10 May 2002

Pigs provide profit with

ham to die for

FIGHTING bulls may provide the glamour at El Romeral, but it is the pigs that provide the profit.

As on most "dehesa" farms, pig production is an extensive occupation, designed to meet the criteria for the all-important Bellota ham certificates.

It is a slow and meticulous process. Most pigs are slaughtered at 16 months, spending the last five months of their lives feeding exclusively on "bellota" (acorns) from the indigenous "encina" (oak) trees.

These drop their fruit, with a little help from a man with a stick, from October to February. As such, the 368 Iberico sows are managed to farrow in the late summer/early autumn, so their piglets are ready for feeding on the acorns a year later.

A second batch of spring-born piglets is also reared, though these have to be finished on stored acorns – plus some concentrates – and only qualify as second grade "recebo" pigs, commanding a lower price.

Birth rates and feed conversion factors bear no comparison to standard UK figures. Each sow produces just seven or eight piglets/litter, with only half of these making it to the weaner stage at 30-40 days old.

Weight gain is also slow because the animals are only fed a maintenance ration based on home-milled maize, barley, wheat and soya, plus whatever they can forage.

At one year old, the pigs weigh approximately 90kg. But by the time they have gorged themselves on acorns five months later they are up to about 160kg.

The pigs are rotated around the farm to preserve the pasture and they all have rings fitted to their snouts to prevent them rooting too hard. Typically, they eat about 8kg of acorns/day.

The finished pigs are sold direct to processors, such as Sanchez Romero Carvajal, Revilla and Micsa. These groups, who pride themselves on the quality of their air-dried hams, all have staff on the ground to check that the stringent conditions are being met. As well as on-farm inspections, this involves blood testing to confirm the pigs have been on the right diet.

The hams also enjoy designated origin status, being sold as either Jamon Huelva or Jamon Extremadura.

Last year, about 900 finished pigs met the top Bellota grade, fetching up to k2.36/kg (£1.44) liveweight. Total production costs, including labour and housing, was put at k1.05/kg (64p), leaving a net margin of k1.31/kg (80p).

That was equivalent to a profit of k209/finished pig (£128) or close to k1000/sow (£615) after deducting sow costs.

At this level of profitability, it is tempting to expand the pig unit further. Based on the available land and the number of trees, El Romeral has a quota for up to 600 sows. But the enterprise has to fit in with the fighting bulls, so any further growth will be in the farms unused indoor units.

Looking for acorns – Iberico pigs know whats good for them.

&#8226 Located one hour to north west of Seville.

&#8226 3500ha at around 900m.

&#8226 Owned by local businessman.

&#8226 Managed by D&C.

&#8226 300 days plus of sunshine.

&#8226 Main activities – fighting bulls, Iberico pigs, indoor lambs.

&#8226 Four indoor pig units for 1000 pigs.

&#8226 Own bull ring.

&#8226 24 employees.

&#8226 Average wage = k900 (£550) a month.

&#8226 Home mill-and-mix unit.

&#8226 Commercial hunting (boar and deer).