free-range-chickens© Tim Scrivener

Free-range egg issues were to the fore at the recent Midlands Free Range Discussion Group “Newsnight” meeting in Shropshire. Ken Randall went along.

Is the industrial scale of free range going to bother consumers?

Pykett: I don’t believe that this is going to be an issue, although production is going to have to go that way. If we don’t become more industrial, the rest of Europe will and we will become uncompetitive.

I’d be quite happy to take customers and consumers around a free-range unit. I don’t think there is anything wrong with them, and I don’t think we’ve got an option.

Ackerley: It’s like any sector of farming; if there’s bad management, whether on a small or large scale, the consumer won’t accept that. But people outside the industry don’t have an understanding about poultry production and they’re not going to be too concerned unless the media points them in that direction. So, if the media’s happy, the consumer’s going to be happy.

The panel

Gary Ford – NFU chief poultry adviser (chairman)

Alastair Pykett – agricultural manager, LJ Fairburn (egg packer)

Suzy Ackerley – St David’s Poultry Team (poultry vet)

Will Foote – raw material manager, ForFarmers (feed manufacturer)

In light of this, is there a future for the smaller producer?

Pykett: Entry into the free-range sector is going to become very, very difficult. It will be far easier for existing producers to extend their units. But I do believe there is going to be a big issue with planning. We’ve recently got a planning application through, but each time it gets more and more difficult. 

Also, for anyone entering the industry with a 32,000-bird unit, unless you’ve got money you’re going to be borrowing over a million pounds. From a bank’s point of view, bearing in mind the risks from AI or salmonella, entry will be difficult.

After record chick placings in July, are we over-expanding?

Pykett: Egg demand has been strong all through the summer. Egg prices at retail have come down dramatically, and is the biggest reason for the increase in consumption. I think that eggs were overpriced previously, and consumers had better alternatives.

While flock size may increase and there may be a bit of a surplus, I do believe there is a genuine increase in consumption going forward. The outlook is quite strong.

Phil Crawley (Sunrise Eggs): It is favourable right now, certainly helped by relatively low feed costs. There will be lean times ahead by the law of averages, but hopefully not for the foreseeable future.

Should farmers be fixing their feed prices?

Foote: We’ve had a second consecutive record world wheat crop of just over 725m tonnes, so wheat prices are historically low. Maybe this dip has a little bit further to go, but I think we should be buying sometime soon.

The last bit of price pressure will come when the last 20% of the harvest still in the fields comes into the store. We’re not getting exports away from the country at the moment and there’s still a lot of wheat rolled over from last season.

I’m not bullish; the world is very well supplied with wheat. But things can come in from left-field, and sentiment could change. There is a question mark over the maize crop which is not harvested until September/October, and if we start getting some poor yields, particularly in the US, that might just change the focus of the market.  

Also, it might be that the world farmer doesn’t plant so much wheat for next year. Long term these prices aren’t sustainable to arable farmers; they’re too cheap.

There’s a saying that trying to find the bottom of the market is for fools, so look at your own business. There tends to be a lot more volatility on input prices than on output prices, and if at today’s prices you can see a good margin, it’s probably worth locking in now.

What is the situation with wheat quality?

Foote: There is a concern out there that we could get a repeat of the situation three or four years ago when there was a late, rain-affected harvest. Bushel weights really fell and that affected bird performance.

That’s not being seen at the moment. This time the crop wasn’t quite as ripe when the rains came, particularly in the North, and bushel weights are holding up. So at the moment wheat quality looks good.

Has the proposed ban on beak trimming gone away?

Ford: The draft Bristol report is being peer reviewed. The Beak Trimming Action Group will review it at the end of September, followed by three or four meetings between September and end of November. Its recommendation will then go to farm minister George Eustice in early December for him to make a decision on whether the ban comes in in January.

Crawley: Hopefully the ban on beak tipping will be deferred, but it will not be stopped. We as producers and the breed companies need to work towards a bird that doesn’t need tipping. But there are too many unknown triggers that can cause an outbreak that we just don’t understand, and the risk isn’t worth it yet.

The difficulty is that some flocks will go through with entire beaks successfully, other flocks will not. You can put the enrichments in and I believe they help. But there’s no guarantee, and the catastrophe of a welfare disaster should the birds turn cannibalistic is a far worse welfare outcome than possible short-term pain by the use of infra-red beak treatment at day-old.

If it comes in, how soon could a vet go in and emergency beak trim, if necessary?

Ackerley: There would have to be a significant welfare problem. You would have to wait until the problem’s established. It’s not just a little bit of feather loss; there would have to be some cannibalism and injurious pecking. By then the damage is already done.

Putting birds in that situation is not as good from a welfare perspective. Birds are omnivorous so they will eat animal protein as well as vegetable protein, but their diets are solely vegetable protein. So we’re already putting them under stress in a house with 12,000 other birds and not giving them something in the diet that millions of years of natural selection has said the bird needs.

Can we prevent an avian influenza outbreak?

Ackerley: The very nature of this virus makes it difficult to say for sure. Low pathogenic viruses are probably going undetected in a lot of flocks because they can present quite similarly to other respiratory viruses.

We don’t really know the level of low-path AI circulating in this country and that’s a problem. With the latest outbreak, Defra does seem to think that it was a low-path virus that infected the site first, and because of the sheer number of birds, that developed into a high-path virus.

In any large population of birds the virus, given enough time and hosts, does mutate very readily. On top of that, we’ve got a large wild bird and game bird population, and no surveillance goes on in that sector.

So then you’re left with making sure biosecurity is maximised. When a case breaks out, everybody’s quite vigilant. But when the Defra and media attention dies down, everyone forgets about it; people come and go as they did before.

Among recent cases we had a case in a broiler breeder flock, which by their nature have good biosecurity, so if we can see it there, there’s much more potential in a commercial free-range flock.

So nationally, can we prevent an AI outbreak? No, we can’t.