19 May 2000

Tough decision, but conventional pigs have to go

Enough is enough. With pig

prices unlikely to return a

decent profit for some time

to come, the conventional

herd at Hoe Hall is to go.

Robert Harris reports

Enough is enough. With pig

prices unlikely to return a

decent profit for some time

to come, the conventional

herd at Hoe Hall is to go.

Robert Harris reports

CHANGE is never easy, especially when it involves an enterprise which originally held such promise.

Hoe Halls straw-based pig system, which supplied the high-welfare product that supermarket customers were apparently so keen to buy, has instead become the victim of an oversupplied commodity market further pressured by the strong £.

The resulting flood of cheap pigmeat eroded the base price, and premiums never climbed high enough to offset the extra straw and labour costs demanded by the system, which added about 8.5p/kg to production costs, says owner, James Keith. With little sign of improvement, 550 sows and progeny are on their way out, and the last finished pig will leave the farm in the autumn.

It has not been an easy decision, made all the more difficult because four staff will lose their jobs. The first left two weeks ago. "With the £/k continuing to go in the wrong direction, there is no serious light at the end of the tunnel, only a possible passing window," says Mr Keith.

"Along with others in manufacturing, my hard-working pig men are a direct casualty of the governments inability to listen. I feel we can only keep throwing money at the industry for so long, and I have had enough of subsidising customers."

Many others in the pig sector who have "valiantly supported" some contracts will feel the same, he adds, especially as prices are unlikely to rise sufficiently to allow trade and farmers to recover their losses.

"It may just be a case of keeping the patient alive, and only prolonging the inevitable for some. Now the cull price is better, we can trade our way out without too much pain.

"While I am sad to say goodbye to the sows, it is especially hard to let Nick go; he set up the first herd here, and has had to endure some awful conditions and prices in the last few wet winters especially. I am particularly delighted that he has got another job lined up already."

It is a stark contrast to Austria, which Mr Keith recently visited as part of his Nuffield scholarship studies. His trip took in supermarkets and organic pig farms. "I am still puzzled how a family can live on 40ha of organic land, and sell only 25 pigs a month for less than we can produce them for in the UK. I suspect they must be the hidden financial investors of Europe who are selling the k short!"

But pigs will remain part of the portfolio, with Waitrose continuing to take produce from the farms Organic Pig Company, a 140-sow unit based on rented ground on a nearby organic farm.

On the machinery front, following on from our last report, arable manager, Simon Brock, has closed a deal with a local machinery dealer and a new Claas Lexion 480 will replace the farms two John Deere 2266s this harvest.

"One of the most important parts of the deal from our point of view is to be able to insure against breakdowns, and, therefore, have no nasty shocks to the finely balanced cash flow for five years," says Mr Keith. "Our outgoing 25ft machines did seem to run into some frightening repair bills.

"My belief is that we are going down the correct road in reducing the amount of money tied up in farming, so that we can control the risks better. Our machinery fleet is run very tight for a farm this size, at 1.2hp/ha, and we shall increase the use of hired machines or contractors for peak demands."

A more immediate challenge is to keep on top of the spraying. Barley especially grew fast as the warmer weather returned, and awns were emerging quickly last week. First job was to control a flush of poppies, rape and speedwells which escaped autumn treatment, with Starane added where cleavers are a problem.

"The autumn programme was very much based on IPU – I shall have to think again next season," says Mr Brock. The sprayer continued to work long hours to apply growth regulator. "We are very conscious that one 30ft combine will not pick up laid corn as quickly as two 25ft machines."

Attention then switched to wheats, which received a strobilurin/triazole flag leaf spray. &#42

All attention will be focused on the organic pig unit, after James Keiths reluctant decision to quit conventional production at Hoe Hall.

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Swanton Morley Farms, based near Dereham, Norfolk, is a 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 There are two outdoor pig herds; 550-sow conventional and 140-sow organic. Growers are taken to bacon weight in straw yards. A 26-cow suckler herd grazes parkland. Red deer calves are also finished.

&#8226 A number of cottages are let.

&#8226 Farm staff of 12.