Revealed: How 'zero-grazing' is set to bring US-style factory farming to Britain

Plans to rear thousands of pigs and cows in huge new industrial units condemned by animal welfare charities

A battle is under way in the British countryside to fight off plans for massive factory farms that would house thousands of animals in industrialised units without access to traditional grazing or foraging.

Plans for three large-scale units in England have encountered fierce resistance from campaigners who say they would cause extra noise, smell and disruption and cause more stress and disease for animals.

Animal welfare organisations fear the proposals are signs that a new intensive system of agriculture could soon replace the UK's patchwork of small livestock farms.

In the past three months, plans have been brought forward for an 8,000-cow dairy farm at Nocton in Lincolnshire and a 3,000-cow unit at South Witham, also Lincolnshire. Both have been withdrawn following fierce opposition.

The Independent has learnt of another intensive factory farm proposal, for a 2,500-sow pig unit at Foston in Derbyshire.

The proposals dwarf the size of current livestock farms. The Nocton dairy farm would have been the largest dairy farm in western Europe, 66 times larger than the average UK herd of 120 animals – and four times the size of the largest existing herd of 2,000. Likewise, the South Witham farm would have been 50 per cent larger than the largest dairy herd, if it had been adopted.

The animal welfare group Viva believes the Foston pig farm would be the largest in the UK. When taking into account the litters of the sows which would be raised to maturity before slaughter, the unit would contain about 20,000 pigs at any one time.

Farming groups behind all three plans said they would minimise smells, noise and disruption and that modern stockmanship would mean that the animals were well looked after.

At Foston, for instance, pigs would be allowed more space than usual in which to give birth to their piglets.

However, the animals would be kept inside for all or almost all of the year, compared with more traditional forms of agriculture. Around a third of pigs across the country are kept outdoors. The overwhelming majority of cows have regular access to grazing. Currently only 1 per cent are kept in housed "zero-grazing" units.

Villagers have objected to the arrival of such large industrialised animal units. After 600 objections were lodged against the Nocton proposal, Nocton Dairies Ltd withdrew its plans. It is expected to submit a revised proposal at a later date. Following stiff opposition, Velmur Ltd also withdrew its plans for South Witham, saying it was too close to local homes.

Some 1,640 objections have been made so far to South Derbyshire District Council about the Foston pig farm.

Compassion in World Farming and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) believe new plans for large dairy units will emerge in coming months as farmers seek to survive ultra-thin margins .

Suzi Morris, UK director of WSPA, said: "There's nothing on this scale in the UK. The 8,000-cow proposal for Nocton would be the largest herd in western Europe. The average herd size in the UK is 100 to 120 cows. There are herds of 1,000 and some pushing 2,000 but 3,000 would be a departure.

"It's all being driven by economies of scale," she added. "We have been importing a lot of milk and the UK dairy industry has been undermined and conventional dairy farmers have been going out of business.

"We believe that animals should be farmed for food but we don't agree there can be any justification, economic or otherwise, for the commoditisation of animals and their housing in such large units."

In the US there is a term for such large farms – Cafo (Concentrated Animal feeding Operation).

Justin Kerswell, campaigns manager at Viva said: "It is sadly ironic that with films such as Food Inc hitting the headlines, there is a move to bring American-style mega factory-farming to this country. However, it would be wrong to think that we don't have intensive farming here already.

"Most broiler chicken production is already highly intensive, as is most pig farming. But, with the proposed Foston development, it appears we are moving to an unprecedented level. Along with the rush to introduce American-style zero-grazing dairy units into this country, it is fast becoming a juggernaut that has to be stopped."

The National Farmers' Union rejected claims that large dairy farms would compromise welfare.

Hayley Campbell-Gibbons, chief dairy adviser, who has just returned from a fact-finding tour of US farms, including one which keeps 40,000 cows, said: "I think even the welfare groups would agree that big does not always mean bad. You can have good and bad welfare in any system."

She added: "If you don't have cows that are contented and healthy they don't produce enough milk."

BPEX, the pig industry body, said the Foston proposal would be "a brand new state-of-the-art unit".

In a statement, Midland Pig Producers said economies of scale at the unit would help compete "against the large-scale foreign importers currently flooding the British market which are not subject to the UK's leading welfare and health and safety issues".

The statement added: "While we understand that concerns have been raised, we would like to reassure people that there is no need to be worried about disease and hygiene as we operate in accordance with the strict Defra guidelines and Assured Food Standards operating standards. Health and safety has been taken into account throughout the design process and we should stress that there are no airborne diseases originating from pigs which transfer to humans."

The statement also said that animal welfare had always been a top priority and the development would be to "the highest possible specification to ensure the health and wellbeing of all the animals on the site".

All aspects of the operation would comply with environmental regulations, the statement said, including light and noise pollution and gas emissions. The buildings would be flushed every 48 hours, and the air filtered twice before being released into the atmosphere.

Factory farming plans...

Foston, south Derbyshire

Producing: Pork

Number of pigs: 2,500 sows (around 20,000 piglets)

Proponent: Midland Pig Producers

Council: South Derbyshire District

Features: Would be UK's biggest pig farm. Slurry collected from under the pigs would be turned into electricity at a biogas unit supplying a neighbouring women's prison.

Complaints: 1,640. Consultation still open.

Why: Some villagers are unhappy about a large-scale development on greenfield land. Animal welfare campaigners say that although the farm would have more space for sows to give birth, the large size of the unit – and the fact pigs would not be allowed outside – would compromise their welfare. Midland Pig Producers says the farm will be a state-of-the-art facility, meeting all welfare, health, environment and other regulations.

Outcome: Council will vote on the planning application some time after 27 July.

Nocton, Lincolnshire

Producing: Milk

Number of cows: 8,100

Proponent: Nocton Dairies Ltd

Council: North Kesteven District

Features: Would be Europe's largest dairy unit. Cows would be milked three times a day instead of two.

Complaints: 600

Why: Villagers fear disruption, noise and environmental problems. Animal welfare campaigners claim keeping cows inside in such large numbers under a "zero grazing" system is unnatural and harmful.

Outcome: Planning application withdrawn in April. A revised plan is expected.

South Witham, Lincolnshire

Producing: Milk

Number of cows: 2,896

Proponent: Velmur Ltd

Council: South Kesteven District

Features: Would have been UK's biggest dairy farm

Complaints: Parish Council and villagers objected. Plan not formally submitted.

Why: Villagers say the site is too close to homes and the dairy would cause bad smells, noise pollution, traffic issues and attract flies. Animal welfare campaigners claim keeping cows inside almost all the time in cubicles, with little, if any, access to grazing exposes them to greater health problems.

Outcome: Velmur withdrew its plan this month, agreeing the proximity "would not be acceptable to the village".

... and what they mean for

Animals

Animals would be farmed more intensively. At Nocton, cows would have been kept inside in a "zero grazing" system, and fed artificial feed rather than being allowed to graze pasture during the 10 months of the year when producing milk. They would be milked three times a day rather than twice, yielding 11,000 litres of milk a year, against a national average of 7,000. The cows would be Holsteins selectively bred for their milk. Cows are social animals used to living in small groups. According to animal welfare charities, they experience more stress from living in larger groups of hundreds or thousands. At Foston pigs would be kept inside for their whole lives.

Shoppers

Consumers have enjoyed low prices for pork and bacon and other "pigmeat", and for milk in the past decade because retailers have sliced margins. But the cheap prices have come at a cost, to the environment, the look of the countryside and animal welfare. More than half our pork is now transported to the UK from abroad, where animal welfare standards are lower. Increasingly foreign milk is being used in cheese and dairy products.

Farmers

Both pig and dairy farmers have been struggling to cope with low prices demanded by retailers. Some 480 of Britain's 13,500 dairy farmers went out of business last year and another 400 are expected to quit this year, according to the NFU. Many dairy farmers cannot survive when receiving only 24p per litre. The pig industry has been devastated since tougher animal welfare standards were introduced in 1999. More intensive farms compete better because they produce cheaper products.

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