Attention to detail: the key to broiler production
Farmer's Weekly|December 03, 2021
Poultry production has significant challenges, with high input costs and narrow margins being near the top of the list. However, Dale Shepherd, owner of Plaston Chicken Farms in Mpumalanga, has found that meticulous management and keeping a close eye on finances can bring business success. Lindi Botha reports.
Lindi Botha

When you produce large numbers of chickens on a tight margin, the potential for sudden huge losses, in terms of both birds and money, is a daily reality. Dale Shepherd, owner of Plaston Chicken Farms near White River, is keenly aware of this, which is why he focuses intently on maintaining the birds’ health at all times and keeping a tight rein on input costs in his 800 000-broiler operation.

If anyone knows how to make a poultry farming business work, it’s Shepherd. As the owner of the Banking and Financial Services Campus in Johannesburg, where he facilitates credit and risk management training in financial services, he has accumulated years of knowledge of how to make a business succeed or fail.

He also learnt a valuable lesson when venturing into chicken farming, as his first attempt had a less than favourable outcome.

“I tried to run the farm remotely from Johannesburg, with a farm manager on site,” he recalls. “But I realised very quickly that successful chicken farming requires a hands-on approach.”

DIRECT CONTROL

When Shepherd relocated to Mbombela, Mpumalanga, in 2011, he was offered the opportunity to rent land from a community property association (CPA), which had acquired the property through a land claim. The holding, which comprises two farms, was run-down, so the community was looking for someone who could farm there and from whom they could earn an income through rent.

In the decade since, Shepherd has established nine production houses on the two farms, which hold approximately 135 000 chickens at a time.

Plaston Chicken Farms sells live birds and has capitalised on an underserved segment of the market. As most of its customers have limited or no access to electricity, they are restricted in the number of birds they can take at once. Offtake agreements are therefore necessary to ensure a constant and steady supply of chickens.

The farm’s four trucks deliver up to 2 500 birds a day to clients in the surrounding areas, while smaller orders can be collected directly from the farm.

Shepherd’s breed of choice is the Cobb, but as it’s also the market favourite, supply can be limited. The Arbor Acres Plus and Ross breeds are more freely available, but it took some convincing to get his clientele to accept the latter.

“We’re very effective in producing a sizeable Ross bird. The breed’s legs are not particularly well feathered, though, and the perception is that this makes for an inferior bird. But we’ve proven to our clients that they’re still getting [birds of] the same weight, so there has been greater acceptance. They’re happy as long as we can give them a 1,8kg bird. So, without the market resistance, we can accept whatever day-old chicks are available.”

The birds are sold at 1,8kg to 1,9kg, which they reach within 38 to 42 days. Shepherd aims for a feed conversion rate (FCR) of 1,6kg to 1,9kg of feed for 1kg of weight gain.

Since input costs are one of the biggest challenges facing the business, these need to be managed with great care, as does the output. Shepherd’s approach is to have a manager in charge of each chicken house, and he or she is responsible for raising healthy birds.

“I provide them with everything they need for success, so all they have to do is manage things,” he says.

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