for about four weeks. Eventually, they are free to leave the shed to explore the world outside.

At about 70 days all the chickens are considered finished, after which time – or even a little before – TNP collects them.

Robert receives a “quite satisfactory” fee – his words – for providing the facilities and managing the operation. For its part, TNP provides all feed, other materials and support, and sows herbs and sunflowers in pasture areas.

Would you like to grow for TNP?

Robert Burton thinks other farmers should consider growing for TNP if they have the available area.

He says: “I think poultry experience helps, but I could have done this without such experience and learnt it. It’s fairly easy to pick up.”

Currently, more than 25 Norfolk farmers are producing free range chickens and turkeys and organic chickens and turkeys for the company.

If you would like to know more about opportunities for growing poultry for TNP, please contact us.