A train to Norwich, a bicycle ride to Stradbroke to buy a farm and a night locked out for being home late. This was Philip Lawson’s first step into farming. The one-time bomber pilot and Oxford scholar was fascinated with breeding and genetics, and believed agriculture could satisfy his passion. It might also make a difference to livestock production in post-war Britain.
He was right, and 60 years on, what he established has evolved into something significant that has contributed more to the UK pig sector than just high-health, high-performance breeding stock.
Rattlerow’s experience as a pig producer and its ability to innovate and implement technical advances at a commercial level have proved valuable assets during the past six decades. It has helped the company grow at a continuous, steady pace.
Its philosophy is simple: investment in the best health, facilities and staff, combined with new technology to maximise genetic potential and pig performance. Recent agreements with Karro Foods and Wayland Farms clearly demonstrate this is a blueprint for success.
But it could have been so very different, according to Rattlerow’s joint managing director, Robert Lawson.
“My father actually wanted to rear pedigree cattle, but he soon realised that improvements could be made more quickly from pigs in a much shorter time,” he says. “So he bought eight gilts from Norfolk cider maker Gaymers, and here we are.”
The small herd of pedigree Large White and Welsh pigs soon flourished. The Landrace came later, but by 1954, under the prefix Rattlerow – a name borrowed from a small hill near his Bullocks Hill Farm – the pig-breeding enterprise was born.
Philip’s keen eye for conformation, combined with his zealous skill for selecting only the very best-performing animals, produced exceptional results. The benefits of AI were also explored and in 1960 the business was one of the first to regularly use it. Philip could see the potential of introducing new lines without health concerns, and also the benefits AI offered to produce more litters from high-merit boars.
Nowadays, AI is a major part of the Rattlerow business. It has four studs, the newest being Long Meadow, in Cambridgeshire, that was completed in 2011. This £1 million investment has the potential to house 160 boars, and with its air-conditioning and filtration systems, it’s one of Europe’s most technically advanced facilities.
During the 1970s, Rattlerow joined the Meat and Livestock Commission’s (MLC) competitive pig performance testing scheme. It produced unbiased and accurate test results that customers could use with confidence to purchase high-pointed boars or semen. For six out of 10 years, MLC results demonstrated that Rattlerow stock was ahead of the competition for economic lean meat production, and this helped to drive sales.
Back then, prospective customers were not just pig farmers, they also included a new generation of breeding companies focused on high health and hybridisation.
“We actually supplied seed stock to many new breeding companies, some of which are now our competitors,” Robert Lawson says. “Many of their foundations were laid with Rattlerow genes, so we have played a part in their development.”
Differentiation is what makes Rattlerow unique. Unlike many of its competitors, this company has held onto its pedigree roots far longer. Pure-line breeding and consistent long-term selection for correctly conformed animals has continued to play an important part in Rattlerow’s breeding programme. This philosophy has led to uniformity and consistency in all of its lines; a factor recognised by customers for many years.
In 2002, genetic development gathered pace when Rattlerow purchased a major share in SEGHERSgenetics and SEGHERSgentec, and a new company, Rattlerow Seghers, was formed. This investment increased access to DNA technology and molecular research resources, and in 2004, the company’s 50th year, it produced three new terminal boars, MaxiMus, OptiMus and MaxiLean. These sires carried a newly discovered gene marker, BETTERgen muscle+. This patented DNA marker explained 25% of the variation in muscle mass and fat deposition, without affecting growth or meat-eating quality. These sires also offered customers new, robust boar lines that proved more capable of better withstanding the challenge of PMWS, which at that time was the production sector’s biggest challenge.
Acquiring the Seghers business also brought new export opportunities across Europe and Asia, with China being one of the most interesting. Rattlerow Seghers is now a majority partner in a nucleus operation in Hebei province.
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Sowing seeds and going green
When Adrian and Robert Lawson joined the business in the mid-1980s, Rattlerow farmed 600 acres and had 600 sows. Adrian, who is also joint managing director, says that by consistently working hard and reinvesting, the business managed to regularly purchase new farms to complement its existing operations.
“In addition to our main focus on pig breeding, we have kept a broad base to our business and have significant arable, construction, feed milling, transport, and housing enterprises,” he adds. “More recently, renewable energy has been added to our activities, but all of our enterprises are symbiotic to the pig business.
“During difficult years when the pig sector has been tough, diversification has been valuable. When one is sector is challenged, then another is usually performing well. There’s balance and that benefits the whole.”
Today, Rattlerow farms more than 45 pig sites and has 2,000 acres of intensive arable land. Every farm operates on an individual cost base and is run with its own team. None of the farms are “mega units”, so they’ve avoided many of the issues associated with larger production sites. But none of this growth would have been possible without the full support of an expanding, experienced and dedicated team.
“We have been extremely lucky to attract and keep our staff, even through the difficult times,” Robert says.
The company carefully manages its initial selection process, has an active training programme and works hard to make staff feel valued and an important part of the business.
“Where possible we promote from within and aim to delegate significant responsibilities to key members of the team,” he adds.
In recent months, good prices have improved profitability for the pig enterprise and the outlook for this year looks promising. Reinvestment is underway on a number of Rattlerow’s production sites, and a new biogas plant is under construction.
Adrian says agriculture is an exciting place to be at the moment, although farm businesses may need to think more about their corporate responsibilities in future. He feels areas such as protecting staff and the environment are increasingly important and will become more so in the long term.
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Outdoor demands and an easy approach
Consumerism has created new pressures for livestock farmers with welfare, organic and environmentally friendly becoming ideals. During the 1990s, outdoor pig production seemed to fit this model.
Rattlerow initially gained its reputation in this market 10 years earlier by adapting its boar accommodation and the procedures its used to “harden off” groups of Large White boars. These principles ensured working boars met customer specifications, and they were ready for life outside. Large numbers of boars were sold to work in groups of four to eight as, back then, outdoor production relied on this “natural group mating” or “gang-bang” system.
The development of the Landroc gilt came in 1992, and her pure white line inheritance, combined with just enough Duroc genetics, made her prolific yet robust enough to perform well in a tough outdoor environment.
In 1996, manager Ken Mackenzie was presented with a number of national production awards for outstanding performance from a 250-sow Landroc-based herd. He was producing more than 26 pigs/sow for a BQP operation and increased productivity to 27 pigs/sow reared in 1997.
The Whiteroc was launched in 2001, and these dam lines are now used by many of the UK’s leading outdoor pig producers. They’re quite possibly the UK’s most popular outdoor gilts.
More recent advances outside include the development of an outdoor service pod. Designed and produced with key customer Easey Pigs and BPEX, the pod draws on Rattlerow’s own experience with outdoor AI and should help to lift sow productivity in outdoor herds.
Genetically, Rattlerow also strives to make managing its genotypes as simple as possible and an “Easy2Manage” strategy is incorporated in its breeding programme.
This holistic approach to selection embraces production experience, and although the main focus remains on key traits, such as prolificacy and fertility for dam lines and fast, lean growth for terminal sires, other characteristics are also incorporated.
For example, dam lines are continually assessed for mothering ability, lactation and temperament. It’s the whole reproductive package, and that aids management at commercial level, as is clearly evident in the firm’s own herds and customer farms.
“Customers say our stock are well tempered and easy to manage,” Robert says. “Aggression is something we’ve never really encountered, but it seems to be a growing problem with certain lines. Tail biting is another issue that rarely seems to affect our genotypes. Maybe our pure-line breeding programme and consistent selection process over many years has something to do with this.”
So what next for this progressive, innovative family business with an inherent passion for pigs? Well, more of the same, but with a more bespoke approach, according to sales manager Simon Guise.
“What we want to do now is apply what we know about production to our customers’ individual breeding programmes,” he says. “The aim is to create a bespoke genetics service, tuned to their specific business needs and objectives so we can help them to achieve their production targets and more.”
Recent agreements with key accounts, such as Karro and Wayland, are built on this strategy. Rattlerow works closely with these customers to simplify their genetic input so that they can concentrate their efforts on their commercial production and growing their businesses.
Philip Lawson’s passion to improve growth and efficiency is how Rattlerow Farms began. Now, 60 years on, this multi-million turnover business retains a relentless motivation to innovate and further improve pig performance.
The company’s continued growth – be that in its high-performing stock or as an expanding British-based agricultural company – will benefit its customers and the UK pig sector for many years to come.
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Healthy perspective brings long-term benefits
When wasting syndromes hit the UK in 2001, what Rattlerow did to control them actually changed the industry’s perspective about how disease should be managed and controlled on-farm.
At the height of the PMWS epidemic, Rattlerow suffered like everyone else. Post-weaning mortality rates escalated. Rattlerow said the situation was unsustainable and was as concerned about its staff as it was about its pig health.
“Our stockmen and managers found this extremely difficult to cope with because this disease didn’t respond well to medication,” Robert Lawson says.
So, under veterinary guidance, a tough health and hygiene protocol based on Madec’s principles was implemented on a number of sites. It involved stringent biosecurity controls, it minimised pig movements and mixing, operated all-in/all-out production and ensured all accommodation was cleaned and disinfected between batches.
Masterminded by production director Robin Brice, the Clean-Flow concept was born and the esteemed three-week batch/four-week wean production system soon followed.
“At that stage little was known about PCV and we didn’t have a vaccine,” Robert says. “By going back to basics and implementing improved management, attention to detail and upgrading biosecurity and strategic hygiene control, we managed to reduce wasting disease and bring mortality back to sustainable levels.”
Supported by consultant vet Ian Dennis, Robin pushed Clean-Flow out to the industry. A booklet was published by BPEX in 2003, and nowadays the Clean-Flow protocol, or elements of it, is routinely practiced on most pig units and helps to control many of the endemic diseases that exist in commercial production.