Analysis: The Red Tractor game changer

Windows and enrichments are to become compulsory in new phased in standards, aimed at improving bird welfare and matching production standards with consumer expectation.

After several years of weighing up the options, Red Tractor has made the announcement that all poultry farmers registered with the scheme will have to introduce enrichment objects into poultry sheds by this October, and more significantly put windows in all poultry sheds by October 2020.

The announcement has caused concern from some farmers about the additional expense, estimated to cost tens of thousands of pounds per shed. On a mid-sized farm with six sheds this could simply be unaffordable.

Gary Ford, chief poultry adviser at the NFU said farmers understood the reasoning behind the decision, because many consumers had come to expect chickens should not be housed in sheds without windows, but the timescale was a big problem.

Farmers should have longer to comply, he said, to allow them to work out if it was viable to carry on with older sheds, or even to decide whether to exit the industry altogether if the numbers didn’t add up.

There was also a big issue with finding contractors able to fit windows within the next two years, he said, given that there was such huge demand for new buildings, many firms in the sector were simply unavailable to do the work.

So what’s the thinking behind the decision? According to Red Tractor, one of the main pillars of the assurance scheme is a guarantee of good animal welfare standards. In market research into consumer behaviour, welfare is repeatedly listed as one of the top concerns for shoppers when they are buying meat.

A spokesman said windows have been a recommendation in Red Tractor’s standards since 2014 “and we estimate that about 75% of our members have already fitted them.

“Those not currently meeting the requirement have two-and-a-half years for them to make the changes to their existing buildings, if they want to continue to be assured. The Red Tractor Poultry Board felt this is sufficient time for producers to make the changes.”

Red Tractor’s latest research shows that 83% of primary shoppers say animal welfare is important to them, and they want a label on the pack that reassures them. Consumer demand is something that Red Tractor has to match and, along with advances in science and regulatory changes, is a main driver of how its standards evolve and progress.

“Put simply, we need practical farm standards that meet consumer expectations so they are more likely to buy Red Tractor food,” says the spokesman.

So what exactly do the new standards demand? There are two changes that Red Tractor’s 1,025 poultry members need to implement. From 1 October 2018 all broiler, poussin and free-range producers must provide environmental enrichment in bird housing. By October 2020, broiler, poussin and free-range producers are required to have windows fitted in bird housing.

Environmental enrichment in chicken housing has been shown to improve bird welfare through encouraging birds to be more active. Increased activity has been shown to reduce lameness, hock burn and breast blisters amongst birds leading to improved health and performance. Dr Martin Shirley, Chair of Red Tractor’s Chicken Technical Advisory Committee, says: “Having consulted with industry, we have decided to upgrade the existing recommendation for environmental enrichment. Not only does this continue to develop our standards to meet customer expectations but meets our goals of continually striving to improve bird welfare.”

What enrichments should be provided? All Red Tractor broiler, poussin and free-range scheme members must provide all of the following in bird housing as of 1 October 2018: bales, perches and pecking objects. Environmental enrichment must be provided from day seven at the latest and from day one in free-range units.

More significantly, Red Tractor chicken housing will have to have windows by October 2020 in all buildings which house birds. Windows have been a recommendation in the standards since 2014 and more than 75% of members already meet the new requirement. For those that currently don’t, a lead in time of more than two and a half years has been allowed for members to make the required capital investment to alter or replace units.

Why are these changes being made? Poultry consumption in the UK is enormous. The British Poultry Council says that around 95% of the population eat chicken, and they tend to do so at least twice a week.

Over the course of a year that’s 6.3 billion occasions where chicken is eaten in homes, schools, hospitals, and restaurants across the country. The vast majority of these chickens will be Red Tractor assured. The poultry industry is increasingly under the spotlight from the media and high-profile NGOs which are determined to paint a bad picture for consumers. 

Red Tractor is focused on representing the industry positively but to do so must be on the front foot and make sure it meets consumer expectations. Studies have shown that bird behaviour, health and development are negatively affected by low light intensities, and that when given a choice birds consistently prefer higher light intensities. By incorporating windows in bird housing, Red Tractor is able to demonstrate its commitment to improving bird welfare while maintaining the positive image of the UK poultry industry.

What does this mean for chicken farmers? All sheds housing birds from 1 October 2020 must have windows which equate to a minimum of 3% of the floor area. Red Tractor recognises that for those who do not currently meet this standard, capital expenditure will be required in order to continue to be Red Tractor and this will vary depending on the circumstances.

And there is acknowledgement some farmers may simply decide this is too onerous and will opt to leave the scheme. “We expect the vast majority to make the changes to buildings and remain assured but it will be a business decision for each producer,” says the spokesman. “It is not compulsory for businesses to be Red Tractor assured and some may choose to sell to non-assured markets.”

What the new standards demand:

Environmental enrichment must be evenly spaced throughout the house.

  • At least one bale per 1,000 birds used throughout the bird’s life. Bales are wrapped or treated and are placed in the house prior to chick placement.
  • Two linear metres of perches per 1,000 birds. Perches should be no more than 15cm off the ground.
  • Pecking objects. At least one pecking object per 1,000 birds and if it is reusable, it must capable of being cleaned and disinfected.

Windows must be fitted in all buildings which house broilers

  • The transparent area of the windows must equate to a minimum of 3% of the floor area.
  • Windows must be evenly distributed providing uniform daylight throughout the building.
  • Windows must be double glazed to provide insulation and prevent condensation.
  • Glass windows must be toughened on the inside for added safety
  • Shutters must be fitted in order that daylight can be closed out if required (e.g. during extremely hot or cold days)
  • Windows must be open from day five during daylight hours unless veterinary advice states otherwise

 

 

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