28 August 1998

High welfare, healthy future?

By Simon Wragg

COMPLETE depopulation after an outbreak of swine dysentery in 1991 gave one Suffolk producer the chance to start an outdoor system based on high welfare.

But with pig prices in free-fall what is its future?

That is the question facing Mark Haywood, who runs a 790-sow outdoor herd at Ashmoor Hall Farm, Wickham Market. The unit is FABPigs registered and awaiting RSPCA Freedom Foods registration. Having gone down the high cost/high welfare route, its future looks uncertain.

"No pig producer should feel alone in this crisis," says Mr Haywood. "Even efficient units are feeling the squeeze. We have all been duped by retailers, but we must work together to find a way out."

Rebuilding a business is not uncommon to Mr Haywood. After the swine dysentery outbreak all sows were moved outdoors and a new unit developed on high welfare practice. "I felt it was the right way to go, despite there being no premiums available as an incentive."

The unit is based on a three-site production system. Sows are served indoors, AI being used exclusively, with three high genetic boars forming the AI stud. This costs less than maintaining the high numbers needed for natural service, says Mr Haywood, and avoids the compromise between boar choice and durability for outdoor production.

Farrowed outside, weaned progeny move to a nursery site at about 6.7kg liveweight. Like all areas of the unit it is operated on a strict all-in/all-out system. At 30kg lw pigs are divided to indoor and outdoor tent finishing housing. All are taken to 96kg lw in deep litter straw yards.

"It is a welfare-friendly system with a high health status, what the retailers have been looking for."

It is also relatively high cost, but some outdoor costs have been brought down to the level typical of indoor units. For example, replacement gilts are bred from grandparent breeding stock – a saving of £50 a head on bought-in gilts.

"We also benefit from introducing gilts at 30kg lw rather than 95kg; it builds up better immunity," he says. Evidence of this can be found in blood samples for both enzootic pneumonia and Blue Ear. Taken quarterly, these have show sows as EP+ and gilts as EP-.

But despite high disease and welfare status, and its effect on pig performance, contract pigs are losing £18 a head and spot price pigs £20 a head or more. That adds up to a loss of £4500 a week for the 17,500 pigs finished annually by the family partnership – A Haywood & Son.

"We have a break-even cost of about 90p/kg, similar to indoor units and better than some outdoor herds. Like all producers, we are still 40p/kg short of that break-even point and as an efficient unit there is no potential savings to claw that back," says Mr Haywood.

But he is determined not to be despondent. The UK has the best systems in the world, which means there has got to be a future for the industry, he says. Despite financial pressures, Freedom Foods registration will go ahead, requiring a £2000 investment in extra drinkers in the finishing accommodation. "I am confident it is still the right way to go," he says.

Having scoured the market for contracts, some pigs are now sent to a Croydon-based processor who pays a premium for those from high welfare units.

Premiums are a matter of pennies, he adds. They may improve, like market prices, if producers can convince government to impose UK legislation on imports. "It would be illegal for me to use Continental methods of production, meat and bonemeal, and soon it will be illegal to use stalls and tethers, but imported meat reared from those systems can be sold next to mine on the supermarket shelf. A UK ban on certain production methods should be a complete ban."

In the meantime, pig output, grading and prices are being compiled on a database. He hopes to match small variations in quality of pigs finishing from different housing to those of buyers grading and payment performance to improve returns.

A check is also being kept on weight loss during transport, an invisible loss, says Mr Haywood. "We have recorded weights at the farm gate, on arrival at the abattoir, killing out percentages and carcass weights. Losses of 3% have been recorded on journeys of over two hours."

Feed and medicine costs are also under scrutiny. A member of a buying group, he suggests co-operation can achieve feed cost savings in most years. Using two independent vets for health inspection also brings an element of competitive pricing, he reckons.

Despite efforts to cut costs, and achieving 23.5 pigs a sow a year, FCR of 2.25 and daily growth rates of 610g a head for pigs between 6.7kg and 96kg, the prospect of heavy losses is unpalatable.

"It is fortunate we are a mixed unit and there are assets that could be used to support the business. Six months of these prices is all we can stomach. But I am determined to have a future in pigs.

"I believe UK producers are the best in the world. We have proved we are proactive to market demands. Now we must stop retailers chasing cheap imports and make them honour the promise made to consumers.

"Whether efficient or not, producers must realise it is an industry worth fighting for," he says. &#42

ASHMOOR HALL FARM

&#8226 Gilt cost cut by £50 a head.

&#8226 Matching pigs to buyers.

&#8226 Negotiate feed and vet costs.

Outdoor finisher Mark Haywood is determined to have a future in pigs.