14 September 2001

Police called in after pig unit staff stage walk-out

Harvest results have been overshadowed by

a crisis on the pig units where staff quit ahead

of a stock count. Simon Wragg reports

TROUBLE has been brewing on the pig units at Cansdale and Westfield for several weeks. Rumours had circulated among staff that performance checks were looming as output – exacerbated by pig wasting disease (PMWS) – slipped. As a result, four of the 11 pig staff left.

Trouble initially flared with the introduction of new, experienced staff to the pig team. "Some felt they were under scrutiny and went. With their departure Im concerned that trust has been abused," says owner John Sleightholme.

"It appears pig numbers dont stack up. Weve had reports of disturbances on units at night but whether that means pigs have been illegally removed weve yet to establish. The police have been informed." A full stock-take is being carried out, he adds.

The implications are far reaching. As well as lost revenue, the business may be suffering higher losses to PMWS than had previously been thought. Westfield Farms 320-sow unit had reduced deaths by half to 12%; Cansdales 450-sow unit was still running at 25%. The new 600-gilt unit – rented from a local producer – remains unaffected.

Any disparity in performance results will add pressure to margins, which currently stand at 2p/kg deadweight. If this has been eroded the desire to fund refurbishments and repayment programmes will have been jeopardised.

"Although the stock count will be revealing, the immediate priority has been to get new staff. Some adverts have been better than others and it looks like we could be running just one man down by the end of the month," explains Mr Sleightholme.

The on-going refurbishment programme at Cansdale and Westfield should help improve working conditions in the tired buildings. New muck barrows, scoops and brushes have also been bought for each house reducing legwork and improving bio-security.

Mr Sleightholme is now questioning his role in managing the pig units. "Ive spread myself too thin recently. So much time is tied in the office dealing with paperwork – more since the arrival of foot-and-mouth – Ive failed to monitor whats happening elsewhere. Perhaps thats the price of trust?"

Weekly stock checks will now be carried out from the main office. Mr Sleightholme also intends to spend more time on the units to oversee stock performance and consult staff face-to-face. "We need to work as a team," he says.

With so much at stake it is little wonder that the pig crisis has overshadowed harvest results, despite their promise.

During a catchy harvest, arable contractor JSR moved swiftly into wheat and obtained a safe milling sample albeit at a slightly higher moisture level than planned. Malacca taken at 16.5% moisture had a specific weight of 77.6kg/hl, Hagberg of 252 and a protein of 12.33% – safely within the required parameters.

"Its the yields which have been the real surprise," says Mr Sleightholme. "Weve achieved 4t/acre in some fields which is a good result for this farm. Taking in the gravel soils we still averaged a respectable 3.6t/acre for the milling wheat which is now in store at Westfield Farm."

Samples have been taken by Gleadell Agriculture, which will market the crop in conjunction with JSR after a nationwide picture of the wheat harvest has emerged.

"The Equinox feed wheat did best of all, averaging 4.1t/acre but with small pockets sending the combine yield meter well over 5t/acre where wed applied slurry in spring. It at least supports our current thinking that feed wheat could be a better income-earner than pursuing milling varieties," he adds.

Having lost a vining contract, all eyes were on the replacement pea crop grown for seed. Yields of 3.2t/ha (1.3t/acre) set a good tempo and quality tests will hopefully see a £100/t premium achieved over a spot price of £80/t. "It should compensate for losing vining peas which generated a margin of £169.72/acre last year against a budget of £192/acre," he says.

Three questions remained unanswered. Winter beans (variety Target) have had maturity delayed by a fungicide programme aimed at combating chocolate spot and downy mildew. A desiccant may now be used and all eyes will be on quality as the crop had been pencilled in for seed – essential to boost arable income.

Spring oilseed rape drilled in difficult conditions on the old outdoor pig site at Cansdale also remains an unknown quantity. Swathed last week, JSRs combines are poised to move in when weather allows.

Finally, test digs to assess the quality of this years crop of Saturna crisping potatoes are also eagerly awaited. Yield digs suggest 34t/ha (13.7t/acre) will be available for marketing having allowed 15% for in-store weight loss and grade outs.

"Given the season weve been through the results so far look surprisingly good," says Mr Sleightholme.

It has been a year since farmers weekly first visited Cansdale and Mr Sleightholme is resigned to the fact that some elements of the business have made little progress.

From the outset, keeping staff on the pig units was a problem – as have been the difficult trading conditions. "Who can believe with the weekly kill under 200,000 head were still forced to accept under £1/kg deadweight?" &#42

FARM FACTS

&#8226 Westfield and Cansdale Farm, a 140ha (350 acre) largely arable unit on the east of the Yorks Wolds, farmed by John Sleightholme and his mother, Elizabeth. Both units are family-owned.

&#8226 The land is mainly chalk-based loam with small areas of underlying clay and gravel.

&#8226 Main arable crop is winter wheat. Potatoes and vining peas are also grown.

&#8226 All arable duties contracted out to neighbouring estate. Family buys inputs and decides where produce sold.

&#8226 Three indoor pig herds of 270, 330 and 600 sows selling progeny via contract finishers to local processors.

&#8226 A 30,000 broiler enterprise rearing birds from chicks through to 7.75lb liveweight. Sold to supermarkets via Grampian Country Foods.

&#8226 Farm staff of 11 on pigs and one man on broiler unit.