• Kevin Gilbert
  • Kintore, Aberdeen

Keeping marketing options open and working with processors is a strategy for survival in the Scottish pig market for producer Kevin Gilbert.

Having taken over the family-run 280-sow unit after the sudden death of his father, Jim, Kevin returned home to develop what is now the 485ha (1200-acre) unit at Womblehill, Kintore. Expansion of the sow herd sees it number 450 head plus progeny.

But heavy reinvestment in indoor facilities was not without complications. The pig price crash of the late 1990s had a long-lasting effect on the business – a factor common to all this year’s Farmers Weekly Awards pig finalists. “Scotland has a different market from England, with more opportunities appearing to be south of the border,” says Kevin.

That aside, Kevin works with what he’s got. Technical performance is in good order in the breeding herd, with records showing an average conception rate of 92% and 25.5 piglets born alive a sow a year.

“We sell 200 pigs a week, with 80 going to Scotch Premier at Inverurie and 120 to Grampian for bacon,” he says. Of those taken by Scotch Premier, about two-thirds go at a lighter weight than baconers destined for butchery trade for a premium over the published DAPP.

Cull sows are handled through Scottish Pig Producers, of which Kevin is a member, and usually head south to England for processing.

Direct selling has been considered to improve margins, he adds. “We have producers in the area already doing it and, in my mind, it would be treading on toes. My approach is to work with processors and make the best of what we sell.”

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Kevin has been a strong supporter of the Scottish pig sector, appearing as a soloist on the record “Stand by your ham” and visiting local schools with his “countryside classroom on wheels”.

That aside, the practicalities of pig production persist. With a total pig population approaching 5000 head, the farm’s arable area supplies 25% of the unit’s total dietary requirement for cereals and oilseed. The rest is bought from local farms where possible.

An on-farm feed mill provides most diets. “Pigs eat 260t of feed each month,” he says. “Most ingredients are bought in and I try to buy forward – anything up to a year ahead.”

Helping contain costs, the unit is often self-sufficient in straw, aided by muck-for-straw agreements with neighbours, with 2007 being the exception.

Four full-time staff help Kevin manage the unit. Three more help run the 200-cow spring-calving suckler herd and arable acreage.

A local vet is used for specific pig health advice. In a proactive move, Kevin works with researchers and feed manufacturers to help test products before they are released to the wider pig sector. “It’s good to see what’s in the pipeline,” he adds.

Further expansion has not been ruled out. “The immediate aim has to be to improve efficiency, particularly in the finishing herd, to drive down costs,” he says. “That has to be our focus.”