Report Synopsis

Improving bird welfare on free-range systems

Gordon Whiteford

The UK egg market has gone from 1% free-range in 1981 to approximately 50% today, as a result of a drive from the consumer to increase bird welfare, with battery style cages being banned across Europe in 2012. This rapid increase in free-range has seen the intensification of free-range units, whilst the British weather gets increasingly unpredictable.

The purpose of this report was to determine how welfare could be improved in free-range systems and determine the future direction of the industry. As a new entrant into the industry in 2005 and starting a farming career from scratch, I was also looking for direction for my own farm. I visited The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, USA, Kenya and South Africa.

A visit to the Rondeel system in The Netherlands demonstrated how barn eggs could be the way forward for the industry, bringing the outdoors inside. Whilst barn eggs are predominantly misunderstood by the consumer in the UK, free-range and organic standards are very different across the globe. Aligning organic standards closer to Europe’s would also improve welfare and make the organic sector more competitive.

The UK has an efficient laying industry especially in terms of labour; however this ultimately drives prices down and free-range eggs are becoming more of a commodity. Despite efficiencies in labour, other efficiencies may be lost due to economies of scale, which can see nutrients leaving the farm for no value. The real cost of cheap food is paid for through our health, the environment and animal welfare. The UK egg industry has benefited from the lion code of practice, which has protected our domestic market from imports. However, the UK risk falling behind our European neighbours in terms of beak trimming. Scandinavian countries such as Denmark pride themselves in good animal welfare and are successfully farming with birds with intact beaks.

The biggest improvement to free-range management would be to improve range management. This means improving the soil structure so rain infiltrates better: growing a living root and keeping residue on top is paramount. The soil is fundamentally the most important aspect of agriculture.

Farming systems need to be more diverse to be sustainable, with a move away from chemical agriculture and a bigger focus on biology including embracing biological controls. Biotechnology is a short term fix. There needs to be a bigger focus on supporting home grown protein and less on imported environmentally damaging monocultured crops such as soya.

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