Inghams Chicken was founded by Walter Ingham in what was then the rural area of Casula in New South Wales, just outside Sydney. According to legend, Walter began his chicken farm with six hens and a rooster. At the time, Australians were not big poultry eaters and the industry was more about eggs, but Walter’s interest was in breeding better chickens. By 1930 he was advertising his day-old chicks as “winter layers of large eggs”. His incubating equipment boasted an egg capacity of 45,000.
Walter specialised in the Australorp and White Leghorn breeds. A 1937 advertisement promoted his “vigorous progeny of tested layers” and assured buyers that his hens were raised under ideal conditions of free range, shade and hygiene. Two years later he was also offering “hardy cross-bred cockerels that are just the thing for table poultry”. His chicken stud became the largest in New South Wales and attracted favourable attention within the industry. He grew fields of lucerne for green feed and experimented with portable arks as part of his free-range methods.
Walter died in 1953 and his sons, Jack and Bob took over the business. Their decision to concentrate on meat chickens rather than layers set the foundation for spectacular growth in the business. They built their first chicken processing plant in 1958 and the operation expanded from there. Inghams now have growing and processing operations throughout Australia.
Inghams uses a system of contract growers. An article in the Financial Review in 1999 explained more about the system.
At the company’s vast breeding farms and hatcheries, Inghams monitors the chickens from conception until they are one day old. The chicks are then transported to hundreds of farmers, who “baby-sit” them for about eight weeks, until they reach maturity. Inghams collects the mature birds, “processes” (slaughters) them and gets them to the market at the rate of three million a week.
The farmers provide the huge sheds, which house about 15,000 chickens, the heating, pest control, bedding and the labor. Inghams provides the chicks and the food and pays for transport, processing and any veterinary visits. After the grown birds are collected for processing, the farmer cleans out the sheds and gets ready for the next batch. Inghams weighs the birds, notes how much food was used and benchmarks the farmers against each other.
The farmers earn a “grow fee” of about 51 cents a bird, including a few cents to pay for the clean-out between batches.
At first, whole frozen chickens were the mainstay of the business. From being a luxury meat in the 1950s, chicken became more affordable. Australians’ annual consumption rose from just 5 lb. (2.3kg) of chicken per head in 1956 to 15 lb. (6.8kg) in 1965. By 1970, supermarkets were offering a range of fresh chicken pieces including wings, Marylands, drumsticks and breasts.
Inghams profited from the American fast-food chains that arrived in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the mid-1970s, the company formed a business partnership with Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1995, they opened a plant specifically to manufacture McDonald’s chicken nuggets. By 1999, Inghams were processing three million chickens a week and boasting an annual turnover of $1 billion.
The operation was looking tasty to overseas interests. In 2013, Inghams was sold to the New York-based global investment group TPG. In 2019 TPG began selling down its shareholding, divesting its remaining share in 2020. Inghams now claims to be “proudly Australian” again. It remains the largest poultry producer in Australia with around 40% market share.