Crippling feed costs and low prices may make life tough in pig production but the three Pig Farmer of the Year finalists are more than making up for it with their trailblazing practices and superb stockmanship. Jane King reports
Lismoney Farm, Northern Ireland
First-generation pig producer James Millar has an eye for performance monitoring and benchmarking, so it is no surprise that his sow herd is achieving excellent results ahead of many of his peers.
The Northern Ireland producer, who operates from an intensive indoor unit at Lismoney Farm in Cookstown, County Tyrone, got into pigs 20 years ago with no previous experience. His father had a beef enterprise, but together they decided the future might be brighter in pigs given that the major slaughter plant in the region was only four miles from home.
James has invested extensively over the years and has grown the business from just 30 sows to just over 650 today, with all progeny taken to slaughterweight. Not all animals are kept on the home farm and James controls seven off-farm sites, mainly run and owned by third parties that finish for him. All pigs are reared to a slaughterweight of 85kg and marketed to Vion and Dunbia.
“I am a firm believer that knowledge is the basis of a good business,” he says. “When it moves, record it. It is vital to keep detailed physical and financial records.”
The farm uses the WinPig recording system to help with daily management and James is involved in a technology project by the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland to compare his performance with others.
His conception rates, empty days, litters a sow a year are better than many other larger high-performing units in Northern Ireland, with figures showing just under 25 pigs weaned a sow a year.
Most sows are Topig Dam Line and crossed with High Lean Pietrain cross Hampshire terminal semen from Deerpark Pedigree Pigs. James retains a few nucleus sows to produce replacement gilts.
The father of three children is also a prolific inventor, who likes nothing better than to investigate and implement new techniques to improve practices, providing they are cost-effective. He has introduced self-cleaning water bowls for weaned pigs, new catheters for serving sows, breeding buddies at service and yeast extract in feed. A new service house has been designed to make the most of boar exposures, improve sow fertility and breeding performance.
If the technology is not available off the shelf, James will build his own, including a new design for piglet creep for farrowing rooms, which helps lactating sows keep cool.
James is acutely aware that the future will be determined by the profitability of the pig industry as well as his herd performance.
He has a number of developments up his sleeve if profitability remains good, which include building a new finishing house and setting up his own mill to cut costs. The farm has permission for a large wind turbine to cut energy costs. Investment has also been made in a small lorry to transport feed and pigs to slaughter.
Northern Ireland is a designated nitrate vulnerable zone and so slurry storage and application rates are an issue.
James exports slurry to other farmers and uses what he retains to improve plant uptake and grass yield. He has recently put in a steel above-ground storage tank to minimise gas and odours.
James shares his learning with other producers and is involved with industry bodies as a director of the marketing group Progressive Lean Pigs and vice-chairman of the Central Pork and Bacon Committee the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
Managing staff in a fair and flexible way has brought dividends, as James now has three well-motivated and trained employees.
“After 20 years, one thing I have learned the most has been manage staff fairly and you get good work and loyalty in return,” he says.
The forthcoming ban on sow stalls is viewed positively by James and he is hoping the UK’s progressive approach in being better prepared than other European countries will pay off in sales growth next year.
A word from our sponsors
“Vion is proud to sponsor the Pig Farmer of the Year. Our business is farmer-owned and we have extensive farming interests across the UK. Farming excellence has never been more important, and VION is delighted to support this prestigious award that recognises outstanding achievement in the sector.”
Barry Lock, VION UK pork agriculture director
Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards including details of how to book tables for the event’s glittering London awards bash.