Animal welfare

As organic farmers, producing organic food with respect for livestock and with minimal impact on the environment is at the heart of what we do. We only work with small-scale producers who can offer a level of care for their animals that intensive farming systems cannot.

Pigs

Helen Browning is passionate about organic farming and giving animals the best possible quality of life. She set up her Eastbrook Farm in Wiltshire over 27 years ago, pioneering organic farming and the highest animal welfare standards. The farm stretches for 1,337 acres and her animals’ needs are put first so they can fulfil their potential. Helen is also Chief Executive of the Soil Association and spends much of her time campaigning for better animal welfare.

Helen’s organic breeding herd of 200 sows are pure British Saddlebacks - a hardy, native breed which thrive outdoors, make great mothers and produce great flavoured pork. The boars are Large Whites, a typical UK outdoor reared cross. They counter the fat levels found in pure breed Saddlebacks, but not enough to alter their unique flavour.

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Her pigs live in fields outdoors in family groups with loads of space and fresh ground to rootle and nuzzle around in. The land is free of fertilisers and chemicals and pigs are not fed antibiotics. Even in the coldest, wettest weather, the pigs seem happiest outside foraging in the grass, clover and mud looking for roots, bugs and other treasure. They also have clean, dry, warm ‘arc’ houses with plenty of fresh straw when they want to be cosy. Piglets are born outside, in their arcs and there might be 12/14 piglets born to any one sow at a time. Piglets are weaned later than conventional farming so that they are robust and independent by the time they leave their mothers. Animal welfare is paramount and the farm fully rejects farming practices like cutting teeth, docking tails or nose rings. The staff, usually Chris Neale in charge of the breeding herd, will see every pig at least twice per day. He knows which sows are likely to farrow each day/week, so will pay special attention to them on his morning and afternoon feeding rounds.

As Helen says, “Live like you are going to die tomorrow and farm like you are going to live forever”.

If you want to see the pigs foraging for yourself, Eastbrook Farm welcome visitors to their farm for walks or guided tours. They also run an award winning pub, The Royal Oak.

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Cows

Organic cows aren't fed and managed in ways that attempt to push them into producing more milk than they would naturally produce.

60% of their diet has to be grass, whereas conventional farmers can feed their cows grain. The Riverford herd spend 9 months of the year out in the fields eating grass. Their natural fertiliser goes onto our fields, helping us to grow veg.

Calf diets are different in organic herds too. When dairy calves are born, the mothers go into the milking herd and the calves themselves are weaned onto solid food. There are no restrictions on non-organic weaning and calves are typically taken away from their mothers at birth. In the organic system the calves stay with their mothers for 12-24 hours to feed on colostrum, the rich first milk which is filled with nutrients and antibodies. They are then fed milk before being fully weaned onto grass by 12 weeks. During this time at least half of their diet is fresh, whole milk, whereas non-organic farmers largely use a milk replacement powder, often containing synthetic vitamins.

Organic cows are outside as much as possible but most dairy herds are brought in during the winter (when the grass stops growing). When they are inside, they are housed in covered yards or cubicles with clean, comfortable bedding. This isn't required for non-organic cows.

They have to have 0.66 acres to graze when they are outside (more than most non-organic cows). When inside in the winter months, they have to have a minimum of 10.5 m2 per cow.

Watch our cows bounding into the field in spring


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Chickens

There has been a lot of talk in the media about the differences between battery and free range eggs. In this article, Guy Watson from Riverford Farm in Devon explains that there are many differences between free range and organic too.

When I was an agriculture student in the 80s, we visited an intensive poultry farm. As we left the building, half the students were in tears, much to the irritation of the farmer. To witness, at close quarters, the routine abuse of animals in the pursuit of cheap food was more than most of us could bear. I like to think that any sentient human being, having witnessed the reality behind producing a £3 discounted supermarket chicken or a bucket of KFC, could never stomach it again, but most of us never confront it.

Cheap meat and eggs are not a right. Nor is it elitist to suggest that we should be prepared to pay for chickens to have a reasonable level of welfare. Most of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, so the simple answer could be to eat less rather than cheaper. Use all of it, including the carcass, and enjoy it with a clear conscience.

It is no coincidence that a chicken tastes better after a longer and more natural life. Most of the chickens we sell are bred by Ross Gardiner and raised by Andy Hayllor, one of our co-op members, before being killed, plucked, slowly chilled and dressed in Ross’ small abattoir. The entire process is audited by the Soil Association. This is how Ross and Andy go about it:

Rather than the ubiquitous Ross Cobb breed, which don’t tend to roam, Andy’s birds are Hubbards and Sassos, which spend most of their time outdoors grazing a mixture of grass, red clover and chicory; scratching and making dust baths, searching for bugs and exhibiting their natural behaviours. Shelters are provided to draw them away from the house, the flocks are never larger than 500 and the houses are moved between each flock. All these things add cost, but chickens are timid creatures and without encouragement will stay indoors and never learn to roam and scratch. Many birds labelled ‘free range’ are kept in houses of many thousands, which are never moved and as a result are surrounded by mud. In theory the birds have the option to go out, but very few actually do.

Andy’s birds mature in 70 to 84 days, compared to the 41 days typical of an intensive broiler. They take exercise, forage for a more varied diet and are not as intensively bred for rapid weight gain. The result is a healthier, happier, less fatty and ultimately tastier chicken. The distinctive yellow colour of the meat is a result of their natural outdoor diet and lifestyle; it is proof that they really do ‘range free’. Our chickens are slower growing than many and I would encourage you to accept this both as a way of making them more flavoursome and out of respect for the chicken.

Andy never trims his birds’ beaks. Some ‘free range’ and non-organic birds have their beaks trimmed to prevent them pecking each other (normally the result of boredom and stress). As well as being painful, this inhibits the birds from naturally scratching and searching for food in the pastures.

Andy’s chickens are fed only organically grown grain, are never fed growth promoters, receive no routine antibiotics and have more space per bird, inside and out, than virtually all non-organic ‘free range’ birds. Their houses are filled with plenty of straw to enourage their natural scratching instinct and so they can nest easily. Short of raising them in your garden yourself, it would be hard to better them for flavour and welfare. That has to make for a happier meal on your plate.

Guy Watson

Clucking in the clover

If you can't see the video, click here.

Watch our organic chickens getting into the free range spirit with a little help from Guy and some wiggly worms.  

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