9 March 2001

Rising pig herd causes concern

Only three months after

swine fever movement

restrictions were lifted, pigs

at Hoe Hall are once again

confined to barracks.

Robert Harris reports

PIG numbers are building at Hoe Hall due to MAFFs decision to stop livestock movements following the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The economic impact will be less than that caused by recently lifted swine fever control measures, following the decision to shut down the conventional herd. But James Keith is still facing a serious cash flow crisis on his offlying outdoor organic unit.

"We aim to sell about 95 pigs a week, each worth about £150. Thats over £14,000 in lost sales alone. With the cost of extra accommodation – pig arcs, fencing – plus extra labour, we could be looking at total of well over £15,000 a week."

The main hope is that sales can resume soon under MAFFs limited marketing scheme announced at the end of last week. At the time of writing, Mr Keith was still waiting to hear whether his pigs, which go direct to Dalehead Foods in Cambs, would be eligible.

But no notice of a movement licence had been received by Tuesday. "It seems that the whole world knows about restrictions being lifted, apart from MAFF offices." However, being Waitroses sole organic pig supplier, he remained hopeful that he would be moving pigs later this week.

"We must be one of the most traceable supply chains in the market. But the longer we have to wait, the less money I am eventually going to be able to recoup. Pigs are already getting fat. We aim to sell at 70-75kg, but it only takes 10 days for them to reach 85kg, which is the largest Dalehead can handle. It may take gilts at conventional prices over that, but anything heavier than 95kg will be turned down and could cost up to £100 a pig in lost revenue."

Having such a limited outlet could also cause problems when restrictions are lifted. "We obviously tailor our output to match Waitrose stores requirements. There is a limit to how many pigs it can take. Its shops cannot suddenly shift masses of organic pork and bacon, so we may have to carry extra pigs for some time."

If, as suspected, the outbreak is traced to pigswill, Mr Keith believes heads should roll. "We are, quite rightly, not allowed to feed meat and bonemeal any more. Why on earth can people continue to feed swill? A pork pie could easily contain contaminated imported meat, and end up being fed to pigs. Yet the government has still not brought in legislation. I think it is negligent."

As things stand, Mr Keith will not receive any cash aid from government to offset losses caused by the movement ban. The £152m of agrimoney compensation announced will go to the dairy, beef and sheep sectors.

"Extra money is always welcome, but the government should not try and wrap it up as a special gift. UK farmers were due this cash anyway, to offset the effects of the strong £. Its all political spin, and the poor old pig farmer once again ends up with nothing."

He is not anticipating further financial help. "Im a realist. I cant sit here and convince my bank manager that I am going to get a windfall. The governments track record is not exactly convincing. But it sticks in the throat a bit – the EUs contingency fund is now almost empty after it compensated Dutch farmers for swine fever."

Other staff besides the pigmen are also busy at Hoe Hall, ploughing 31ha (76 acres) of bean ground. Fields were almost fit to drill when it rained again.

About 35ha (86 acres) of sugar beet ground has also been ploughed, and drilling is expected to start after the weekend.

Staff have also been busy with Countryside Stewardship Scheme work. £9800 is available this year, and is being put to good use. Progress is being made with hedge coppicing. About 500m is being tackled, as last year, and 6500 hedging plants will also be put in.

A further 140 trees are also being established each side of a road that bisects the farm to create an avenue. New wet meadows will be established on some heavier land, and will be sown in the next few weeks when soils allow.

Mr Keith is still waiting for markets to move up before starting to sell next seasons grain and oilseed rape. New crop futures for November eased £1/t last week, making ex-farm feed wheat worth about £72/t.

"The underlying fundamentals – world demand and likely erosion of stocks – are still strong. And, if we are only going to harvest about 12-13m tonnes of wheat in the UK, we are not going to be exporters of feed grain, and it seems we will be importers of milling wheats."

But, he adds, there is no way of getting away from the issue of the moment. "One of the big unknowns is how many animals will be left to eat our grain?"

Pig numbers are rising, and a licence to move finished stock is needed urgently to avoid big cash flow problems, says James Keith.

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Swanton Morley Farms, based near Dereham, Norfolk, is an 890ha (2200 acres) largely arable unit managed as a family partnership by James Keith, his wife Victoria, and mother Penelope.

&#8226 Arable crops cover 90% of the unit. Wheat grown on medium sandy loam soil goes as feed. Barley goes for malting. Sugar beet is also grown. A further 182ha (450 acres) is contract farmed locally.

&#8226 The farm also runs a 300-sow organic pig herd. A 26-cow suckler herd grazes parkland.

&#8226 A number of cottages are let.

&#8226 Farm staff of 7.