British Poultry Farming: The Changing Face of Poultry Farming
Over recent decades
British farming has undergone an economic revolution. The high cost of labour and land has encouraged intensive, specialised systems based on heavy capital investment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in poultry farming, but free-range and semi-intensive systems remain.
When labour and land were cheap, and markets insecure, it was sensible for farmers to diversify, converting the by-products of their main enterprise of dairying or cereal production into marketable commodities, such as poultry and eggs. This provided economic security and a degree of self-sufficiency. Even when the sideline became the major source of income, it was within the familiar, reassuring context of field and farmstead.
Now, however, it is different. The emphasis is on cash crops sold into artificially stabilised markets to pay off the overdraft, the fuel bill, the chemical company and the accountant. The sidelines have become specialised industries in their own right and their former association with the land has been severed. In no branch of farming has this transformation been greater than in the poultry industry.
The downfall of the free-range fowl can be traced to its diet. Chickens, ducks and turkeys, like pigs and humans, cannot digest large quantities of low-value green food such as grass, and they have a correspondingly high requirement for concentrated carbohydrates and proteins. Under natural conditions fowl satisfy this need with seeds, worms, slugs and insects, all found in abundance around the traditional farmstead.
For centuries poultry farming was something of a free-for-all: free insects and grain to be pecked out of the dunghill and the stubble by foraging hens, free eggs for the farmer, if he could discover where they had been laid, and every so often a free supper for the fox.
The tidy-minded could flush the birds from their accustomed roosts in the barn or hedge and encourage them to spend the night locked in a shed. Here they laid their eggs before release in the morning, and were protected from foxes, provided the door was secure. Slackness in this respect could be disastrous, for in the confined space the fox would kill many more birds than it could eat, even destroying the whole flock.
Seventy years ago (in the 1930s – 1940s), the majority of British poultry was housed in this way, either in a permanent building in the yard or, in the case of a large chicken flock, in portable houses out in the fields. Allowed free range during the day, the chickens could obtain a large proportion of their food themselves during summer, particularly after the harvest when they foraged for spilled grain and weed seeds in stubble, pecked out leatherjackets and wireworms and generally cleaned up the field for the next crop. Used in this way, the poultry flock fulfilled a useful role in the mixed farm economy.
This is still the only way to keep geese on a large scale, for they differ from other poultry in having an appetite for grass. It is uneconomic to house them intensively and bring the grass to them, so they are normally kept on free range. They do best on good quality, fairly short grass, and traditionally the annual goose kill took place at Michaelmas (September 29), when the grass had stopped growing. Christmas geese have to be fed on for the intervening weeks; today this constitutes the only predictable market, so what with extra feed costs and the demand for good grazing land during summer, the goose business is much contracted.
By contrast, chickens, ducks and turkeys cannot eat bulky forage, so there is no direct value in allowing them access to grazing which can be more profitably used by sheep and cattle. Their food requirements may be conveniently met with a compound of cereal grain and an animal product such as fish meal, supplemented if necessary by the addition of drugs to combat the numerous diseases to which poultry are prone. Fed this way, the birds can be confined behind wire with no obvious ill-effects. Such semi-intensive housing has long been used by the smallholder, in the form of a henhouse opening into a wire-netting-enclosed run designed to keep the birds off the garden and the foxes off the birds. A larger-scale version is commonly used by commercial duck enterprises, and by other breeders.
Such a run cannot of course effectively be cleaned, and if the birds are to be kept at high density the enclosure (or the stock) must be shifted periodically to prevent a build-up of parasites and disease organisms. An alternative is the fold unit, a small, portable fox-proof run and henhouse which is moved daily to fresh ground in the open field. Its current popularity is limited by the price of labour and land.
In all these systems the housing is comparatively primitive. Ducks and geese require nothing else for they are hardy and can survive in the open if necessary. Chicken and turkey farmers, however, have found that the performance of their stock — the efficiency of food conversion into meat or eggs — is greatly improved if the temperature and ventilation are kept at a steady optimum. As the production of eggs from laying hens varies with light levels, falling off as the day length shortens, there is great advantage in providing an artificial 14-hour day all year. In contrast, the stress factor inevitable in high-density housing, which can lead to fighting and even cannibalism among uncaged birds raised for meat, can be suppressed by maintaining a low light level at all times.
These are just some of the reasons why practically all the poultry and eggs produced commercially today are derived from vast flocks kept in ‘controlled environment’ houses. Each long, low, windowless building contains several thousand birds confined in battery cages, or jostling for space on a wire floor or deep litter (a half-metre layer of straw or wood shavings which absorb a year’s output of manure). Such buildings are recognisable by the storage hoppers for the compound feed mounted at one end to supply the automated feeding systems. Certainly one will look in vain for a chicken.
The battery cage system is designed for laying hens. The combination of ‘optimum environment’ and enforced inertia concentrates the hen’s energy on egg production; as each egg appears it rolls forward into a collecting tray or on to a conveyor, and the hen lays again to make up the deficit. Each bird may lay over 300 eggs in the first year, before production drops off sharply in the eight-week moulting period. At this stage the bird is usually replaced as it cannot sustain such a prodigious output throughout a second year.
The majority of loose housing is occupied by broiler birds — chickens or turkeys bred to achieve rapid weight gains under ideal conditions. It is this system which is responsible for the increasing availability of poultry meat and its consequent transformation within 30 years from a luxury food into a supermarket staple.
The rates of production typical of intensive poultry farms can only be achieved with specially bred stock, and there is a flourishing trade in commercial hybrids `tailored’ to intensive conditions. The birds have a short life-cycle, and within two weeks of mating two promising parent birds the breeder can assess the quality of the progeny, identify faults, and correct them by further crossing.
High-performance hybrids are of little use to the smallholder who expects his stock to prosper in an open-air run and an unheated henhouse on a relatively low-value diet of kitchen waste, garden produce and a minimum of bought-in concentrates. Thus most of the birds on view in the countryside are traditional breeds suited to backyard conditions.
There are over 50 standard breeds of chicken. Many are highly decorative, owing their survival to poultry fanciers who breed them for show or simply to ornament the garden or farmyard. For practical purposes they are divided into light or laying breeds, heavy table breeds and dual-purpose breeds. These last are popular with smallholders: table birds are fed up well beyond the stage at which broiler fowl are killed, for there is a limited but steady market at the farm gate for large, well-fleshed birds, particularly if the farmer is prepared to dress and package the produce to a commercial standard.
Ducks are also divided into laying and table breeds. Duck eggs are not popular, partly because of their strong flavour but also because they have a much shorter shelf-life than hens’ eggs. The shell has relatively large pores and is a less effective barrier against disease. Of the table breeds, the white Aylesbury, the Pekin and the Rouen are the most popular, being well-built. Once again the market is restricted — a chicken provides more meat than the same weight of duck, and the flavour of duck is less acceptable.
Free-range and semi-intensive poultry farmers cannot compete with the big specialist producers on equal terms. Nevertheless such enterprises have survived and flourish with the help of a minority of consumers who are prepared to pay a little extra for their produce. If, in the future, domestic poultry remains a part of the living countryside, we will know whom to thank.
Like chickens, ducks are divided into laying and table birds, although the market for their eggs and meat is relatively small. A Khaki Campbell produces over 300 eggs a year under quite primitive conditions, matching the performance of a battery chicken, while the Indian Runner lays up to 180. The others are popular table breeds.