Wye & Usk Foundation report – BFREPA response

Some national newspapers are reporting that free range egg production is a primary contributor to watercourse pollution following comments from the Wye & Usk Foundation.

BFREPA has challenged the Foundation’s claims – many of which are inaccurate and without evidence to back them up.

BFREPA is not aware of any publicly-available evidence detailing the eutrophication of agricultural run-off from free range egg production, rather than from other sources.

It would be important to understand how much nutrient run-off is apportioned to the dairy, beef, sheep, arable, broiler and free range egg sectors, and this is not readily available.

There are also, we believe, some facts that shouldn’t be ignored.

1. The number of free range hens in Powys is approximately 3m, not 10m as stated in the Foundation’s report.

2. Only about 10% of manure from free range hens lands on the range outside the shed. The rest is indoors and remains there until the flock leaves the farm and the sheds are cleaned. The manure is typically sold to nearby arable farms who use it to replace synthetic fertilisers. Fertiliser in all its forms is an important part of efficient food production. Arable farms are strictly regulated on when and where they can spread the manure.

The environmental impact of free range egg production is mitigated by tree planting and providing a huge area of land for hens to range on (approximately one acre per 1000 hens). Tree planting has been used to encourage the hens to use all the range area and to absorb nutrients. Free range egg production has the lowest stocking density of all poultry production systems and the highest amount of environmental management.

There are measures taken to mitigate impact of emissions or run-off of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphates, which include:

  • Tree planting
  • In-house manure drying systems – some innovative farmers are drying and burning the manure to heat their chicken sheds
  • Rapid incorporation of manures applied to arable land
  • Storing manure for longer and covering the store
  • More fibre in the hens’ feed

Like any farming system or sector of livestock production, the environmental impact of manures depends on its storage and spreading application methods. There are already a lot of regulations to abide by with regards to manures, and I suspect many of the farms in Powys will be in an NVZ (nitrate vulnerable zone): This means they:

1. Cannot spread manures between 1st October and 31st January to reduce run-off risk.
2. Record all nutrient loading of all fields over a 12-month period
3. Records of directional slopes on fields and runoff risk
4. Records of where field tumps of manure are on farm and dates they are there
5. Employ no spread zones bordering watercourses
6. Plant grass margins on fields at high risk of runoff

As the report indicates, farmers in the region are actually employing Wye & Usk Foundation agents to put together new environmental stewardship scheme applications. In some cases farmers will be investing thousands of pounds in manure stores to hold chicken manure year-round until spreading. This would obviously eliminate any potential runoff from stored manures.