High-health weaners from the Highlands

Pig World editor Graeme Kirk visits Karro’s outdoor operation in the North of Scotland to find out why the company is investing in weaner production so far from its processing site at Malton in North Yorkshire

Anyone who’s familiar with the geography of Scotland, or has driven the A9 as far as Inverness, will know that soon after you get past the scenic mountain landscapes of Aviemore, you drop down into the some of the UK’s best farmland around the coastline of the Moray Firth. To the north is the Black Isle, named for its fertile dark soils, while to the south there’s a rich band of flat agricultural land that follows the A96 towards Aberdeen.

In many ways, it’s similar to East Anglia – it’s even got two major air bases at Kinloss and Lossiemouth – so it should come as no surprise that it’s become a focus for outdoor pig production. The better-quality soils support large acreages of combineable crops, while much of the sandier soils, that would dry out too quickly for cereal or oilseed rape production, are now used for pigs.

In truth, much of the outdoor pig production is quite new to the area, which sits in Scotland’s Highland Region. The last of Karro’s pigs only moved there from Aberdeenshire (which is in Grampian Region, the original home of Grampian Pigs before the Vion and Karro acquisitions) in September last year.

According to Karro’s production manager, Cameron Fordyce, the heavy snowfalls in Aberdeenshire in 2010 were the final straw for the old Grampian sites and prompted the move to the more favourable land and weather conditions to the west.

Today, Karro runs about 12 outdoor pig units between Nairn and Portsoy that currently total 9,700 sows, but are in the process of being increased to 10,500 sows. This is the result of a £2 million investment announced in October last year by Karro’s chief executive, Seamus Carr, to ramp up sow numbers by 2,000 and to increase the output of the Highland units from 3,500 to 4,500 pigs/week.

This confidence in the firm’s pig production in the North of Scotland was reinforced recently when Karro announced a long-term deal with Rattlerow Farms that has seen the Suffolk-based company take over gilt production, and semen collection and supply, for the outdoor pig operation.

It may have come as a surprise to some that Karro would want to continue with its outdoor herds this far north, let alone invest in them, particularly considering the closure of Hall’s abattoir at Broxburn – that was also part of the Vion Group – which would have been the ultimate destination for many of the pigs produced there. However, the changing shape of the Scottish pig sector following Broxburn’s demise has actually worked in the unit’s favour.

Sector separation
The idea that the different sectors of pig production should be kept as far apart as possible is well established, so what could be better than producing your weaners 200 miles or more from your grower accommodation. It’s a situation that has come about thanks to simple economics – if you’re going to move pigs long distances, it’s more cost-effective to do it when you can get 1,200 weaners on a truck than waiting until they’re ready for slaughter and you need closer to six trucks to move them.

This has dramatically reduced pig numbers in the area, but it’s increasingly being suggested those that remain enjoy a better health status as a result. And that has to be a good news story for any processor with an integrated farm-to-fork business model.

The Karro outdoor units farrow every week of the year, and Thursday is weaning day. When we joined Cameron Fordyce and his team at 7.30am on one of the firm’s units near Elgin, the last batch of piglets had just arrived from the farrowing huts in a specially constructed trailer pulled behind a quadbike. The piglets are transferred to holding tents to await loading onto a truck for the journey south.

This particular unit currently has 650 sows, but is being built up to 750 under the expansion plan. At present it’s farrowing 30 sows a week, but this is set to increase to 36. The sows are currently based on Landrace and Large White genetics, although this is now moving to a Landrace White Duroc cross that’s being bred by Rattlerow. The genetics company now operates and manages the local Karro boar stud, in partnership with Karro; this enables Rattlerow to supply female-line genetics from the stud while maintaining Karro’s ability to use external slaughter line-genetics to meet customer and market demands.

The sows are served on a Tuesday and Wednesday, and they run with a catcher boar for four weeks in the winter and six weeks in the summer. The unit has an average farrowing rate of 84%, which includes the anticipated 10% fall in farrowing rate during the summer-infertility period.

Karro’s outdoor herds currently achieve an average 11.7 pigs born alive and 10 weaned. Although on the morning of Pig World’s visit a figure of 10.8 weaned meant there were about 300 piglets collected ready for transport. The weaning age target is 28 days, with piglet weights of typically 7-10kg.

Haulier Neil Christie from the Portsoy-based firm Bert Christie Haulage picked up the piglets on his first collection of the day from the Karro herds. He estimated travel time to unload the weaners at nursery units in the Borders would be in the region of five hours. Another two trucks gathered the rest of the piglets from the remaining units.

Administrative offices
Karro’s Highland Region operation is based at Brydock, near Banff, Aberdeenshire, where the firm has a feed mill that supplies the herds and administrative offices that are home to general manager Neill Hamilton. He explained that the operation was currently sending about 4,000 pigs/week south, and that this number was still in the process of being ramped up.

The weaners don’t go direct to finisher units, but spend three weeks on nursery farms in the Borders before being moved closer to Karro’s plant at Malton when they’re about 15kg.

“The farms we use are all-in/all-out systems and there’s a firm focus on biosecurity,” Mr Hamilton said. “And rather than being reared under contract, we sell the pigs at weaning and they are reared by third parties before coming back into the Malton plant at slaughter.”

All the outdoor pigs are produced to Freedom Food standards and the mill at Brydock is an important part of the Karro marketing story.

“The mill, which previously fed all the Scottish rearing pigs, now feeds the sow herd and has an annual production of 15,000t of feed,” Mr Hamilton said. “With the change in the business model to weaner production, we’ve had to review our feed mill strategy and with a high-health herd, the feed manufacture is now a more straightforward process with no in-feed medication required.

“We have full control over quality, which is a great story to communicate to the retailers, and we’re also finding that the region has favourable grain prices at the moment.”

The Karro units are all run to the same standard operating procedures based on a manual that was put together by Grampian Pigs – performance should be similar across all the herds as they have the same genetics, environment, feed and working procedures. The recent change in genetics is already bringing benefits with a lift in the numbers of piglets born alive.

Karro’s herd health is closely monitored by Alasdair Macleod of the Garth Partnership. As well as attending monthly management meetings and quarterly staff meetings, he’s always at the end of a ‘phone if required.

Herd health is very good these days with standard vaccinations the only routine treatment for the sows.

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Optimising health and welfare

Within multiple individual herds in the Karro business there’s the ability to optimise health and welfare management within one herd before adopting any benefits across all herds in the business. One recent example of this involved meloxicam (Metacam Oral Suspension), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID).

In common with others members of this group of medicines, meloxicam has analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-pyretic (fever reducing) properties.

Following the successful use of Metacam at Karro as part of the management of a mastitis outbreak at one herd and in reducing pre-weaning mortality by 6%, it was decided to try meloxicam as part of farrowing management.

It was hoped the treatment would improve the farrowing experience of the sow, thus potentially aiding milk let-down, improving the mothering ability of the sow and pre-weaned piglet performance.

Apart from being generally considered beneficial to the welfare of the farrowing sow, a reduction in pre-weaning mortality of 2.3% was also observed thanks to the treatment.

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