The recent publicity given to proposals for new 'mega-farms' has highlighted the question of whether big is bad when it comes to farm size. Compassion in World Farming sees the trend toward larger-scale industrialised farming as a real concern. When it comes to animal well-being, scale per se may not be the issue; however, it often indicates a serious underlying threat to animal welfare. In Compassion's view, this is the case with the dairy sector. Mega-dairies represent a fast track to intensification. They are based on using super-high yielding cows that produce so much milk they cannot remain healthy on grass. This can make it uneconomic to allow them outside grazing, leading to 'zero-grazing' units where cows are often crowded on concrete and sand. Instead of tens or hundreds of cows, the mega-dairy houses thousands.
What about pigs?
Dairy cows, by virtue of their ruminant nature, have historically been less intensively farmed than pigs and poultry, at least until now.
The majority of the UK and Europe's chickens are factory farmed. Many pigs too are often kept in conditions of utter deprivation. About 60% of the UK's breeding sows are kept indoors; the vast majority of them incarcerated during motherhood in a 'farrowing crate' so narrow that it's not much bigger than the sow herself. This system prevents her from carrying out natural behaviours such as nest-building, leaving room enough for her to simply stand-up; a wretched life. About 60% of the all UK pigs are kept without straw bedding; condemned to a life in barren pens; and a similar proportion suffer the painful mutilations of tail-docking and tooth-clipping.
Foston pig farm proposal
A proposal has recently been submitted for a pig farm at Foston in Derbyshire. It plans to house 2,500 sows and their offspring on one site; the sheer scale brings concerns over divorcing animals from the land and the effect of so many pigs in one place. Do we have big pig farms already? According to industry sources, the UK's biggest pig breeding farm has 3,500 sows, whilst an outdoor-based farm on a similar scale is also operating. In this latter case, whilst the scale is a concern, the direction of travel for pig welfare is more positive.
But what is Foston proposing on welfare? The proposal includes a commitment to meet or exceed RSPCA welfare standards for pigs. This includes using a fully free farrowing system with no confinement for mothering sows; and providing enough straw for comfort and avoiding mutilations for all its pigs. Again, whilst the scale is a real concern, the direction of travel for animal welfare is towards a more extensive, albeit indoor environment for the pigs.
Commenting on the proposal, Compassion in World Farming's Chief Executive, Philip Lymbery, said, "Ideally, we would like to see all pigs kept outdoors on a free range basis. Sadly, most pigs in the UK are not outdoors and are often kept in conditions of utter deprivation; mother pigs confined in 'farrowing' crates so narrow they cannot turn around, their piglets mutilated and often kept without straw or other bedding. We are concerned at the sheer scale and the indoor nature of the proposed pig farm at Foston, but the commitments to meet or exceed RSPCA welfare standards would be a welfare advance for the pigs concerned. We urge those planning the farm at Foston to retain their intended welfare standards but to break the proposal up into a number of smaller farms."