Redwoods Farm is tackling the environmental impact of chicken feed by pioneering soya-free diets. Nick Hughes reports.
Our collective appetite for chicken is creating big problems for the environment. Take the case of soya: a staple in chicken feed whose production has been linked to the overseas destruction of forests and other vital ecosystems in places like the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado. A recent report from WWF found that just 6% of soya in retailer supply chains is currently verified deforestation and conversion-free.
One farmer is trying to give chicken a more sustainable halo by removing soya from the supply chain altogether. Mark Chapple is a livestock farmer who works alongside his daughter, Amy, on the family farm near Tiverton, Devon. The Chapples have been farming cattle and sheep at Redwoods Farm for more than 20 years and Amy has recently branched out into farming her own slow-grown pork and laying hens.
Over the past decade, the family has increasingly looked to embrace the principles of regenerative agriculture and in 2020 Mark struck on the idea of adding chickens to the farm’s ecosystem. “I wanted to add another dimension to the business both from the point of view of financial sustainability but also from an environmental perspective,” he says. “I love the idea of stacking enterprises that work together and are symbiotic and so it made sense for me to get into poultry.”
Around the same time, Chapple had a conversation with supplier The Ethical Butcher at the Groundswell festival who mentioned they were looking to source soya-free chicken for some of their customers. “Everybody was telling them it couldn’t be done, but I figured that if it can be done then pasture-reared would be the way to do it because that way the chickens are getting a more varied diet.”
Chapple believes he is now the first farmer in the UK to produce soya-free chicken commercially at scale. He produces around 150 birds a week to The Ethical Butcher, which buys the majority of his output – the rest is sold to local farm shops and at farmers’ markets.
Chicks arrive as day-olds. Before they head out to pasture at 2-4 weeks they are fed a soya-free wheat-based feed mix with protein derived from beans, rapeseed meal, peas and maize mostly grown within a 10 mile radius of the farm.
The chickens are then raised on pasture – supplemented with the feed mix – to encourage their natural foraging behaviour. They live in either ‘chicken tractors’ – covered pens in flocks of 60 – or mobile polytunnels in flocks of up to 400. The birds are moved daily, following the cattle out onto the pasture where they fertilise the soil with their droppings and help to minimise fly and worm burdens on the cattle by scratching around in the dung pats and feeding on plants, insects and larvae. This mimics a natural grassland system as large flocks of birds follow the herds of grazing ruminants.
By eschewing a cheap, protein-rich commodity like soya, Chapple’s feed is more costly than standard mixes and his pasture-based system also increases the labour requirement. As a result, his chickens (which are slaughtered at around 14-15 weeks) command a premium over those reared in conventional systems (which can be killed at as little as four weeks) and are comparable in price to organic; but he believes it’s a price worth paying for a better quality product. “It’s a slower growing production process, but that does bring a lot better flavour. The Ethical Butcher are really chuffed with the flavour of the bird as are our other customers.”
With soya – and its environmental impact – set to remain in the crosshairs of campaigners, Chapple may be the first farmer to go soya-free but he’s unlikely to be the last.