By Wendy Owen
WELL-TRAINED and motivated staff are key to a pig units success and with the industry attracting fewer workers, the need for continuous training of existing staff is crucial.
Agskills was set up in 1999 by 10 commercial pig farming companies to deliver specific training for their 400 employees. This training cannot be matched by any of the colleges, believes training co-ordinator Gerry Brent.
"Our courses are geared towards working people who may be geographically remote from colleges or whose employers are worried about biosecurity risks if they regularly meet up with other people working on farms," he says.
"As a much smaller organisation than colleges, we can react very quickly to changes in the pig industry. We also have the advantage of being able to source expertise from anywhere we think is appropriate.
"When we take on tutors, we are looking for people at the top of their professions, such as specialist pig vets. But they also have to be good communicators," stresses Mr Brent.
Training is largely funded out of the members own pockets, although the group received a start-up grant from the European Social Fund, plus sponsorship from supermarket chain ASDA.
Each member pays an annual membership fee, plus a contribution towards running costs. However, some of the younger employees are also funded by the local skills council under the governments advanced modern apprenticeship scheme.
In some cases, students receive on-farm training, but most go to one of the organisations three centres in the east of England – JSRs Southburn offices in North Yorks and the Cotswold Pig Development site at Rothwell, Lincoln, are regularly used by the group.
Courses are also run in Burton-on-Trent, Staffs, at either Midlands Pig Producers or Mercer Farmings headquarters. A new training programme using premises owned by Bedfordia Farms in Bedford was also opened earlier this year.
Mr Brent points out that the image of agriculture has taken a battering in recent years and there have been problems attracting people to the industry.
"Staff have felt the tremendous economic pressure facing farming and training can help them cope with that pressure and increase their motivation.
"We try to put everything into an economic context, so people can see their role in influencing the farms profitability."
One of Agskills founder members is Paul Hayward, a mixed farmer who runs a 320-sow herd at Cold Harbour Farm, Beverley, East Yorks. He finishes about 7000 pigs a year and employs three full-time staff on the pig unit, which makes him by far the smallest operator in the group.
"Having well-trained and well-motivated staff is fundamental to making my business work," says Mr Hayward.
"In the past, staff training was viewed as something targeted towards new people starting work. But Agskills has just as much interest in helping existing employees develop skills and learn about new technology.
"This scheme is as much an investment in the business as a new feeding system or new housing. I am certain it has saved me money because the unit operates more smoothly and efficiently since training started. Now I have less staff and more pigs than when I joined the group and without training, I believe it would have been a struggle to cope with the extra workload."
Mr Haywards pig unit manager, Ursula Mansfield, has nothing but praise for Agskills courses she has attended. By far the most beneficial was the personal development training, she says.
"I had never managed a team before and the personal development course has made me more confident dealing with people. Other courses, like the service yard management training and the health and safety programme, have provided many tips, allowing me to do my job better and more safely. It has also been great to meet other people who are working with pigs and swap ideas."
As well as training, Agskills is also involved in a collaboration between various sectors of the industry, aiming to produce a series of CD-ROMs for producers, giving advice on good stockmanship and business management. *
Left: Well-trained and motivated staff are fundamental to the success of Paul Haywards unit.
Above: Ursula Mansfield says the personal development training made her more confident
dealing with people.
• In-house training.
• 10 member organisations.
• Courses tailored to students needs.