Before Christmas, the Midlands Free Range Discussion Group held its annual Question Time evening, with an expert panel and contributions from the floor. Ken Randall reports

The Newsnight panel

Ian Mackinson, Premier Nutrition

Alan Beynon, St David’s Poultry Team

Tom Hiley, HST Feeds

Do backyard flocks pose a threat to the free-range sector?

Beynon: One of the things we did, with the help of DEFRA subsidies, was to look at diseases in backyard flocks. Almost all of the birds were IB QX positive and a large majority also had mycoplasma gallisepticum. Another thing we see commonly is Marek’s. And it’s not just households with chickens, but multi-species, with ducks, geese and turkeys all housed together.

One case I dealt with had a broiler breeder flock, a seasonal turkey flock and two backyard flocks all with Marek’s and all were next-door neighbours. So there is without doubt transmission between these backyard flocks and commercial poultry.

More worrying than that is some of things they do, such as feeding waste products from the kitchen and burying dead birds, both of which are illegal. There are also live markets where people buy birds and add them to the birds they’ve got. Finally there is the sale of hatching eggs on the internet, which is a big business. So there are a lot of disease factors there, which are a serious problem.

Should we be concerned about mycotoxins this season?

Mackinson: This year there was a lot of talk about the threat pre-harvest, because of poor conditions and higher incidence of Fusarium contamination in fields. The reality is, while mycotoxin levels are slightly higher this year, the threat hasn’t really materialised. We just need to be vigilant, because there are some high levels.

Hiley: One lab doing routine tests for flour millers reported 50% of samples had tested positive, but of those, the average level was 400ppm, while the approved limit was 1,250ppm. However, there is a spread of values, and those ones that do cause a problem are typically those that fall outside the usual range on bushel weight. They are ‘problem children’ to start with.

Roger Farley (Frank Wright Trouw): Feed miilers might have one load of higher mycotoxin wheat, but it’s blended and it’s gone. A home mixer might be using their own wheat for six or 12 months, week after week, and that’s a potential problem if it’s contaminated. Home mixers should pay particular attention, because that wheat will affect their birds for the coming year.

Is IB QX still a concern?

Beynon: This was a major issue two to two-and-a-half years ago. The current threat is still quite high, because you’ve got backyard, non-vaccinated flocks that are shedding virus. Our PCR testing on healthy flocks shows the virus is still present, but we are not getting clinical signs.

The reason for that is a lot of pullet rearers adopted a cross-protection vaccination policy early on. There are only one or two areas of the UK where we still see clinical disease. Biosecurity measures have also been a success, where the transmission between broilers and layer flocks was once quite evident, particularly down major roads leading to broiler processing plants.

What steps can be taken to mitigate volatile feed prices?

Hiley: Volatility is here to stay. But it’s very dangerous to try and pick the bottom of raw material markets. Always work with having a best average. That’s easier if you’ve got multiple sheds. Have a strategy and stick to it. I have one customer who only ever buys feed in three-month chunks. The ideal would be to buy some every day. The simple law should be, growers should sell into a rising market, producers should buy in a falling market.

Mackinson: As a word of warning, with feed prices high, be careful not to get drawn down the lowest-cost diet route. It can be a false economy.

What is the situation with beak trimming?

Beynon: Beak trimming is one of my biggest frustrations at the moment. Bodies like the Farm Animal Welfare Committee are looking for evidence to present to the government, and what we are seeing is responses from people who are saying they have no problem at all. Then we ask ‘how many birds?’ and they say ’40’. There are no responses from the industry for large flocks of free range.

That’s where we need to act quickly if we want preserve the present situation. We do have flocks where beaks are not trimmed and we have some severe issues with them. We also have flocks where we don’t.

Stuart Hinchley (HST Feeds): It’s important to do something, even if you just contact your MP. Doing nothing will let them write the rules they want to write.