Taking the organic plunge
Demand for organic pigmeat
is buoyant, but what does
it take to switch?
Marianne Curtis went to
one Wilts unit to find out.
ORGANIC and conventional pig production is a tale of two industries for one Wilts producer. Returns from an organic pig herd he runs on a Wilts unit contrast starkly with those from conventional pigs at home in Dorset.
Will Frost received his first taste of organic production in the early 1990s. Experienced organic arable producer, Nigel Wookey of Rushall Farms, Rushall was keen to introduce outdoor pigs to his 520ha (1300-acre) unit to help build fertility on its chalk soils. Mr Frost stepped into the breech with 400 conventional outdoor sows.
At that time, conventional sows were acceptable on organic units, however, organic rules have recently tightened meaning any animals kept on these units must be organically produced.
To comply with new rules, and in the face of blossoming opportunities for organic pork, Mr Wookey approached Mr Frost in 1996, suggesting the possibility of starting an organic pig herd. He agreed, purchasing 125 Ham-pen – Hampshire x Landrace-gilts.
Ham-pens were selected because of their suitability for organic production, explains Mr Frost. "They have good mothering ability, hardiness, hold condition and are prolific.
"They are crossed with a Duroc boar which provides taste and a large eye muscle in the slaughter generation. The variation in breed colours also provides a good organic image," he adds.
In order to be classed as organic, gilts or sows must be fed an organic ration from service then throughout their lives.
"Feed must be at least 85% organic and is bought from a compounder. It currently costs from £260/t compared with conventional feed which costs from £100/t."
Organic rations tend to have a lower energy and protein content than conventional rations because of raw material restrictions. "No GMOs or added fat can be used so rations include wheat, barley and peas. Restricted levels of non-GMO conventional soya are permitted within the 15% non-organic ingredient allowance.
"This reduces the number of rations available with only two different types offered on the unit. The first is a 15.5% protein, 13.5MJ/kg digestible energy, 0.95% lysine lactating sow ration which also doubles as a creep, grower and finisher ration.
"The second is a 15% protein, 13MJ/kg DE, 0.7% lysine ration to dry sows. Only having two rations keeps things simple," he adds.
Getting away with so few rations is possible because pigs are not weaned until eight-weeks-old, removing the need for several creep feeds. "To meet organic standards pigs must be weaned at a minimum of six-weeks-old. However, Ive found that weaning at eight weeks means the transition to total solid feeding is easier."
Mr Frost admits that initially he was concerned that weaning pigs so late would have an adverse effect on sow condition.
"With the conventional outdoor herd I used to wean at three-weeks-old. I was worried weaning later would lead to sows losing too much condition. However, they seem to milk off their back for the first four weeks after farrowing then start to regain condition as piglets begin to eat creep feed."
Few health problems have occurred in the herd and Mr Frost puts this low incidence down to later weaning. "Weaning later means less stress for pigs, meaning they are less susceptible to disease."
Disease is also kept to a minimum by farrowing sows on clean paddocks and leaving pigs in the same paddock they were born in until just before slaughter. However, as with any other unit, there are occasional hiccups.
A grapefruit extract preparation is used to treat occasional scours and Mr Frost resorted to a homeopathic remedy to treat a meningitis outbreak, which seemed to work.
Weaning later also suits sows. "A longer farrowing to service interval means good conception rates. Average number of pigs born alive is 12.5 and sows are rearing 11 pigs a litter. Sows average 20 pigs reared a year." For his conventional herd, number of pigs/sow/year is slightly higher at 22.
Better than expected
Performance of finishing pigs is also better than Mr Frost anticipated. "Pigs take 23 weeks to reach a slaughter weight of 95kg compared with my conventional pigs which take about 20 weeks to reach a similar weight.
"Average daily liveweight gain from weaning to slaughter is 770g/day. Feed conversion ratio is 3.5:1 in winter compared with 3:1 in summer as pigs are using less energy to keep warm."
Pigs are slaughtered at a local abattoir and sold through Eastbrook Farms Organic Meat which offers a fixed price for 12 months. "I am receiving in excess of £2/kg deadweight for pigs which leaves a considerably better margin than the 75p/kg conventional price," he says.
Organic conversion of 100 previously conventional Landrace x Large White sows on the unit – through offering organic feed from service – and purchasing more gilts means there are now 270 sows. He also hopes to start a new enterprise, purchasing organic weaners and taking them through to slaughter.
However, producers tempted to switch to organic production must be aware that it takes time to see returns, warns Mr Frost.
"Taking account of pregnancy and finishing time, it takes about a year of feeding pigs on expensive organic rations before you see any return. Entering into a joint venture with Mr Wookey has helped spread the cost. Acquiring suitable land for organic pigs is also difficult as many organic arable farms tend to be on heavier soils which are unsuitable for pigs." *
• Returns: £2/kg dwt or more.
• Feed from £260/t.
• Land in short supply.
Pigs are finished outdoors and take 23 weeks to reach a slaughter weight of 95kg, says Will Frost.
Below: A longer farrowing to service interval means good conception rates. Sows are averaging 20 pigs reared a year.