Ireland’s best kept secret

A Belfast-based nutrition company that until recently had a relatively low profile in Great Britain is poised to become a big player on this side of the Irish Sea. That’s thanks to an investment strategy that will give potential customers access to Devenish’s innovative product offering and nutritional expertise that British pig producers won’t be able to afford to ignore. Pig World editor Graeme Kirk reports

Northern Ireland’s pig sector may be relatively small at about 38,000 breeding females, but its 200 or so producers are among the best performing in the UK. The country’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) retains an active role in the improvement of the sector and operates a recording scheme that’s based on nine key performance indicators. Each herd gets a regular printout showing exactly where it sits in an industry league table, and this peer pressure acts as a driver for enhancement across the pig sector.

The figures speak for themselves; Northern Ireland’s producers are achieving an average 26.8 pigs/sow/year (compared with the BPEX indoor average of 24.2). And born alives are averaging 13.0/litter (12.1 in England), while the best herds are achieving 14.6 and going on to rear more than 30 pigs/sow/year.

Thanks to the country’s wet climate, these performance figures come from a pig industry that’s based exclusively on indoor production on slats. This adds extra weight to the DARD figures as, on the whole, producers are operating on a level playing field.

It’s a point that’s not lost on Devenish Nutrition chief executive Patrick McLaughlin, who takes the theme a stage further.

“Every producer has access to the same baseline genetics and feed,” he says. “Maximising performance is all about unlocking the potential that’s in each herd.”

This is something that Devenish Nutrition knows a lot about; in fact the firm’s mission statement reads: “We create value by developing and supplying quality nutrition products and solutions, new technologies and distinctive support to the agri-food sector”.

And these aren’t just empty words; in the past eight years the company’s pig turnover has doubled, giving it a large share of the piglet diet market on the island of Ireland. It’s little wonder Mr McLaughlin considers Devenish to be the Irish pig sector’s best-kept secret.

Based close to Belfast Harbour, the company originated as Devenish Feeds back in 1952, when the focus was firmly on importing and trading feed ingredients to home mixers and the Irish animal feed industry. That set the tone for the next 45 years, until a management buyout in 1997 saw the company change its name to Devenish Nutrition and shift to a more science-based approach to feeding livestock.

Like many Irish companies at the time, it forged closer links with firms operating in similar fields in the US, rather than in Great Britain. In 1998, a partnership was established with Omega Nutrition and Eu-Tec. This developed into Devenish taking a 50% equity stake in 2001 and full ownership in 2004, and in 2011 both these companies were reorganised and rebranded with the Devenish Nutrition name.

The first major investment in the British market came in early 2013 when the company bought Hi-Peak Feeds in Derbyshire, but by the end of last year it had purchased a food-grade production facility at Widnes as well.

In 17 years, Devenish Nutrition has been transformed from a company with 23 staff turning over £5 million annually, to an international operation employing in excess of 200 people and with sales exceeding £110 million. Belfast remains the company’s base, and as well as the corporate headquarters, it’s home to a production plant that’s capable of producing 1,000t of premix and 800t of creep feed and concentrates every week. This production capability is replicated at the firm’s plant in the US state of Minnesota, while a second plant in Iowa is dedicated to producing piglet diets.

In Britain meanwhile, Hi-Peak Feeds continues to produce organic feedstuffs for livestock farmers across the country. And although the Derbyshire site was originally earmarked for expansion for premix preparation too, the opportunity to buy the Widnes plant was too good to miss.

“It was a former food plant that closed in August last year, but we bought it and had it up and running again in November,” Mr McLaughlin told Pig World. “The same engineers that decommissioned the site came back and we had the two production lines operating again in just six weeks.

“The location couldn’t be better for us. The Widnes plant is just a ferry crossing and 12 miles by road from Belfast, and it gives us extra capacity of 1,500t of premix each week.”

Needless to say, all Devenish Nutrition’s plants are highly automated and operate to the highest standards as far as quality is concerned. There’s a policy of continuous improvement in the firm’s quality philosophy, and all processes have been accredited to the ISO 9001:2008 standard.

The pig sector currently accounts for about 28% of Devenish Nutrition’s turnover, and this is expected to steadily increase in the next four years. The firm’s pig range is currently dominated by a wide offering of standardised piglet creep feeds and diet premixes that are bespoke to every customer. However, some exciting new products are also now in the development pipeline.

Research and development is at the heart of everything that the company does, whether it’s altering the formulation of an existing product or bringing a new innovation to market. Devenish Nutrition’s in-house R&D resource includes analytical laboratories and research facilities that, for the pig sector, include a 96-pig stage one facility; an 80-pig grower finisher unit; and 1,000 sows on a commercially orientated research facility. All trials are set up and replicated to a standard that makes them suitable for publication in research journals.

Research strategy
The strategy at the heart of this research effort is to deliver clear and proactive solutions for pig producers that deliver: performance and productivity; technical insight; improved customer shareholder value; health improvement/risk reduction; and reduced wastage. The aim is for at least three of these values to be represented in every product Devenish Nutrition sells.

The firm’s range also comes with customer support built in. From advice on the formulation of diets and raw material selection, through raw material and finished product analysis, to appraisal of how new products can benefit a business, Devenish Nutrition’s sales force works with customers to better their performance. This even extends to working with pig units to set benchmarks and measure improvements.

“We’re prepared to get involved in a unit’s management,” Devenish pig nutritionist Mick O’Connell, says. “If a producer gets his biosecurity right and reduces the biological challenge on his pigs, we know it’s possible to replicate the results that we see in our test conditions.

“In fact, I’d go as far as to say we’d give a 99.9% guarantee that we’ll improve a unit’s performance if they follow the plan we propose.”

That’s quite some promise, but new products like the recently introduced DeviGainPG offer so many potential advantages to producers it would be difficult not to benefit from its use. DeviGainPG is a unique concentrated protein that supplies amino acids in a targeted form that the pig can utilise more effectively. By adding this new product to the diet, the available protein is optimised to such an extent that the overall crude protein level can be reduced. This spares energy in the diet and promotes growth.

Trials to establish the most effective inclusion rate of DeviGainPG have found that if it’s used at a rate of 10kg/t of finished feed, the overall crude protein of the diet can be cut by 3% and 80kg/t of soya can be swapped out for barley. Not only are there significant cost savings in formulating the diet (see Table 1), the feed conversion ratio is improved (reducing feed intake) and growth rates are increased, further reducing feed costs (see Table 2).

And that’s not all, in an age where sustainability is ever growing in importance, using DeviGainPG can cut nitrogen excretion (in ammonia, urine and faeces) by 25% and result in an overall reduction in green house gas emissions from pigs of up to 16%.

It’s little wonder that 10% of Irish herds have already started using DeviGainPG since the product was launched, and many British producers will be keen to follow suit.

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