During a mid-life crisis 15 years ago, I was fortunate enough to win a Nuffield Scholarship, which gave me a fantastic opportunity to look at the workings of the UK pigmeat supply chain. One of my most obvious conclusions was that ‘mediocrity is not an option’ to survive as a UK producer.
Having now turned 50, my latest mid-life crisis has concluded that on an outdoor pig unit in February, with the rain lashing down and mud up to my privates, my younger, more enthusiastic self was only partially right: mediocrity is not an option, it’s a way of life.
So, as the pigs get faster and I get slower, I’m faced with the choice of: get out or get on.
For years, we have struggled to get above 22 pigs weaned per sow per year – average for an outdoor herd – but as the lower performing herds drop out, the average rises and we start to look like relegation candidates (like my beloved Bristol City, but that’s another story).
The 1,000 Pig Project was born: a 500-sow herd weaning an extra pig per litter is an extra 1,000 pigs per year – simple.
It’s always unlikely that any one thing will raise performance by 10%, but each small gain adds up. The obvious place to start is the farrowing department, where results are variable on our less-than-ideal site, especially in winter.
When you farm on exposed downland at an altitude of 700 feet, anyone in their right mind would keep their sows indoors. So of course, I keep mine outdoors.
We can’t do anything about the land or weather, but we can try to control the controllable.
“For years, we have struggled to get above 22 pigs weaned per sow per year – average for an outdoor herd – but as the lower performing herds drop out, the average rises and we start to look like relegation candidates”
A magpie-like collection of junk and hours of work from Dodgy and Tony have ensured that all huts are insulated and in good repair.
Extra access tracks have enabled us to get closer to the huts for the tedious task of winter bedding-up. We have baled multipack big bales, which are nearly as convenient as small bales for getting crumbly straw into huts.
Careful attention is being given to ensuring that the gilts are now suckling at least 10 piglets a week after farrowing.
That should ensure proper development of the udder line, which will pay dividends on subsequent litters. Ad-lib hoppers now allow the sows to achieve greater feed intake during peak lactation, leading to excellent weaning weights and less feed wastage.
In comparison to previous winters, the results of these changes are encouraging.
Unfortunately, our conception rates – which are usually excellent – have plummeted, especially among the older sows.
Perhaps they are getting too fat on the ad-lib rations and we might need to try a lower energy ration, which should also save money. Muriel will be pleased!