Pig farming is a highly competitive business. Our three finalists have all driven up their performance through investment, innovation and sheer determination
See the other Farmers Weekly Awards finalists
Oak View, Honiton, Devon
Rachael is a classic case of a wise head on young shoulders. Though still in her 20s, Rachael has built up a flourishing pig operation that is delivering impressive numbers, driven by an innovative home-grown wet feed system, a willingness to experiment and keen attention to detail.
Rachael took over a much smaller pig business run by her father on the family farm near Honiton in Devon. Initially buying in weaners, the business now runs a 500-sow breeding unit, a weaner unit and a 4,000-head capacity finishing unit, operating on three sites.
Farrowing is contracted out to a farmer who runs a farrowing unit 20 miles from Rachael’s farm. The farmer owns the unit and employs the staff, but Rachael owns all the stock and provides the feed.
Piglets spend three to four weeks on the sow before being weaned at about 8kg. “The farmer gets a bonus for anything higher than 8kg weaning weight,” says Rachael. The unit averages 8.2kg.
Sows produce an average of 11.8 piglets a litter a year, with a pre-weaning mortality rate of just 8%. “I would rather have 12 good pigs than 14 small ones,” Rachael says.
Piglets are weaned on a Wednesday and more than half of the sows have come into heat by the following Sunday. Rachael serves them that week, using AI to get a sow conception rate of 98%. Sows produce an average of two-and-a-half litters a year, giving an output of nearly 30 pigs a sow a year.
After weaning the piglets are moved to Rachael’s weaner unit, a mile up the road from the farmhouse, where they grow from 7kg to more than 30kg. They are then moved down to the main rearing and finishing unit, where they spend a further 15 weeks being brought up to a slaughter weight of 80-110kg.
At the finishing unit Rachael targets an ambitious mortality rate of 1%. “We are a little bit over that, but still less than 2%”, she says.
“I spend a lot of time in the casualty pens, keeping an eye on them. We never put pigs back after they have been in the casualty pens – we have straw pens we can use, or we leave them in the casualty pens”.
The judges liked
- Impressive performance metrics
- Smart wet feeding system
- Spotlessly clean operation, with everything in its place
- Willingness to try out new ideas
Most of Rachael’s pigs go to pork processor Tulip under a contract through marketing group Thames Valley Cambac to supply 210 pigs a week. Others go to the Meadow Quality pig marketing business. “But if someone rings up and offers a good price, I can usually do something.”
Rachael is justifiably proud of her bespoke wet feed operation. The computer-controlled system tailors the diet to the needs of the pigs, milling straights such as wheat and barley and mixing them with whey protein and co-products, including ice cream waste. Rachael also adds amino acids to ensure the pigs’ protein needs are met.
The system uses a phase-feeding approach, tracking the growth curve of the pigs and carefully adjusting the feed mix to optimise its contents for each growth stage.
The wet feed is given to the pigs via a probe system – when the probe is exposed it delivers more feed.
“That keeps the food fresh and the pigs are stimulated to feed by the sound of fresh food rushing in,” Rachael explains.
The result of this focus on feeding is a rolling feed conversion rate (FCR) of 2.4 for the finishing unit. Rachael now plans to offer her feed system to other farmers.
- 80ha farm
- 500 Hermitage Seaborough breeding sows
- Contracted-out farrowing unit
- 4,000-head finishing capacity
Rachael has recently refurbished the finishing unit, making it a controlled environment, and invested in a fully slatted, controlled-environment fattening shed with a capacity of 750 animals.
The shed is organised into four big pens, with up to 200 pigs in each. “We initially ordered sorters,” she says, “but I looked at a sorter unit and found the pigs were very agitated, so I changed my mind.”
Rachael is already planning the next stage of her expansion. She is considering splashing out on a finishing shed from French supplier I-Tek, with a ventilation system that extracts air from beneath the slats using fans located outside the shed.
Rachael likes this approach as she feels the pigs are disturbed by the constant noise of the ceiling-mounted fans used in the existing sheds. She recently visited France to see an I-Tek unit in action and was impressed.
She generally aims for a five-year payback on any major investment.
Rachael has had a problem with ileitis in the pigs, an inflammation of the gut caused by bacteria.
She has used antibiotics to treat this, but is concerned about the global problem of growing antibiotics resistance and is experimenting with vaccination.
She is keen to continue improving her business, and is part of a local benchmarking group of about 30 pig farmers who meet in Exeter every three months.
Having achieved so much already in her relatively short career in pigs, Rachael is clearly one to watch for the future.
Peels Farm, Attleborough, Norfolk
Based in the gently undulating Norfolk countryside west of Attleborough, Graham is a highly successful contract pig rearer and finisher.
This thoughtful, innovative and tenacious farmer has built a thriving and expanding “bed and breakfast” business that delivers strong results in the face of considerable challenges – not least the tough environmental constraints imposed by the presence of several sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) around his farm.
Graham was not born into the pig business – or even in Norfolk. He grew up in Hertfordshire, but his family moved to Norfolk when he was 17.
He began mucking out pigs for a local farmer and quickly decided that pigs were where his future lay.
After marrying local girl Susan, whose father ran Peels Farm, Graham persuaded his new father-in-law to let him start up a pig business on the site in the early 1980s.
The judges liked
- Innovative approaches to solve problems
- Treats pigs as if they are his own
- Tenacity in the face of environmental challenges
- A family business that is growing with the family
Today, 1,500 7kg piglets arrive on the farm every three weeks. They are kept outdoors in tents until they reach 45kg, when they are moved into straw pens in a separate finishing unit.
When the piglets come off the lorry, Graham sizes them into three groups: large, medium and smalls. The two bigger groups get dry feed while the smalls are put on special piglet gruel to speed up their weight gain.
Graham has worked with his supplying breeder to improve the quality of the pigs that arrive on his farm.
For example, he has just arranged that his supplier will keep back the smalls for a couple of extra weeks to get them stronger before sending them on.
He drills meadow grass on the land with the weaner tents. “It helps to firm up the pigs’ stools when they arrive,” he explains.
On the finisher side, Graham used to house pigs in pens of 80. However, he has now moved to smaller pens, with 30 or 40 pigs, as he find this leads to a more stable group hierarchy. “There is less riding, fighting and aggression,” he says.
The farm is run as a family business. Graham’s brother-in-law looks after the arable side while his son and son-in-law work with him on the pigs and his daughter looks after the books. Wife Susan, meanwhile, has built up successful boarding kennels on the farm site.
Five years ago the pig operation was only half its current size. His son and son-in-law expressed an interest in coming into the business and Graham saw the opportunity to expand the venture, with two new steel-framed buildings each housing 800 finishers.
- 200ha arable and pig farm with a boarding kennels
- 3,200 outdoor weaners and 3,200 finishers on straw
- Separate 4,500-head capacity weaner unit
Making the expansion happen was no easy matter. First, the plan took the farm above the threshold that requires a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR – formerly known as IPPC). And second, the farm is surrounded by SSSIs, so the expansion had to meet even stricter environmental limits.
One challenge was limiting ammonia emissions. After a fact-finding visit to Holland and Belgium, Graham decided to go for forced ventilation in one of the new buildings, with fans sucking air out of the roof to be replaced by fresh air drawn in through inlet valves in the walls – all controlled by computer to maintain a suitable temperature.
Ejecting the air upwards from the top of the building ensures the ammonia disperses to acceptable levels before it reaches the ground.
The buildings are designed to be used on slats, but Graham decided to stick with straw. To make mucking out easier he has come up with his own design for the pens, 20 of which run from side-to-side across each building.
Gates at either end of each pen can be swung across to restrict the pigs to the central section, leaving a corridor running the entire length of the building on each side that can be mucked out using a telehandler. Graham reckons both buildings can be mucked out in just 45 minutes.
The novel building design has attracted the attention of AHDB Pork, which has set up a web of sensors to monitor the emissions.
Graham has also turned his eye for innovation to the weaner side of the business. Water for the weaners has been delivered via IBC water tanks, one for each tent, but this led to problems with algae growing in the tanks. So he is now moving to pipe water directly from a header tank on a sled that can be pulled across the field when the tents are moved between batches.
Graham’s innovation and focus on improving performance has won the trust of his contract customer, Wayland Farms, which recently asked him to take on the management of a further 4,500 weaners in tents from 7-45kg on a site adjacent to Peels Farm.
His investment in expanding his operations, his innovative approach to overcoming challenges and the way he treats the pigs in his care as if they were his own have all helped to build a strong business that can support the future of his growing family.
Lazyfold, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Our rigorous judging process was no sweat for Aberdeenshire pig producer Danny Skinner. He is used to having outsiders poring over his performance numbers and looking round his farm.
For the past three years, his 440-sow farrow-to-finish business has been a monitor farm for Quality Meat Scotland, sharing data with other local pig farmers and hosting them on-site on a regular basis.
The judges liked
- Effective investment in the business
- Detailed monitoring of performance
- Strong performance numbers
Danny has also been one of Farmers Weekly’s Farmer Focus writers since 2013, sharing his experiences each month with our readers in print and online.
Over the past five years, through investment in new infrastructure and meticulous monitoring of key herd statistics, Danny has driven up output, pushed down costs and improved his herd health.
The family business was started by Danny’s father, Dan, who bought the farm in 1962. He started rearing pigs in 1972 as a multiplier unit selling breeding gilts, but in 1984 he moved into commercial pig production.
Danny joined the business full-time when he returned from college and expanded the herd from 300 sows to its current size.
Over the past four years Danny has overseen a major investment programme that has made significant improvements to the business.
He has replaced virtually all of his weaner and finisher buildings, moving from straw to slats, introduced new wet feeding systems and built a new slurry store.
The weaner building, built with the support of a 40% Scottish Rural Development Programme grant, has 14 pens with up to 120 pigs in each – sized, but not sexed.
Danny’s new wet feed system for his weaners phase-feeds them through four diets. From 12kg onwards the feed is mixed on farm, with fresh feed mixed on demand to meet the needs of each pen. Weaners get 15 feeds a day, from 6am to 11pm.
Danny is experimenting with different regimes for the smallest 10% of his weaners, which have enabled them to catch up with the rest of the batch by the time they reach market weight.
The change in building and feed has improved his weaner feed conversion ratio (FCR) from 1.7 to 1.4, helping to bring down the average time to slaughter by 14 days. “The new building has paid back the investment in three years,” he says.
The 2,400-capacity naturally ventilated grower/finisher building also has a wet feed system. As with the new weaner building, Danny has moved from straw to slats, but not without some reluctance. “I would keep my finishers on straw if I could make a profit,” he admits.
- 130ha owned plus 50ha rented
- Farrow-to-finish business
- 440 breeding sows
- Winter barley, winter wheat and spring barley
Danny grows much of his own feed, planting winter barley, winter wheat and spring barley. After buying 50ha that came up for sale recently, he now owns 130ha and rents a further 50ha.
“I would like to buy more land to become more self-sufficient in cereals and to take more of our slurry,” he says.
While he was putting up the new buildings, Danny took the opportunity to go for a partial depopulation. “We got rid of everything except for the breeding herd,” he explains. “We then medicated the remainder for one month and then bred back up to numbers.”
As a result, the herd is now entirely free of enzootic pneumonia and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. The full effects of the depopulation have yet to feed through, but Danny is confident this will help drive further improvements in FCR and mortality.
Apart from the hospital unit, Danny does not use in-feed antibiotics, and the high health of his herd means he is only vaccinating piglets for PCV2.
Danny has used electronic tags supplied by ScotEID to track growth rates of individual finishers, weighing them at regular intervals.
He is about to embark on a monitoring project using improved, high-frequency tags. He hopes to persuade his local slaughterhouse in Brechin to fit a tag reader on the slaughter line so he can add kill data to his monitoring programme.
Danny compares his data with that of other pig producers, chairing a local benchmarking group, which meets twice a year.
All of Danny’s pigs are sold through Scottish Pig Producers (SPP), the local marketing group, which last year teamed up with neighbouring co-op Scotlean to buy the Brechin slaughterhouse.
Danny recently joined the board of SPP, giving him the opportunity to build a better understanding of the pork supply chain.
For the past five years Danny has been running a 70kW wind turbine to generate green energy, cutting his power bills. Last year he added a biomass burner fuelled by wood pellets to heat the farrowing rooms, replacing oil burners.
The next generation of Skinners is already getting involved in the farm – Danny’s son Daniel is working alongside the three full-time staff and is enthusiastic about the business.
Thanks to Danny’s investment, innovation, careful planning and focus on driving up performance metrics, it looks as if Daniel will have a thriving pig operation to take over when the time comes.
Pig Farmer of the Year is run in association with Pig Progress.
“These three excellent finalists have all made significant progress in pig production, which is what Pig Progress is all about. As a global sister title to Farmers Weekly, we are proud to be associated with the UK’s most progressive pig farmers.”
Vincent ter Beek, Editor