13 July 2001


A flexible approach to

livestock production will help

north-east producers put their

businesses back on course

for profit, Yorks NFU county

chairman Derek Watson

tells Wendy Owen

FROM grain trader to farmer is not an obvious career move. But Derek Watsons experience in trading has stood him in good stead during his eight years in farming.

"The grain trader in me has never died and I am always trying to keep flexible and follow the best prices," he says. "I believe we need to constantly review what we are doing and change if necessary."

Mr Watson believes its time for a thorough re-assessment of livestock production. "We need to look at how we move our livestock and whether some of the movements are necessary. I am not proposing passports for sheep, but it is important that farmers put forward ideas for change rather than having laws imposed on them by the government."

Flexibility is a policy Mr Watson has tried to follow at his 80ha (200 acre) West Knapton Farm, near Malton. Although he originally let the land to tenants and continued grain trading, he was soon bitten by the farming bug.

The remedy was to take the farm back in hand and buy the 100 sow outdoor pig herd from his tenant. Since then, he has invested more in the property than he initially paid for it by building a farmhouse and erecting several new buildings.

"My wife was adamant that whatever we went into, we would not keep pigs. But they were attractive because they didnt require quota, which we could not have afforded at the time," says Mr Watson.

The decision to bring the sows inside for six weeks after weaning has made a big difference to conception rates and body condition and made them easier to manage.

But it has taken up a building which was previously used for finishing the pigs. That means that the farm has switched to producing piglets to 10 weeks old at weights of about 30kgs. The boars are sold as stores for bacon production and the gilts go on to other farms for breeding.

The piglets are farrowed outside and taken off the sow at four weeks, when they are transferred to a purpose-built indoor rearing unit. This state-of-the-art nursery, put up in 1998 at a cost of £120,000, has helped to cut mortality rates to less than 1%. The building has two rooms on plastic slatted flooring with controlled ventilation using a plastic curtain. Artificial heating was installed but is no longer used.

Duroc sows

The farm has a small herd of purebred Duroc sows which are crossed with a Large White boar. Selected gilts are inseminated with Landrace semen.

"I dont have any boars because I want to maintain high health status," says Mr Watson. "But I am thinking about replacing the Duroc sows with Large Whites in the hope that they will be better mothers, have larger litters and be a bit hardier. If I do go ahead, I will use Duroc boar semen to give the same cross as before."

His aims is to serve 33 sows/week and get 250 piglets/week, either by serving an extra sow or getting more piglets/litter. "There has been a significant improvement in performance since I put the pigman on to a new bonus scheme. Depending on his achievements, he can earn a bonus of between 10% and 40% of his wage, paid quarterly."

The suckler herd makes use of a further 20ha (50 acres) of grass rented from a neighbour and there are plans to double the herd size. They are mainly Limousin and Belgian Blue crosses, put to the farms own Piemontese bull. "The Piemontese is a great breed," he says. "It is quiet-natured and produces light-boned calves with a high killing out percentage."

Marketing will become even more important in future, argues Mr Watson. "We must also concentrate on producing the best quality we can and make sure the public is aware that British really does mean best. The NFUs Red Tractor Logo has helped a great deal towards that."

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