A time for change and new opportunities

Chris Fogden is a first-generation farmer and Nuffield Scholar, who owns and manages 950 outdoor sows on 40ha of rented land within the rotation of a large Norfolk arable estate

A site move on an outdoor unit gives the opportunity to redesign the way things are done – within the constraints of the land available, of course.

The task also can become all- consuming, as it is a major job on top of the existing, day-to-day tasks. With this year’s biennial move there are two major changes that we are making, just to add to the excitement and workload.

Firstly, we are backtracking from our policy of ‘flipping’ the farrowing paddocks every six months. This was a lot of work and necessitated the farrowing paddocks being too small. The legacy will be a wonderful self- sown ‘cover crop’ of fat hen, which I am told will provide wonderful food for yellowhammers, greenfinches and linnets, as long as my landlord doesn’t succumb to tidy farmer syndrome and spray it off too soon.

It looks just like a nearby, very expensive, bought wild bird mix. So that’s yet another idea to be filed away as a ‘been there, done that’. The second change is more major for us – our Luddite ways are ending, and we are returning to AI.

We did use AI in a batch farrowing system prior to our restock over 10 years ago. My reason for going to a natural, dynamic serving system then was that the gilt serving for the restock was done by a neighbour, who was also restocking – they were doing it naturally, so I had to buy a lot of boars for my gilts and the system had been working very well for them.

The many reasons for my change in policy now include the fact that our breeding herd performance isn’t consistently good and we have seen good results from the few animals that are AI-ed for homebred gilt production.

The technique has become a lot easier with recent developments such as stall serving pods and the use of plant support ‘yoyos’, while getting the correct sows out of the dynamic groups every week is very time consuming and involves a lot of walking.

The site move presented the opportunity to redesign the system and there was also the fact that I was definitely a rarity, which might have been OK if there was a marketing premium for such a product – which there isn’t.

One change that I would very much like to make is a move on to established grass. This is partly offset by some feelings of unease over the nose ringing that would be necessary. Also, currently, the crop rotation on the very light land that we get to use doesn’t give much opportunity to establish grass.

Fortunately, the straw harvest was completed relatively easily and, as the farrowing paddocks are going onto winter barley stubble and the dry sows onto June harvested carrots, we are able to crack on.

However, the old site will take a long time to wind down, so it is just as well the next crop is sugar beet.

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