By Robert Gooch, chief executive, British Free Range Producers Association
Last month we saw the much-anticipated publication of a piece of research carried out by the Scottish Rural University College and ADAS examining the welfare and economic benefits of flat deck and multi-tier production systems.
We, as BFREPA, contributed financially towards the 18-month project as well as helping to find 42 producers who were willing to take part.
A huge range of data was gathered, analysed and processed to get the final result which we unveiled at the Pig & Poultry Fair to a packed crowd.
My take-home message from the work is that stockmanship has a far bigger influence on flocks of laying hens than housing system.The skill of the producer to identify issues or create the environment in which birds can thrive is absolutely crucial. On face value it could be said that this piece of research simply confirms what producers already know.
Flock performance varies, more shed furniture leads to an increased risk of keel bone damage, and multi-tier sheds have a marginal economic edge over flat decks. But the story goes deeper than that.Two years ago the free range egg sector came under scrutiny from the national media over the use of multi-tier systems. It was sparked by one flat-deck producer who was campaigning for egg cartons to be stickered with the housing system used to produce them.
In doing so it painted a negative picture of multi-tier production, leading journalists who are unfamiliar with modern food production to think our sector had something to hide. We refuted any claims that multi-tier production was bad for hen welfare and said there were benefits and drawbacks to both systems.
Prove it, we were told. But aside from anecdotal evidence from a range of producers, we couldn’t. Now we can. That’s why I think this piece of work is so important.
BFREPA is a broad church or large and small producers, flat deck and multi-tier, conventional and organic.The work we do is focused around influencing the regulatory framework our members have to work in and providing the information producers need to run sustainable, profitable businesses.
At the Pig & Poultry Fair I was delighted to see 130 people in our seminar room to hear the results of the study.
It showed that existing and new producers are keen to find out more about how housing systems can impact performance.
As is the case with many pieces of research, it has sparked more questions about the variables of each flock which we, as a council, will continue to look at going forward.
My hope is that as well as helping producers make good decisions for their businesses we put to bed any claims that one housing system is better for hens than another.
Of course, this work will not stop the spotlight being shone on free range producers.
Consumers are closer to their food than ever before and they have a right to know how it is being produced. It would be naïve for any of us to think that we will be free from media scrutiny in the future.
And nor should we be.
Egg consumption is growing in the UK, and free range continues to gain market share – a trend that could well continue with major retailers pledging to go cage-free by 2025.
Add to that the rhetoric emanating from Michael Gove’s office that animal welfare and environmental protection are going to be two aspects of food production that he wants the UK to be world leaders in.
We have a great story to tell and, armed with accurate, robust information, we shouldn’t be afraid of telling it.