3 March 2000

Radio bacon campaign proves five-star winner

By Jeremy Hunt

A HOME-SPUN marketing campaign undertaken by a Lancs pig producer has won him a new market for his pigmeat with a leading hotel chain.

For Philip Kirkham, who produces 200 finished pigs a week from his unit at Lytham, near Blackpool, the deal only just came in time. In a last-ditch attempt to market his way out of the slump in pig prices, he bought air-time on a local radio station to promote his antibiotic-free pigs and welfare friendly system.

The high-profile approach not only won him new customers among local butchers and opened up a contract to supply pigs to a top niche market north-west bacon company, but also convinced the food buyer of the Paramount Group to use Mr Kirkhams bacon in its 22 five-star hotels.

The hotel deal has been struck via catering butchers Clifton Quality Meats, which buys pigs from Mr Kirkham. They were originally supplying them as bacon to Blackpools Imperial Hotel, which is owned by the Paramount Group.

"When I met the hotel chains food buyer he told me there was one meal that 99% of their guests ate and that was breakfast. They wanted to secure a source of the finest quality bacon, produced to high welfare standards and totally traceable," says Mr Kirkham, who was also asked to give a presentation to the hotel groups senior chefs to explain his production system.

Mr Kirkham buys his weaners from one source, preferably weighing 7kg, although some 30kg pigs have been bought more recently. Most are spot traded at 100kg-plus, but the new market supplying local butchers and the hotel deal demands a lighter finishing weight of 73kg.

"It is not easy to get hold of the right type of weaners. Not only must they be bred outdoors to satisfy the market we are supplying but we also feel this type of pig does better on our system."

The unit, run by pig manager Bill Black, sees 7kg three-and-half week old weaners spend three weeks in the indoor starter house before being moved to straw-bedded finishing accommodation, much of which incorporates outdoor yards.

The unit carries about 3800 finishing pigs but has room for 5000, a figure that may be reached this year to meet the developing retail and hotel demand.

A bought-in concentrate is used, but it does not include any antibiotics or growth promoters.

"I do not pretend it has been easy without antibiotics and we did have a blip and got some serious scouring problems. It was only short-term, caused by young pigs having to become accustomed to a feed without the additives, and our mortality rate did deteriorate initially.

"We went from 0.7 to 3% mortality but have now settled at about one. Performance was also affected; it now takes us another two weeks to achieve the same slaughter weight. But if we had not made those changes to our system we would not have been able to market our pigs in the way we have."

Mr Kirkham says he was close to winding up his pig business after making long-term losses as pigmeat prices slumped. He is critical of some of the middle men in the meat industry and says that while some agents are trying hard to help pig producers, there are others who clearly have loyalties elsewhere.

"I wanted to improve the image of my product and try to earn a premium for it. The radio advertising campaign was expensive at £700 a week. It is something that we had a shot at and then backed up with newspaper advertising, but it is paying off," says Mr Kirkham, who is also supplying pigs to north-west curer Michael Slack for his wide range of bacon products produced at Penrith, Cumbria.

About three-quarters of the farms weekly kill of 200 pigs are being spot-traded, but expanding sales to butchers and the hotel groups requirements should soon see that substantially increase.

"I am getting about £53-£55 a pig in my pocket and my break-even point is £55 for a 100kg pig. Cutter pigs weighing 73kg for the hotel and butchers shops are putting £63-£65 a pig in my pocket."

Mr Kirkham says he is fortunate in having a manager who takes care of the day to day running of the unit, enabling him to devote time to marketing and promotion.

"The pig industry is still reeling from low producer prices but I think the national sow herd is fast approaching a situation where it will stabilise. But so many sows have been culled that there could easily be a shortfall.

"We have found it difficult to get a supply contract for the type of weaners we need. I am paying £28 a pig at the moment. I wonder if some weaner suppliers think that things have been pared back so hard that the good times are just around the corner and that is why they are so reluctant to commit themselves to a fixed price?" &#42

PIG MARKETING

&#8226 Bought radio air-time.

&#8226 Newspaper ads followed.

&#8226 New contracts resulted.

A radio marketing campaign has resulted in new markets and better profits, says unit manager Bill Black.