By David Burrows
The Lakes Free-Range Egg Company has just won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, Sustainable Development. The letter sent to CEO David Brass explained this was for “outstanding sector leadership and influence”. The official awards site notes the business’s record in “enhancing animal welfare and environment sustainability”, and which “improves free range egg production and creates stronger businesses”.
The Lakes has become famous for its approach to range enrichment with trees and shrubs – over 157,000 of them have been planted across its farm and those of its dozens of suppliers to date. Research with McDonald’s – a major customer – even led to Freedom Foods changing its rules so that a minimum of 5% of range land for poultry needs tree cover.
“Most [tree planting]plans in the UK are based around ours. The Woodland Trusts’ plan was basically written by me,” says Brass, in an interview at the company’s headquarters near Penrith, Cumbria. He is clearly proud of his record – the Queen’s Award will join the myriad others dotted around the reception area – and the fact he – along with his wife Helen – has managed to prove that tree planting is not only better for the birds, but it “can make money”.
It brings to mind a piece the Financial Times ran a year ago, in which there were production figures of 312 eggs per year per bird – 17 higher than the industry average. This generated “£2 to £3 more income per bird for producers”, the paper noted. Are the figures right? Yes, he says, adding: “Chickens are small – abuse them and all you get is less production. Look after them and you get more production and more money.”
In the current climate, of course, there is much to be gained from heightened welfare. Brexit has brought animal welfare and environmental standards of farming into sharp focus. Two in five UK farmers are planning to invest more in animal welfare business in the next 12 months, according to a survey by the National Farm Research Unit, published in March. Demand for high-welfare products from retail customers and consumers has rocketed. The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare, published in February, showed a “growing number of companies embracing animal welfare and making it a priority in their business. Pressure from consumers, investors, the media and NGOs, is shining a spotlight on farm animal welfare, forcing it up the corporate agenda.”
Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s are two of the Lakes’ biggest clients. Both are in tier 2 of the BBFAW and Brass says they are looking for suppliers who go the extra mile. Are they hard to work with? “It’s exceptional fun … and they support us on all our welfare [initiatives].” However, that doesn’t meant they will pay much more – a penny or two more perhaps. On McDonald’s, volumes to which have increased recently, he adds: “They are a long way off being cheap and cheerful. Welfare and provenance shines through.”
The ubiquitous burger chain has certainly been at pains to promote its sourcing policies, and Brass is clearly impressed with how the business has set about trying to reinvent itself. “Everyone used to throw rocks at McDonald’s and it had a dreadful reputation. Then a whole new team came in [around 2002]and began to defend themselves. If things weren’t right then they’d change them.”
Is there a message in there for the farming sector, I wonder? “Farmers sit and whinge. All we seem to do is defend [the next bad headline]from Compassion in World Farming. Let’s tell the good story … like, by the way our birds can see each other”, a reference to the very low light levels in some systems outside the UK. Of course, there need to be hands up when things don’t go right – a lesson Brass has also learned from McDonald’s.
The Lakes has supplied McDonald’s since 2002. They worked together (with help from the Farm Animal Initiative) on the research to prove that planting tree cover was good for the birds – and their productivity. Freedom Foods ended up changing their rules so that a minimum of 5% of land for free-range poultry needed tree cover. However, some supermarkets want to push this higher. “For me 20% feels right; I feel comfortable with it,” Brass says.
Brass does have some gripes with Freedom Foods however. The consultation groups, for instance, “don’t take a blind bit of notice” of industry opinion. The addition of aerial perching in free-range egg units is a case in point – the British Free-Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA) managed to delay the implantation of the requirement on the basis of cost and welfare concerns, including that it could lead to increased keel bone damage; and the debate still rages on. Still, farm assurance schemes have their benefits, Brass says – he supports them, despite challenging their policies where he deems necessary.
The environment is another topic that Brass is happy to discuss at length. The National Farmers Union has begun to grumble about the government’s focus on the environment and animal welfare, placing it above the core issue of food production. At a Westminster food and nutrition forum in February in London, NFU Scotland vice president Gary Mitchell suggested that the government’s focus has led to a “negative message … telling us we are bad to animals and we are bad to the land”.
Brass admits he has concerns about Michael Gove, the Defra secretary of state, and his tendency to “say ‘yes’ to everyone”. He recalls the speeches the environment secretary made at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference and the Oxford Real Farming Conference: both were the same, and yet he was clapped off the stage by both audiences. “That worries me,” says Brass. “He needs to get off the fence.”
Amidst all the Brexit gloom, Brass remains positive – “potentially this is one of the best times in agriculture” – and he has been investing in what he sees as the future of poultry production. Higher bird welfare; improved production; more efficiency; lower mortality rates – these are all part of Brass’s vision for The Lakes. “Coming second is the first of the losers. You have to do stuff well. Why would I want to be in the middle of the farming industry – I want to be in the top 20%.” Data will be crucial in this.
Indeed, it is technology that’s capturing his attention now rather than nature. “We have a reputation for hugging trees that I’d like to get rid of,” he says, a little surprisingly. But then he elaborates. A few years ago he suffered a health scare, to the extent that he recruited a team to steer the ship if he couldn’t. Thankfully he was able to return to work, but then had to find something to do; how to ensure the business always strived for first place. This led him to look at how he could make better use of data.
“Real-time data allows you to see so much more, but we looked for a system for poultry and couldn’t find one – anywhere.” So, he developed one. The data had to be simple – “we want our suppliers to use it” – with graphics and alerts. He shows me an example of the ‘bird performance management system’ that “collects real time accurate data that can be used to make detailed, timely management decisions”. The interface is certainly intuitive – even for someone like me who is often out-tech’d by my toddler (Brass also talks of an 80-year-old supplier who has no mobile phone but absolutely loves his new farm data system).
The graphs are impressive – showing everything from bird weights and humidity to feed and water intakes – the lines paint a picture of the flocks over time. By the end of the year, 32 farms will have had the systems installed – and that’s when the data will become really significant. Suppliers will be able to compare and contrast, hopefully raising the bar for everyone in the process.
“We’ll also start to see trends,” says Brass, toying with the system like a teenager with a new PlayStation. “You can see where there’s been better feeding, or less smothering.” It could even change veterinary practice, he suggests, picking up changes in the birds or their habits that precede certain problems. Issues that once took a week to get to the bottom of (why have feed percentages dropped?) could be cleared up in 10 minutes with all this data at farmers’ fingertips. “We need to look at technology and the way it moves so fast. Steve Jobs’ attitude was that the future is over there, not back there.”
Mortality is an area that Brass is keen to focus on going forward; he wants to use the data from his new system to try and bring rates down, to “pace birds a bit better”. The whole industry could do much better, he insists. Mortality rates in caged birds are around 2% to 4%; in free-range it’s 8% or even as high as 10%. That isn’t reason not to do free-range; rather it’s reason for free-range producers to reduce mortality rates, Brass says. At The Lakes the mortality rate was the same last year as it was in the first free-range flock in 1989. If it’s still the same when he retires, Brass says he will have failed. However, he has already been working on dark brooding in sheds that are underfloor-heated to 28 degrees rather than 33 degrees. Mortality in these was 0.38% (against an industry average of 1.5%) and the energy savings are 85%. This is a business being future-proofed for the future, and in time perhaps it will be as well known for its high tech approach as it is for planting trees.