Several RSPCA Freedom Food chicken producers are contemplating their future with the standard following a ban on the use of chain feeding equipment.
The ban, which came into effect on 1 January, means any producers still using chain or track feeders must replace them with pan feeders instead. However, many producers with older houses are struggling to comply with the ban, due to the massive capital costs incurred.
Charles Bourns, who feeds 48,000 Freedom Food chicken with chain feeders at South End Poultry Farm, Charfield, Gloucestershire, says the ban will cost him £40,000.
“I have never lost a chick in the feeder, and there is no performance benefit to offset that cost. I know one poor chap who has spent £80,000 – these are huge sums of money and we just can’t afford it. There are about 20 farms in the West Country who have either had to stop growing Freedom Food birds or who are waiting to fail their next audit.”
The RSPCA says the ban has been in the pipeline since 2007, and any producers replacing worn out chain feeders since 1997 have had to install pan feeders instead.
“The decision to prohibit track feeders was based on information from industry, producers and practical experience, and centred around two key concerns,” says the RSPCA’s broiler chicken specialist, Dr Marc Cooper.
“First, track feeders can pose a risk to bird welfare, especially chicks, as they can become trapped in the drive unit as well as becoming injured by the track mechanism itself. Second, track feeders can also impede the movement of the birds around the house. Pan feeders avoid any of those issues.”
Laying hens and pullet rearers remain unaffected by the ban, due to the different breeds of chicken used and the different shed layouts, he adds. “We are aware that some Freedom Food producers have had difficulty in changing from tracks to pans and we are currently liaising with those individuals to address the issue.”
However, the NFU insists that the ban is unnecessary, and has written to the RSPCA requesting for the rules to remain unchanged. “There are practical things that producers can do to mitigate the risk of chicks getting injured,” says chief poultry adviser Rob Newbery.
“Replacing track feeders is a massive cost at a time that producers cannot afford it – and many are facing serious business decisions. It is a big expense, and faced with that it is more affordable to go back to conventional production.”