Norfolk cattle farm responds to criticism of ‘industrial scale’ agriculture
- Credit: Chris Hill
An award-winning Norfolk cattle farm has hit back at criticism of 'industrial scale' agriculture by highlighting the animal welfare and food quality standards which have made it one of the country's top beef suppliers. CHRIS HILL reports.
Can our biggest farms give their animals the care they need while producing food for the supermarket shelves?
It's an ongoing debate which recently brought the spotlight onto 'industrial scale' beef farming, following a report of UK farms using controversial US-style 'feedlots', where thousands of animals are kept in crowded pens with little or no access to pasture.
But that assertion has been angrily disputed by an award-winning Norfolk farm which was one of the 12 businesses identified in the research by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Beckhithe Farms, near Reedham, advertises itself as 'one of the country's largest and most highly-regarded beef producers'.
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Its managers said the report overlooked the time its 3,560-strong cattle herd spends out on pasture, and its commitment to exceed national farm assurance standards which has placed it among the top 5% of the 2,000 farms supplying Waitrose supermarkets.
The cattle spend up to seven months of the year roaming more than 3,000 acres of grazing marshes, and in the colder winter months, when the grass stops growing, they are housed in indoor and outdoor yards. There they are bedded on fresh straw every day and fed a forage ration of grass and maize from crops grown on the farm.
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During this time, the space allowance is 11sqm per cow – almost double the standard specified by Red Tractor, the UK's food assurance marque.
The farm also exceeds Red Tractor specifications for veterinary health planning and collating data on nutrition and growth.
Farm manager Gary Gray said the business was proud of its standards, and urged consumers to visit farms to learn the difference between 'intensive' and 'extensive' agriculture – and to make up their own minds about the standards applied to producing supermarket foods.
'Everybody has got the right to their own opinion about what their perception of farming should be,' he said. 'But it is disappointing that we have been targeted and misrepresented in this way. It is like taking someone round your house and just showing them your spare room when it's a bit untidy.
'We are proud of the farm, and I think farmers are genuinely very passionate and caring about what they do. People should get out in the countryside and have a proper look to see where their food is coming from. It is very obvious when you get on the farm what the real story is.
'We have to treat every day as an open day. We regularly have school students, wildlife groups, butchers, and we've had people from New Zealand and Texan cowboys. They were all gobsmacked by what they see here.
'We have got very high standards that we want to meet, and we never want to feel embarrassed about showing anyone around.'
Mr Gray said the 'feedlot' definition does not apply to Beckhithe's business.
'Suckler beef production, by its very nature, is a green operation,' he said. 'These 'feedlots' just don't exist in the UK.
'The reason they have them in other countries is because they don't have any grass, but the systems in the UK are based around grazing. It is cheaper to have these animals on grass, so we are not going to actively pay money to have them in a yard. That costs money. The grass is free.'
Mr Gray also said the size of a herd did not determine a farmer's ability to look after the animals – in fact, he said there were advantages to being a large producer.
'We employ 12 people who all live within two miles of the farm,' he said. 'We have been able to send people on university courses so we can employ our own specialist person to do pregnancy tests and scan for AI (artificial insemination). Your average farm is not going to have someone working there with that kind of skill set.
'There are very good large farms, and there are large farms who are not meeting the standards you would want in the UK. Equally there are good small farms and bad small farms. I don't think scale determines how well animals are looked after.'
Duncan Sinclair, agriculture manager at Waitrose, said consumers expected high levels of animal welfare and quality assurance, so the supermarket insists its suppliers meet standards well above industry benchmarks.
Mr Sinclair, also a member of the Red Tractor beef and lamb board, said: 'Our standards are 'Red Tractor Plus'. It is one of the building blocks of what our business stands for.
'We have got 2,000-odd farms that we are sourcing from in the protein area, and Beckhithe Farms would be up there in the top 5pc across the board. The confidence we have got in this operation is why we have been more forthright in responding to this challenge.'
The farm is regularly audited by Red Tractor, and by Dovecote Park which buys 900 finished cattle a year – aged about 22-24 months – from the farm to supply into Waitrose.
Kate Sutton, cattle procurement manager at Dovecote Park, said: 'The system here works because we have got low rainfall, and we have got the bedding. So we have got the resources.
'The Aberdeen Angus breed is indigenous breed to the UK, which thrives very well outside. But out on the marshes in winter they would be out in the cold, so this gives them a dry lie. I'm not sure if the customer knows that grass doesn't grow in the winter.'
ABOUT THE FARM
• Beckhithe Farms has 3,560 cattle, including 1,384 breeding cows and heifers currently calving.
• 900 finished animals per year are sold via Dovecote Park into the Waitrose Aberdeen Angus Scheme at the age of 22-24 months.
• About 4,000 tonnes of straw is used for bedding each year.
• 95pc of the cattle feed is grown on farm, amounting to 12,000 tonnes of grass and maize silage per year.
• Depending on weather, the animals spend around 22 weeks in indoor and outdoor yards, where they have 11sqm of space each. For the rest of the year they go out onto the farm's extensive 3,212 acres of grazing marshes, where there are fewer than 1.4 cows per hectare.
• 94pc of the animals hit the ideal grade for carcase confirmation, a measure of the shape and development of the animal due to its breeding, growth and nutrition. That puts the farm in the top 2pc of producers nationally.
• The farm is regularly audited by Red Tractor and Dovecote Park, and has quarterly meetings with vets on its herd health plan. Veterinary costs are £11.96 per animal per year.
WHAT THE REPORT SAID
The research published by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism says thousands of British cattle reared for supermarket beef are being fattened in 'industrial scale' beef farms.
It says many of them are similar to US-style 'feedlots', with livestock kept for extended periods in grassless pens or yards rather than being grazed on grass.
The report identified a dozen operations fattening up to 6,000 cattle a year across England, including the one in Norfolk.
It says: 'Intensive beef farms are commonplace in the US but their existence In the UK has not previously been widely acknowledged.
'The beef industry says that the scale of operations involved enables farmers to rear cattle efficiently and profitably, and ensure high welfare standards. But critics claim the farms are evidence of a wider intensification of the UK's livestock sector that's not being sufficiently debated.'