14 February 1997

Better housing pays off for pig performance

A better physical performance is the key to an improved financial performance for the pig unit at Dowrich. Philip Clarke reports

EFFORTS to improve pig production efficiency at Dowrich are paying off, with margins holding steady in the face of higher feed costs.

In the past eight months Anthony Lee has waged a two-prong attack on the finishing unit to help raise performance.

The first priority was to rest and clean the fattening yards and buildings, which normally carry 3300 pigs a year through to bacon weight.

A "hole" was created in the production cycle last summer by selling about 200 weaners and moving other young pigs into spare cattle sheds while the dairy herd was out at pasture.

"Originally we had intended to sell a lot more weaners, but we found that, while there was good demand, people were also looking for a long-term supply commitment which we could not offer," explains Anthony.

Starting with the bungalows and kennels, which take weaners in groups through to 20kg, and then moving forward to cover the straw yards and first and second stage finishing units, the housing was steam-cleaned and repaired. Concrete floors were patched up, rusted metal barriers replaced with breeze block walls and the drinking and feeding pipework upgraded.

Total cost for the operation is estimated at about £10,000. "But it is work that had to be done to help improve the health status of the finishing herd."

The second part of the strategy was to start a regular programme of vaccination for pneumonia, using recently introduced vaccine, Stellamune Mycloplasma. Piglets are injected twice – once at one week old and again at weaning – for a total cost of £1.33 a pig. "Its a hassle to do, but is money well spent," says Anthony.

The effect on growth rates has been spectacular. "We had anticipated a gap in pig sales by September or October, even though we had been selling some at lighter weights than normal to keep cash flow going and maintain the gap in the cycle.

"But the treated pigs coming through the clean housing caught up fast with the older pigs already in the system and in some cases overtook them. We never actually ran out of pigs to sell," says Anthony.

Proof that the new policy is working comes from the monthly PigPlan costings provided by MLC Signet, the most recent of which track the herd to the end of Dec 1996.

In terms of average daily liveweight gain, results for the rearing and finishing herds combined for the three months to December came to 566g/day, compared with 491g/day for the same period of 1995. The six-month rolling figure shows a similar improvement at 546g/day compared with 513g/day (see graph).

And in terms of feed conversion efficiency, the total herd recorded a ratio of 2.16 in the last three months of 1996, compared with 2.76 for the same period in 1995. The six-month figure to Dec 1996 was also better at 2.40 compared with 2.78 in 1995.

"These figures show we are winning the battle against pneumonia and moving the business in the right direction," says Anthony.

Further evidence of this is seen on the financial side. The key measure of cost a kg liveweight gain for the three months to Dec 1996 stood at 39.23p, compared with 42.3p the year before. The significance of this achievement is put into context by looking at feed costs, which rose by £30/t over the same period to average £182/t.

This has now levelled off, observes Anthony, as the benefits of the collapse in grain prices since harvest filter through. The strength of sterling seems to have made little difference to the cost of imported proteins, however, which is a source of frustration. Overall, feed costs peaked in October at £186/t, falling to £175/t in December.

But that does little to ease the pressure on margins as pig prices have dropped faster and for longer, and show no sign of improving in the medium term. The average price for the last three months of 1996 at Dowrich came to 119p/kg dw, compared with 137p/kg for the year as a whole.

So far, margins have held steady, at about £35-£37 a pig sold throughout 1996. This compared with £30 a pig in 1995.

But latest projections from the Meat and Livestock Commission suggest an average value of 110p/kg dw for the first half of 1997 – 30p/kg down on 1996 – with a larger year-on-year drop in store for the second half.

"The closure of the Japanese market is just one factor putting pressure on prices," says Anthony. "Strong currency is also making imports more competitive. And we are not the only ones using the new pneumonia vaccines. If other people have had the same production response there will be a lot more pork on the market in the coming months."

As such, Anthony sees tougher times ahead for the pig unit at Dowrich. "It is just as well we took the measures when we did. Now we must maintain that improved performance."

In this endeavour, he has recently invested in four second-hand Cosikennels at a cost of £500 each to give the weaners a better start. And he has also bought six Newsham Lean Machines for feeding the growers in the straw yards. These are gradually replacing the old plastic hoppers and cut down on feed wastage, making a further contribution to protecting margins.n

Anthony Lee feeds the sows before rounding up some of the weaners.


FARM FACTS


&#8226 A 235ha (580-acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher.

&#8226 Dairy herd of 252 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year.

&#8226 Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows.

&#8226 Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land.

&#8226 Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing.