Opposition to large farms 'stifling UK agriculture'

MISINFORMATION over the impact of large scale livestock farms on animal health and welfare and the environment is hampering UK farming’s ability to grow, according to leading experts on the subject.

Big is not bad and indoor housing can provide superior conditions for animals when the management is right, the experts, brought together at a media briefing in London by the Science Media Centre, insisted.

The single biggest factor in determining the health and wellbeing of farmed animals, they concluded, is not the size of the unit or even the system but the quality of stockmanship.

There are still relatively few large farms in the UK – just 17 dairy farms with more than 1,000 cows and 10 per cent of pig units with more 1,000 sows. These figures pales into insignificance compared with other parts of the EU, in terms of pigs and the world - some US co-operatives have more pigs than the entire UK herd.

The briefing, a follow-up to a conference asking ‘Is Big Bad?’ at the Roslin Institute in May, was held against the backdrop of continuing opposition to large livestock developments, both at local and, driven by campaign groups, national level, which is hampering farmers’ ability to grow their businesses.

The highest profile examples include the so-called Nocton ‘super dairy’, which failed to get off the ground in Lincolnshire after fierce opposition in 2010 and 2011, the proposed 2,500-sow Foston pig unit, in Derbyshire, and the 1,000-cow Powys dairy unit that finally got the go ahead after a long planning battle.

But, according to Annie Davis, a pig vet and vice president Chair of the Pig Veterinary Society, there are many other examples of ‘medium-sized’ pig units whose plans to expand to ‘improve their businesses’ have been ‘blocked by single issue groups who have very little to do with what is going on in local area’.

There are also thought to be a number of cattle farmers who are holding back from expansion plans because of fears over the backlash.

Economies of scale

Professor Toby Mottram, of the Royal Agricultural University at Cirencester, quoted a report to Defra by the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which noted that large dairy herds of more than 1,000 cows enjoy ‘significant economies of scale’.   

When divided into groups of matched cows, these large herds ‘have the potential to benefit the individual’s welfare’ as teams of experts, such as nutritionist and vets, focus on health management and disease prevention and control. Large dairy units are generally built on new sites with the ‘most modern building and equipment provided’, FAWC concluded.

Prof Mottram referred to research at Exeter University showing how cows were happier and more productive when kept in groups of ‘friends and family’.

He said local people have a ‘right to object’ when proposed developments interfere with their lives. But he accused single issue group of ‘exaggerating bad things’ about these large farm units to ‘drive membership’.

He said: “Most of the ammunition thrown against the big units to do with pollution and animal welfare are ill-founded. The science does not support the people who say these units are doing bad things.”

Tim Brigstocke, policy director of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) agreed that ‘big maybe better on occasions’, depending on the system and the management.

He said the industry had ‘not been terribly good at communicating how good our systems are’ and urged farmers and vets to do more to address some of the misinformation out large units and indoor housing.

Inextricably linked to the debate about scale is the question of the merits or otherwise of indoor housing. The experts agreed that being outside can be the ‘fantastic’ for cattle, pigs or poultry but the reverse was true in bad weather when the animals will often prefer to be indoors. Research showed animals sometimes preferred to stay, inside given the choice, they said.


Commenting on last year’s dreadful weather, Ms Davis said: “I would not like to have been an outdoor pig.”

She stressed, however, that big did not always means intensive – one of her clients runs a 2,000-sow outdoor unit.

Ms Davies said: “Scientific evidence and practical experience shows that size of the farm is not necessarily linked to animal welfare. Far more important as far as animal welfare is concerned is the level of stockmanship.”

Christine Nicol, professor of animal welfare at the University of Bristol, said it was ‘important to actually measure animal welfare’, rather than base views on the size or type of unit.

She highlighted surprising findings from research at Bristol comparing the welfare of laying hens in four different systems – the now banned battery cages, the ‘colony’ cages, which provide more space and include perches and scratching areas, that have replaced them, barn systems and free range.

Battery cages were shown to be a ‘really unacceptable bottom line and it is a good thing they are gone’, she said.

But enriched cages delivered the best outcomes. The birds in these cages had lower mortality, lower stress, fewer fractures and pecked each other less than birds in the other two systems, she said.

“It looks horrendous, it looks like a factory, your worst nightmare of an industrial intensive system, “But when you look inside the cages, I’m not saying it’s great…but the birds have space, they have a perch, they have got things to scratch on.”

Prof Nicol stressed that the system was not perfect and said there was more room for improvement in free range systems but said these system were currently often poorly run and the birds disliked cold, wet weather. She said a major improvement would be a covered ‘veranda’ that enabled the birds to scratch without being exposed to the worst of the weather.

Separate research into whether size of each of these systems affected welfare showed while size made no difference to welfare measures, ‘what mattered was the way the birds are managed’.

Research had also shown birds in large free range or barn units tended to form their own social groups and were often ‘less aggressive’ than when kept in very small flocks.

She added. “Animals can be better cared for in larger farms. I have been on some terrible small farms and I wouldn’t care if they went out of business.”

However, all the experts agreed that, while big was not necessarily bad, large ‘intensive’ farms could be problematic where badly managed, for example, if they are overstocked or understaffed. Prof Mottram said the key issue for him was controlling nitrate pollution from livestock farms, which was linked to outdoor stocking rates.


Compassion in World Farming chief executive Philip Lymbery said scale alone was not the issue for his organisation.

 “It is not so much scale on its own that concerns us, but the nature of the farm; whether it is intensive or extensive, for example,” he said.

“Intensification, associated with animal welfare concerns, is often accompanied by large-scale. Scale may not be the main issue for us but is often indicative of serious threats to animal welfare.

“For example, zero-grazing of dairy cows, something which causes welfare concerns through problems associated with high yield and lack of grazing, lends itself to large-scale mega-dairies. When we consider opposing applications for ‘mega-farms’ we do so on a case-by-case basis, looking at the welfare implications of what is planned.” 

Does size matter?

UK dairy industry

  • Average UK herd size is 125 cows, compared with 84 cows in 2000.
  • 17 herds with more than 1,000 cows. Largest – 2,200 cows.
  • 2 per cent herds and 10 per cent cows housed all-year-round.
  • Number of cows down from 3.4 m in 1973 to I.8m today. Milk output only slightly down as yields have risen.
  • 14,549 UK farmers in 2012, compared with 56,247 in 1980 and 196,001 in 1950.
  • In US, average herd size just 115 cows but 55 per cent milk from herds of more than 1,000 cows.
  • New Zealand average herd size is 375, almost all out-wintered and grazed.

Pig industry

  • UK breeding herd averages 440 sows.
  • Less than 10 per cent of breeding farms have more than 1,000 sows.
  • Average breeding herd sizes in the US, Canada and Asia, typically 10 times UK average.
  • 13 per cent of UK finishing herds have more than 1,000 pigs.
  • This compares with around 50 per cent in the Netherlands and Belgium and one-third in Denmark.

Laying eggs

Of the 35 million laying hens in the UK in 2012:

  • Just under half were kept in colony cages.
  • Just under half on free range.
  • 4 per cent were in barn systems.

Readers' comments (6)

  • It is a positive development if Mr Lymbery is weighing up 'mega farms' on a case by case basis, looking at the welfare implications. However, I feel this approach has not yet been adopted, as demonstrated by continuing stream of damning statements about large scale farms in general, some ranging well beyond the welfare remit he claims, eg 'Intensive/factory farms prioritise maximum production above all else, they are wasteful and unsustainable'.

    The sole criteria appears to still be whether the farm is grazing-based or not.

    It really is time the level of this debate was raised. Large scale dairy farming is here to stay - both grazing and housed - and is needed alongside smaller farms supplying the diversity of dairy products needed and choice people like. In my opinion, the question should not be whether we have large dairy farms (and by large, let’s be clear – the UK is never going to turn into the US in terms of the size and proliferation of certain dairy units), but how they can optimise welfare and sustainability – and co-exist happily with their smaller counterparts. The industry needs good welfare and good stewardship across all scales and systems. It would be much more productive if welfare campaign groups threw their resources into working with farmers, identifying and solving real welfare hotspots, rather than throwing claims around that do nothing to advance the real state of welfare for the cow.

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  • Parish boundaries, mixed hedges, diverse species, layed hedges, lots of people working on farms, busy rural schools and village shops. Or mega units for mega bucks and less people living and working in the countryside.

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  • Amy, in 1970 when there were 100,000 dairy farms in the UK I think there was probably a lot more diversity than we have now there are only 14,000 left. The drive to make profit from farmers by both those buying their milk and those keen to sell them inputs and advice is working to achieve a dairy blueprint based on large herds and high yields - the more complicated the better. I question your comment that large scale dairying is needed alongside smaller farms to deliver diversity and consumer choice - unless of course you are talking about offering the choice of cheap milk. My experience of welfare groups is that they are now throwing resources into working with farmers in a positive way. I think a lot of milk producers are beginning to reappraise who their real allies are. A letter in last week's FG told the sad tale of a small family farm in Lancs packing up milk production because they are no longer wanted by the modern supply chain. I wonder what that family and others like them would say if you told them that opposition to large farms is stifling UK agriculture.

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  • I find it shocking that dairy cows are now joining pigs and poultry regarding large-scale farming.
    The pig and poultry 'industry' has been in the news for many years now concerning animal welfare, food safety and systems and now we’re welcoming the dairy cow into that arena?!
    We keep measuring ourselves (Britain) against the rest of the world in terms of size and efficiency.
    How can you honestly measure and compare mega-dairy farming methods in the US that administer BST (bovine somatotropin) to boost the milk yields of the TMR-fed, three times-a-day milked, permanently housed Holstein against say our own pasture-based Friesian herd milked twice-a-day producing milk from grass. Looking at this in terms of simplicity and sustainability for a grass-growing Britain, I’d certainly say we have the right system already, so why are overlooking what we already have, we should be looking to build on our current strengths of grass, a more robust cow and a more sensibly sized average herd-size that would suit the majority of dairy farmers in Britain and for Britain.
    Both the USA and New Zealand are talking in terms of scaling-up massively to serve the global market and for Britain it doesn’t need to be this way. We can still compete in the modern world and indeed our home-market, it doesn’t mean being in isolation. Our dairy products are fantastic, and we don’t need the mega-dairy farm, it won’t bring anything more than we already have.
    If there are only 17 herds over 1000 cows and 10% of the national herd permanently housed in Britain, then maybe it’s not too late to reverse this ‘industry want’ and absorb these back into the national family of pasture-based dairy farming and address the ‘farming need’.

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  • Anonymous | 18 November 2013 12:20 pm
    Well said and ''How can you honestly measure and compare mega-dairy farming methods in the US that administer BST (bovine somatotropin) to boost the milk yields of the TMR-fed, three times-a-day milked, permanently housed Holstein against say our own pasture-based Friesian herd milked twice-a-day producing milk from grass.''
    Well we could measure it on the profitability of a grass fed system or even on welfare!

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  • We should not simply be measuring the cost of our food in terms of the feed inputs, labour and machinery, etc but, also, the cost it carries for our mation's health, our countryside and the lives of farmers and cows. The industry is now being called upon to "collaborate to address mega dairy untruths". If that 'industry' and its experts were collaborating on behalf of the majority of Britain's dairy farmers, it would be promoting the sytems we have rather than looking to replace our farms with industrial facilities. It seems to me this collaboration is between those who are concerned at the lack of opportunity to make money out of small, family run farms and scare stories about food security and food price inflation arte used to promote their cause.

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