The long-awaited upturn in pig prices looks to have arrived at Dowrich. But its going to be a long, slow haul back to profit, as Tim Relf reports   FARM FACTS
  • A 235ha (580-acre) family farm in mid-Devon, run by Anthony Lee, his father Michael and his brothers, Roger and Christopher
  • Dairy herd of 220 Holstein Friesians averaging 5800 litres a year
  • Outdoor pigs reared from 220 sows
  • Potatoes grown on the farm and on rented land
  • Strong emphasis on co-operative marketing
  • PIGS are a long way from making money. But, as Anthony Lee says, at least they are now losing a bit less.

    The end of October price, after deductions, was 59p/kg dw, marking a 5p rise from the late August low point. “Recovery certainly hasnt been as fast as we originally expected,” says Anthony. “The £1/kg figure, once thought likely to return by Christmas, still seems a million miles away. At this rate, well be lucky to get back to 80p/kg by then.”

    But the market will continue to contract, with a number of farmers yet to leave the industry. For many, unfortunately, its merely been a case of “postponing the inevitable”.

    “Many producers – though losing money hand-over-fist – have not been able to afford to leave the business, with breeding and cull stock values so low.” Dowrich culls, for example, have been down as low as £30; a far cry from October 1996 when a batch of three made £171 apiece.

    With finished prices hopefully heading out of the trough – and breeding and weaner prices still at rock-bottom levels – it would be a sensible time to expand, says Anthony.

    Over-capacity

    The trouble is, Dowrich is already running at over-capacity and the aim is to reduce the breeding herd by 20. “Were trying to reduce sow numbers – its not the time of year to have too many. The weather, the lack of daylight – everything – is against us.” And with this in mind, the strict culling policy continues, with bigger, clumsier sorts being targeted.

    The rolling replacement policy has to continue, however, though fewer gilts have been sourced. The latest batch cost £120 apiece.

    “They are smaller, take up less space and easier to manage than the big sows,” says Anthony. “Theyll be served at the end of December, farrow in April and, by the time their offspring are sold next October, prices should have recovered a lot more.”

    Meanwhile the policy of shaving away at costs continues, and no area has escaped scrutiny. With the farms feed bill about £15,000 in October, this is a key area. But short-term measures are not necessarily the answer.

    “You have to keep doing what you did in the good times – or perhaps do it better. Changing rations might mean a short-term saving but in the long-term it probably wont. The pigs might just eat more and grow more slowly. You cant after all, get your money at both ends.”

    Some savings in the feed bill were made by putting sows on stockfeed potatoes. That saved about 1577 sow feeding days.

    Soggy season

    Meanwhile about a quarter of the potatoes are still to be lifted, with wet weather the main limiting factor. More than six inches of rain fell in one week alone at the end of October, leaving the job a heavy, muddy one. At times, two tractors were required – one to pull the potato lifter and one to pull that tractor out of the mud.

    Prospects for the enterprise remain good, though, with the June 1999 futures market pitching values at more than £300/t. “I like the sound of that,” says Anthony.

    But the longer the crop stays in the wet ground, the more risk there is. “Skin finish will deteriorate, rain could wash soil away leading to greening. Theres the risk of slugs and, as time passes, more severe frost damage. Im not panicking yet – weve had them in the ground until March.”

    The enterprise should go some way to helping balance Dowrichs books this year, he adds.