By Peter Crichton

AS the foot-and-mouth epidemic begins its fifth week, all involved in the UK pig industry and allied trades are facing an uncertain future.

Although the first outbreak was spotted in pigs, since then most of the confirmed cases have been in sheep, many of which are linked to market mixing and movements.

However vets have warned that if the virus gets into the UK herd to any significant degree in pig-dense areas, it could spread like a forest fire.

This is because pigs will expel huge plumes of the virus, which will lead to a stepping-stone downwind pattern of spread.

With most pig producers already operating at much higher bio-security standards than sheep and cattle farmers, their hopes are that the UK herd may be able to avoid widespread infection.

Behind the scenes, the National Pig Association and many other allied organisations are working hard to persuade MAFF to agree to a raft of urgent measures to help the industry weather this crisis.

At an NPA producer group telephone conference last Friday (16 March), a number of pressing issues were discussed.

These included market support measures in the form of private storage aid for pigmeat, welfare slaughter arrangements in restricted areas, pig movements for welfare reasons, the pig industry development scheme, and a Part II outgoers scheme.

The NPAs Stewart Houston said that it hoped to receive assurances from MAFF that some form of private storage scheme might be announced next week.

He also indicated that it looked as though a welfare slaughter scheme along the lines of the one operating in swine fever hit East Anglia last autumn would soon be announced.

However, the maximum government contribution to the scheme was likely to be set at 50 per large pig, and these will be scaled down for lighter weights.

The message from the Minister seems to be that the industry will have to fund any top-up payments from their own resources such as a self-financed disease insurance scheme.

The welfare slaughter scheme is likely to be available to only those producers with stock trapped on farms in infected zones.

Thought also needs to be given to the collapse of the cull sow market. Before the outbreak we had a ready market in Europe for about 90% of all our cull sows and boars.

According to Ray Pilgrim, who runs one of the largest cull sow abattoirs currently open, there is virtually “no home market” for the estimated 1000 tonnes of sow meat available on a weekly basis.

The NPA is pressing for some form of government support to take the surplus sow meat off the market or this may become almost unsaleable.

As a result of the disruption caused to the market by the foot-and-mouth outbreak finished pig prices are falling and meat is piling up in abattoirs and cold stores.

The lack of any export opportunities for shoulder and other manufacturing cuts has driven down the value of pig meat on the home market.

Abattoir pig throughputs are quoted at about 75% of normal due to the extra inspection and other procedures necessary.

Added to this is the large number of pigs now building up in infected areas, which will also hit the market if these zones are lifted.

Current spot quotes are in the 80p-90p/kg range and contract prices are also expected to ease.

Once weaner trading resumes under the proposed “unit to unit” arrangements, store pig prices are also expected to slip, reflecting the poor outlook for finished pigs in the weeks ahead, and are unlikely to maintain the earlier 24/pig plus 50p/kg levels.

Another yellow card for the industry was the disclosure that predictions for the latest pig census will show the national herd at around 575,000 head.

This compares with 778,000 in June 1998 and points to a weekly kill of less than 200,000 head.

This is seen as bad news for producers, abattoirs, hauliers and all involved in the UK pig meat chain.

  • Peter Crichton is a Suffolk-based pig farmer offering independent valuation and consultancy services to the UK pig industry
Foot-and-mouth – confirmed outbreaks
Foot-and-mouth – FWi coverage