My biggest worry – the longer-term health impacts of this endless backlog

Pig World columnist Duncan Berkshire, from Bishopton vets in Yorkshire, outlines his concerns about the longer-term impact of the backlogs on pig farms 

With the dawn of the New Year, many had firm hopes that things would start looking better at farm level and, even if not immediately, there would be a clear path ahead to show how things would improve over the coming weeks and months… unfortunately, we are still far from where we need to be and frustration is building.

We need some serious efforts to join our supply chain together, so that communication occurs from farms all the way through to retailers – we are sorely missing that, at the moment, but this is integral to a functioning pig sector.

There is plenty of space within the UK pig arena for a whole variety of farming systems, which is very much a strength and provides the UK consumer with choices that are absent from many countries around the world.

We also have space for different ownership structures, from the multi-national company down to the smaller family farm and everything in between, but only if we actually work together. Our competitors are not the farm down the road, however, and nor should they be the multifaceted business that has a lot of different fingers in many pies.

We should all be proud of producing a high-quality product here in the UK, and putting that on the shelves instead of products from abroad that don’t even adhere to our legal standards. The recent drive to get consumers to #BiteIntoBritish is a major part of that campaign, aiming to bring benefits to the whole supply chain, from retailers down to farm level. Hopefully, this is recognised by all within it and will engage their support.

Backlog impacts

On a farm level, however, the continued backlog of pigs due to processors not taking them is leading to what will be one of the worst periods for pig health and welfare in living memory. The short-term impacts on welfare are all-too-clear for people to see and have, unfortunately, resulted in the on-farm destruction and waste of tens of thousands of pigs already – how has the supply chain, as a whole, even allowed it to get to this point?

My biggest worry, though, are the longer-term effects that we are not even starting to really understand yet.

We have proudly advanced our pig farms and their systems to enhance and maintain good health and welfare over the last few decades, a process that has brought with it concurrent advances in production and efficiencies at a time when the pig sector has had to fend for itself.

Many of these advances in health have been based on pig flow and strict management rules to give us the UK pig sector of today. Yet, what are we compromising right, at the moment? Well, all of these rules that we have spent so long putting in place, and ‘normal’ pig flow is now up the proverbial creek. This is setting us up for a very protracted recovery period over the coming months and years.

All-in-all-out farms now have different age groups on them, something that would have been unheard of until now. Full clean-downs, rest periods, and disinfection regimes that would have been sacrosanct have all gone to pot, and ‘dirty’ buildings are also the reality on most farms.

What are we setting ourselves up for? At some point there will be a reckoning where health deteriorates – we are currently in a honeymoon period, but this will unfortunately not last forever.

We are already starting to see deteriorations in respiratory and gut health on farm – so far, mainly minor, but signs of things that are on the horizon. We have made enormous strides in antibiotic reduction over the past few years but these, along with phasing out of zinc oxide, are real threats to all that progress.

Supply chain overhaul

So, what do we need to stop this from happening? An overhaul of the entire supply chain would be a start and the only real option, if we want a pig sector in this country for the future.

If this doesn’t happen, whether driven by Government or the sector, ourselves, then I think we can draw our own conclusions about where food production in the UK is headed.

In the short-term, if you are having challenges on farm then make sure you or your team reach out to others – that can be a neighbour, friend, advisor, your vet, or one of the excellent helplines.

Remember we are all on the same side and I, for one, want us to continue to have a successful pig sector here in the UK that we can all be proud of.

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