Poultry production is concentrated in the northern part of the island of Ireland, with the Pilgrim’s Pride-owned Moy Park headquartered in Northern Ireland being one of the largest poultry processors in Europe.
South of the border, the poultry industry is concentrated in Co Monaghan, with 240 out of the 418 poultry meat and 184 out of the 186 egg production sites in the Republic of Ireland located there.
Up to when the UK left the EU, the industry in both parts of Ireland was governed by the same EU standards. While there has been no divergence so far, there may well be quite a lot in the future and Republic of Ireland producers have to carry a carbon tax that doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland.
The great opportunity for the sector in the decade ahead lies in the fact that poultry meat is the most efficient converter of grain into animal protein and it carries the lowest carbon footprint of any meat. Relatively cheap grain means poultry meat is also one of the most cost-competitive meats, though this has been reversed in 2021 as grain prices have increased globally.
The fact that it operates in the value end of the meat market means poultry has a heavy reliance on low costs and this often means imported grain is used as feed. Poultry is also the branch of the meat sector that is experiencing most rapid growth in consumption globally, driven by the fact that it is a relatively low-cost meat, plus it is considered the healthiest meat for consumers by virtue of its low-fat content.
Poultry producers operate in a high-cost, high-output system and a few hundred growers support thousands of jobs in a multimillion-euro industry. The use of antibiotics is already curtailed in the sector, but while there isn’t an issue with emissions with poultry like there is with livestock, there is an energy issue. As stress increases on the national grid with the move away from fossil fuel-generated energy, poultry production is one of the industrial competitors for access to energy. Getting planning permission is also getting particularly difficult.
As well as being a user of energy, the poultry sector has increasingly become a creator of energy. Many recently built poultry houses incorporate solar panels in the roof and this is an area where future Government funding could be targeted to upgrade older houses with solar energy.
Environment, welfare and disease
Poultry producers are licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Poultry litter can be used in mushroom compost, if disposed of as a fertiliser spread on tillage ground or through anaerobic digestion. Spreading on agricultural land carries a risk of botulism in cattle, while many soils are also unsuitable because they are already potassium-rich.
For these and other reasons, it is increasingly difficult to secure planning permission for either poultry production units or anaerobic digestion sites, and this, as well as financial costs, acts as a barrier for new entrants and indeed expansion for existing units.
A major challenge relating to litter disposal hinges around water and air quality. Balanced soil fertility is a huge issue for crop growth and nutrient loss is associated with the overloading in the soil system. For this reason, the where, when and how of recycling poultry manure in any form seems set to be an increasingly important issue.
Modern poultry production attracts the attention of animal welfare activists and a combination of legislation and pressure from retailers may lead to a phased elimination of cages for laying hens. If this comes to pass, it will increase the cost of collecting eggs and reduce the capacity of sheds, with a typical 150,000-bird unit reduced to 90,000 capacity.
While modern poultry units have one of the highest levels of bio-security in farming, it remains a sector that is vulnerable to disease. Avian influenza outbreaks happen occasionally, but, to date, these have remained isolated. However, the risk of an airborne disease spread by wild fowl remains a threat to the sector.
Unlike the pigmeat sector, the Irish poultry meat industry does not have full market access for all products produced from its birds. This means that achieving complete carcase balance between white breast meat and brown leg meat isn’t fully achieved to the extent that it would be if export approval to China could be secured.
The other threat to the sector is the cost of feed – the popularity of poultry meat lies in a mix of its healthy status, convenience and, above all, price competitiveness. Higher feed costs undermine the price competitiveness, and with the costs of organic poultry production being prohibitively high, it is difficult to see a huge conversion to organic poultry, irrespective of the EU Farm to Fork strategy.
Despite this challenge, poultry meat has become the most popular meat in many countries and demand is likely to continue to grow.
Environmental, welfare and planning controls mean much of the production growth to meet this demand will take place outside of Ireland, and indeed the EU.