8 March 2002

Small pig units retail arm keeps wolf from the door

Pig production is notorious for its volatility in France, as

much as anywhere else. But on his latest visit to Le Mont

Hardy, Philip Clarke discovered even small units can pay

IN more than 30 years of keeping pigs at Le Mont Hardy in central Normandy, the enterprise has never ended the year in the red.

"The unit is deliberately small and fits in neatly with the rest of our mixed farming system," says English partner John Lee. "Cereals and peas are grown on 34ha of registered arable land and the unit shares equipment with our larger dairy enterprise.

"In theory, 42 sows should not really be viable. But the system is simple and our overheads are low and we are, therefore, able to tighten our belts when the market dictates."

Those demands are being felt now, with French pig prices running at fractionally over k1/kg (61p) deadweight in January, about 25% down on a year ago. As elsewhere in Europe, the market slump has followed a rise in pig numbers in response to the BSE and foot-and-mouth problems affecting other livestock sectors.

But at least returns at Le Mont Hardy exceed the national average, reflecting the better quality on offer.

The last batch of 38 finished pigs sold to the local Co-operative Agriculture Mayennaise achieved a group average k1.13/kg (69p), or k105/pig (£64) at an average carcass weight of 93kg.

This was made up of a basic price of k1.039/kg (63.4p), topped up with bonuses on those animals yielding over 55% muscle and with a carcass weight below 100kg.

The abattoir also pays a small quality assurance premium under the Viande Porcine Francais (French Pigmeat) initiative, worth about k1.62/pig (99p). All the stock at Le Mont Hardy is fully traceable, with detailed records kept on parentage, rations and medication.

Mr Lee admits that herd performance figures are a bit low by UK standards, with each sow producing just over 20 surviving piglets/year.

But the 830 pigs finished every 12 months are normally sold in larger batches – anything less than 50 incurs higher haulage charges – and leave the farm about once a month.

"We breed all our own replacement gilts to match our 23% culling rate. We select about 12 of the best of our 42 sows and use AI on them to produce Large White/Landrace crosses."

Feed is predominantly cereal-based – home-grown wheat, barley, triticale and peas plus some bought-in soya and minerals. But, as the arable land is converted to organic in tandem with the dairy unit, yields have fallen and more feed grain will have to be bought.

Another consequence is that less straw is produced. All home-grown material now goes to the cows, so pig bedding is bought in.

The older fatteners get their rations dry onto the concrete floor. "We do not push the animals, yet we still achieve a decent margin because our costs are low," says Mr Lee.

Last financial year, for example, total output for the unit came to k112,227 (£68,458), including direct sales, equivalent to k2672/sow (£1630). After feed costs of k1392/sow (£849) and veterinary, bedding and AI charges of k97/sow (£59), gross margin came to k1183/sow (£722), equivalent to k49,686 (£30,308) for the unit.

Additional income is achieved by selling pigmeat direct to the public. Mr Lee and his partners Gilles and Benoit Delaunay have set up a business with a neighbour to sell cuts and processed products through a farm shop.

Trading as Porc Sain – meaning healthy pigs, but also a play on the word porcin, meaning from a pig – the company sells two or three carcasses/week to a small, but regular, clientele.

"We take it in turns to provide the carcasses," says Mr Lee. "The pigs are sent to an abattoir at Vire, 40 minutes away, on a Monday and returned to our local charcuterie in Louge on Wednesday. He cuts the carcasses up and also makes a range of products, including bacon, sausages, pâté and rillettes."

"We sell the pigs from the farm to our retail business for k1.98/kg (£1.19/kg) – almost double what we get from the co-op," says Mr Lee.

"The meat is then sold through the shop at prices ranging from k3.2/kg (£1.95) for a side to k12.2/kg (£7.44) for a smoked ham. This retail margin means the shop breaks even." &#42