US-style "megafarms" are sweeping across the UK, a major Bureau investigation has revealed, a shift that is changing the face of British agriculture.
The increase in megafarms – which can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle apiece – is part of a 26% rise in intensive livestock farming over the last six years. Read the full investigation here.
We were invited to see firsthand what this kind of farming looks like, by Herefordshire farmer Richard Williams. From two sites he produces more than two million chickens a year for the giant food company Cargill, which supplies Tesco.
All photos by Rob Stothard
In a valley in rural Herefordshire, near the village of Kington, an orchard leads down to a tarmac road. Through a gap in the trees, four industrial sheds can be seen, giant green cylinders rising up behind them.
If you stand still you can hear a murmuring of chickens. From the top of the hill there is no odour, but nearer to the sheds, the sweetish, sickly smell is overpowering.
Inside, birds are packed as far as the eye can see, making it impossible to see the floor. The four sheds are 110 metres long by 20 metres wide, and there are 42,000 chickens in each. They are stocked at about 17 birds per square metre, which meets legal requirements.
The chickens are trucked in as chicks, with just under a third “thinned” – removed from the sheds – to be slaughtered at just over four weeks old. The rest carry on to just over five weeks, when they weigh about 2.2kg. Almost eight crops of such chickens are reared each year, making 1.3m annually, with the sheds cleaned between every batch.
Williams, the farmer, points to what is called "enrichment" that is provided for the birds' welfare: windows, so the animals have daylight and fresh air; straw bales they can jump on, with perches, and objects to peck; and the amount of light is carefully modified through the growing stages. “These things mean they can express their natural behaviours," he says.
The conditions are in line with government regulations. But it is unclear how a chicken on one side of the shed would ever get through thousands of birds to a perch or bale in the centre. Each batch of chickens is called a "crop" and the farm "grows" almost eight crops a year, with the sheds cleaned in between each one.
Each shed’s environment is carefully controlled so the birds will stay healthy and grow the maximum amount in the shortest time. The temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and the amount of darkness are tightly regulated.
The birds are fed on a mixture of pellets provided by Cargill, containing soya, minerals and other additives. This is mixed with wheat, mostly sourced locally. None of the material is genetically modified. The drinking water is chlorinated to keep it clean.
No antibiotic has been used since the site was set up two years ago, and the chickens are given a product to improve their gut flora.
"If the birds aren’t happy we aren’t making a profit," says Williams. "So looking for the highest animal welfare is in my interest."
Williams believes this is the most efficient way to produce protein – and that the market shows this is what consumers want. Only 3% of chicken bought in the UK is free range, 1% is organic.
His farms make the meat that people want, he says, and the production methods make it affordable. More people are buying chicken every year. "We’ve got a system which is consumer-driven," he says. "Wages haven’t kept up with inflation. This is producing safe, cheap, available protein. Is it more complicated than that?"
The chickens have a good life, says Williams. His staff all have a "poultry passport" – training on how to best look after the birds.
He employs three people who work on the farm full time – as well as contractors from 40 different companies. Cargill is one of the biggest employers in Herefordshire.
"It’s a 24/7 job. We're in there Sunday mornings," he says. "If you choose to work with animals you’ve got to care about them. It’s a weird concept because they’re going to die but while they’re alive you care for them."