This year’s pig farmer finalists hail from three different corners of the UK, each taking a different approach to production. Common to all three is high herd performance, care for their pigs and striving to benefit the wider industry.
Stewartstown, Co Tyrone
Running a pig farm in Northern Ireland is no easy feat, and it is obvious that more than just luck has been at play in keeping Gary Anderson’s business afloat.The pig industry in Northern Ireland can be characterised by lower farmgate prices, higher cost for raw materials and greater disease challenge – all symptoms of a high concentration of livestock farmers.
Managing to survive – and thrive – in such an environment is indicative of disciplined business management. Gary rejoined the family farm full-time after completing a year-long agriculture course from which he graduated top of his class. His induction to pig farming began much earlier, though, helping his father from the time he was able. Gary’s dad ran one of the largest pig units in the country, at the time a 300-sow system near Cookstown, Co Tyrone.
Today Gary has not moved far, with a site just up the road and control of a 900-sow herd. “I had a good base to work from,” he says.
- About 900 sows split over two units
- Operates an all-in, all-out system
- Plans for a new site to increase finishing capacity
Over those 30 years, there has been a trend towards innovation on his farm. His was the first to install electric sow feeding, and an effort to diversify the Northern Ireland herd saw Gary importing the first line of Duroc pigs into the country. “This was an extremely successful venture,” he says.
The farm was also an early adopter of renewable technology, one of the first to install a heat-source pump 12 years ago.
Today it has added both biomass and a 20kWh solar power system. Gary says “after much consideration” he will replace the oil-fired heaters in the weaner and grower houses with water pump heaters, fuelled by the biomass boiler.
Indeed, the business was an altogether successful venture, and it was the efficiencies to the farm that helped in the late 1990s when the pig price collapsed and a fire wiped out half the country’s slaughtering capacity. “It took us nearly 10 years to recover from that,” he says.
With the business recently returned to health, it was time to give renewed attention to the health of his herd. During the past 18 months the farm has moved from a “firefighting” approach to dealing with challenges to a holistic approach to tackling animal disease, spearheaded by a controlled vaccination plan.
This was coupled with improvements to diet and environment and a “significant” investment in standards on his two units. “This combination has made a huge difference to pig health. Since mid-March, when I walk through the three stages of the growing section, I now believe I have a high health herd again.”
Improvements have been such that he has needed to find more capacity to finish his impressive 30.6 pigs weaned a sow, in one herd.
Another focus has been getting good-quality staff and keeping them. Employee retention for all six of his workers is impressive, with one member at the business for 11 years.
Pigs are mainly finished on the farms, with an all-in, all-out system in operation. One-third are sent to contract finshers in the local area. They are eventually sold through the Elite Pig Marketing Group, of which Gary was a founding member.
Beyond the farm gate, he has a long track record of getting involved in the wider pig industry. The latest initiative is work to develop a health strategy for Northern Ireland
Wellington Farm, Midlothian
By his own admission, Robin Traquair has fallen “hook, line and sinker” for the Danish way of rearing pigs, importing the country’s genetics and farming practices.
Our finalist from Scotland farms 5ha of land less than 10 miles from the city of Edinburgh, a ready market to which the Traquair family has provided finished pigs for almost half a century.
It was five years ago that the wheels looked to be coming off. “Profitability was challenge,” admits Robin. “Especially more recently, prices for finished pigs were tumbling below our cost of production all too frequently.”
The family was faced with a stark choice: improve pig performance or do something else entirely. It was Robin, being an “eternal optimist”, that made the final decision.
“I still felt there was a good future in pigs,” he explains.
After lengthy research and consideration, he decided to make a major investment in the business. His entire 50-plus-year-old bloodline stock was culled, the sheds given an intensive clean and left empty while Robin sought out a highly prolific Danish herd.
- 5ha farm on the outskirts of Edinburgh
- 320 sows plus maiden gilts
- DanAvl Landrace and DanAvl Dan hybrid
He finally bought a combination of Landrace gilts, Landrace GGPs and four Duroc stud boars – the first entirely Danish commercial pig herd in the UK.
Robin says he is delighted with the performance of his new stock. Feed conversion has seen massive improvements now at an average of 2.14kg feed/kg gain, as has piglets a sow. And with those two KPIs in check, the profitability of his herd has jumped, too.
He now benchmarks against the Danish breed standard for performance – pigs weaned a sow a year now stands at more than 28 – four pigs above the UK average.
It wasn’t just the genetics that led to this improvement. Robin has also worked at improving his herd health. This means implementing strict biosecurity procedures and ringfencing the entire farm.
That focus has paid off. The business has won high health status and is clear of porcine multi-systemic wasting syndrome and pneumonia. The farm now only vaccinates against erysipelas and porcine parvovirus.
Another area of improvement for the business has been minimising the farm’s environmental footprint. Robin is signed up to the NFU’s Climate Change Levy scheme, and a range of measures, from lighting control to an energy efficient feed mill, form a package of continual tweaking that’s making the best of an older site.
The new herd is so prolific that Robin’s farm no longer has the space to finish all the weaners, and he has built a relationship with two local farms that buy the surplus.
His own finished pigs are marketed through a variety of outlets; predominantly the Scotlean Pigs Co-operative, but also Edinburgh restaurants hotels and farm shops through a local wholesale butchers.
There are big plans for the future of the business, too. A priority is building enough space to finish all the pigs that come through the system, and Robin has again turned to the Danish for the design of a new indoor finishing shed.
“Our aim is to ensure the business is big enough and strong enough for all our three children to work in should they wish to,” he says.
The family also welcomes trainee vets for placements over the summer, and hosts an introduction to pig systems for students from Edinburgh University.
Robin and his family are also involved with farming beyond his own gate, from helping at the nearby Dalkeith show, to a long track record of working with young farmers and a range of industry committees. He is also known for speaking at industry events, evangelising the way Danes do things.
Robin is keen to point out that the Danish are able to turn a consistent profit on tighter margins than the UK industry, and questions why the same thing can’t be the case over here. “If you do pigs properly, there’s a lot of money to be made,” he says.
Park Farm, Norfolk
Simon Watchorn doesn’t pull any punches when describing his outdoor pig business: “It’s a straightforward outdoor farm. No bells, no whistles – I’m just a commercial grower.”
The farm he runs near Bungay, Norfolk, is proof, however, of how attention to detail can drive high herd performance, even in the variable environment that outdoor-reared pigs provides.
He was one of the first, way back in 1994, to spot movements in the market that suggested consumers were increasingly looking at where their food came from. Simon saw this as an opportunity and set up the pigs alongside his 400ha of arable land.
The business he and his wife has built is a bewildering array of diversifications, from a bed and breakfast to a refurbished farmyard rented out to small businesses, all overlooking the 600-strong herd of Rattlerow Landroc sows penned on light Norfolk gravel.
In the past five years Simon has come back to the business full time, following a spell in the waste industry, and focused on driving as much profit through the herd as possible.
He began with a “root-and-branch overhaul” of the farm, starting with marketing. “I realised that I can’t, at my farm size, compete with or fulfil orders with the speed that some of the bigger players can,” he says. “I had to grasp the nettle.”
He joined marketing co-operative Thames Valley Cambac in 2011, and embraced the security of sales that came with it.
- 400ha farm with arable, pigs, business units and a B&B
- 600-sow herd kept outdoors
- Two full-time staff on pigs, with relief from arable workers when necessary
Pigs are kept to Freedom Food standards because “that gives me access to the very best contracts”. It also means a premium is set on his price/kg of pork sent to slaughter.
Simon now sits on the directors’ board for the marketing group, giving him an insight into the work it’s doing that’s helping his business.
At the other end of the supply chain, a boon was gaining access to a raw materials book, allowing freedom to purchase feed forward from his suppliers at ABN whenever he feels is best.
It’s brought a degree of control into the business over input costs that many are without, and is clearly something he uses to his advantage.
The figures Simon is attaining from his outdoor pigs are nothing short of exceptional. Piglets weaned a sow is above the UK indoor average, at about 25 a sow a year. A 90% conception rate is put down to an enhanced diet and expert staff.
Meticulous record-keeping runs throughout the system, and management decisions are made on the evidence the figures present.
Good staff is key
Simon is keen to point out that success is also put down to a team of two staff that know how to work with the pigs and one another well.
Simon is operating a strict cull policy on sows, explaining that if a gilt performs poorly in her first parity, she will be culled out, rather than chancing another poor pregnancy.
The same policy applies to piglets displaying poor growth or weakness. Although it limits his herd size, he feels it is worth it to increase overall performance.
“If you keep chipping away at the bottom end, you increase the average,” he says. This is evident in his performance figures, which show a high performance right up to parity 5, and he expects to begin taking animals to parity 6 in the next few years, though he admits it will be a slow process.
Tail-docking and tooth clipping is unheard of on the farm and this, again, is put down to careful management of animals.
Vet students are frequently invited to the farm and spend two weeks living with the family, according to Simon, and it is his hope that one day he will inspire one to become a pig vet.
He has formerly served as vice-chairman of the National Pig Association, and is involved in a wide range of industry initiatives, including contingency planning for exotic disease outbreaks.
There is also a clear focus on protecting the margins and profitability of both his and other farmers’ businesses.
“All three finalists have shown dedication – not only to their individual businesses, but the pig industry as a whole. Their focus makes them stand out in a sector that demands the highest standards.”
William De Klein
Director of agriculture and business development
Find out more about the 2014 Farmers Weekly Awards