2010: Free-range egg farmers face many challenges

At the start of a new decade, we hear from four key industry leaders what they believe will be the main issues affecting poultry producers in the coming year. In this first instalment, we hear from Tom Vesey, previous chairman of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association


Every year brings changes in legislation and 2010 will be no different with a number of issues already in the pipeline, namely beak trimming and on-farm stamping. All of them need to be taken seriously and planned.

The first and perhaps the most worrying, certainly for some producers, is the Nitrate Pollution Prevention Regulations which came into force on the first day of this month, taking the total UK area defined as a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) from 55% to 68%. In those areas, producers will have to be extremely careful about external stocking numbers to remain within the law and it may preclude being able to take advantage of the new external stocking density of 2000 birds/ha by Lion Eggs and Freedom Food.

Care and preparation will also have to be taken over manure disposal. It is advised that those within NVZs should seek professional advice for the subject is extremely complicated.

The external stocking limit of 2000 birds/ha has been within the Lion Code for 12 months but, recently, the RSPCA agreed that they would amend the Freedom Food rules to the same figure subject to certain conditions. At first glance these extra condition might seem onerous, but it will undoubtedly make the range more attractive to the birds and might encourage more to come outside which must be an advantage.

Under the Lion Code, on-farm marking of eggs is now mandatory for caged birds and this will also apply to non-caged birds a year later. This will mean that free-range producers will have to put equipment in place in order to be able to start on-farm marking on 1 January 2011. In most cases the equipment is probably going to be provided by the packer, but the producer will have to learn how to operate and maintain it.

I suspect that the main problems will come from badly maintained printers which could extend daily egg collection by a considerable time. I believe that it is something we should welcome and it will certainly aid traceability and will also help to prevent fraud.

For about seven years the poultry industry has been aware that all beak trimming would be banned with effect from this December (2010). It was hoped by government that, within that seven-year period, the breeders would have bred birds that render beak trimming unnecessary. Although there have been considerable advances in this field, we are not yet there and cannot dispense with beak treatment.

In the intervening period the infrared beak treatment was introduced from the USA and this system is now almost universally used over hot blade. Recently it was concluded, following a detailed neurological study, that infrared treatment did not inflict pain on the bird. However, it is still considered to be a mutilation and as such frowned upon by government.

In the last two months of 2009, the chairman of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) has sent a letter to the DEFRA minister.. In that letter he accepts that it is a mutilation and ultimately should be banned, but that at the present time there is still a high risk of feather pecking and a ban at this stage would greatly compromise bird welfare. He has, therefore, recommended that the present derogation should be extended and that there should be a review in 2015.

This is very good news and it is to be hoped that government will accept this recommendation. If they don’t then life will be extremely difficult for the hen.

| Tomorrow we hear from Mark Williams, chief executive of the British Egg Industry Council.

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