View from Ireland: 2020 – so things haven’t quite turned out as predicted!

Irish pig producer Shane McAuliffe, who is also secretary of the Irish Pig Health Society and the Irish branch of the European Pig Producers and works part time as international swine business manager for Easyfix, discusses how the COVID-19 has affected the Irish pig sector

My predictions aren’t always the most accurate. In my last report back in February, I wrote about how Irish pig farmers were ‘on the pig’s back’ as prices edged to a record breaking €2/kg and all signs at the time were showing they would hold over €2 for most of 2020.

This was written in January, before the term Covid-19 was even mentioned, or before we knew how our lives would change so dramatically in such a short space of time. Gradually, Irish pork processors dropped their prices, justifying it by the impact Covid-19 was having on the pigmeat trade in China. A build up of pigmeat that was unable to set sail to China was taking up valuable chill-space.

While Ireland was in complete lockdown for April and May, continuous price cuts came until the market stabilised in mid June to around €1.64-1.66/kg. A big worry among farmers was the subsequent clusters of Covid-19 in meat processing plants but luckily the slaughtering of pigs was not too disrupted.

The closure of Tonnies in Germany meant that there was no market for culled sows. One of our own drivers spent a few days waiting in Germany to be offloaded while the plant decided if they would be able to operate or not, he arrived home a week later than planned but via a processor in Poland. The back-up of culled sows on Irish farms did not cause any major issues but it is slowly being cleared. At the present moment prices are between €1.60-€1.66/kg, above the EU average of €1.55/kg as processors in mainland Europe slowly try and clear the back log of pigs.

The lockdown in Ireland was helped by the fact April and May were both exceptionally dry and sunny. While restaurants and the food service sector grinded to a halt, retailer demand for pigmeat shot up as people were now cooking at home. That was our Irish summer as both July and August were a complete wash-out with non-stop torrential rain so traditional barbecue cuts may not have sold as well as expected.

Trips cancelled

Since March, I have had nine trips abroad cancelled, including the Pig and Poultry Fair in the UK, the World Pork Expo in Iowa and the Ontario Pork Congress in Canada, 3 of my favourite events. Conferences, including some I had been looking forward to speaking at, were also either cancelled or postponed to 2021.

Many events turned into webinars and I must stress that there has been really exceptional material available online. In the USA, SwineTech launched their podcast Popular Pig while Swine IT also has their own podcast. In Ireland, the Teagasc Pig Development Unit launched their podcast The Pig Edge along with having regular webinars with guest speakers. I also enjoyed webinars from Alltech, AHDB, MSD, Tonisity, MS Schippers and PIC among others.

Do try and check out what is available to watch as you can learn from the comfort of your own home or farm office.

Pig health and welfare

Pig health and welfare is progressing well in Ireland – we have already had numerous PigHealth Check Implementation Group meetings and we are working through the revision of the national Salmonella monitoring and control programme.

There has been a great uptake in the Biocheck biosecurity assessments by farmers along with the tail-biting risk factor assessments. The new AM/PM system, for capturing and reporting abattoir data has started with ante-mortem inspections with the post mortem inspections to begin at the end of the year.

Gardening together

The beautiful spring weather along with lockdown meant I certainly spent a lot of time at home walking around our farms, and enjoying the nature around us. I watched native trees and hedging we planted in the cold depths of winter burst into bloom for the bees and butterflies and enjoyed seeing the birds return from migration.

We dug out some wildlife ponds on the farms this year as well as sowing pollinator strips and wild bird seed cover.

While intensive pig production is not generally associated with such measures, it is important we make the effort to protect and enhance the land surrounding our pig farms. At the end of June, my garden was one of six picked from thousands to take part in the new RTE and BBC series, Gardening Together, hosted by Celebrity Garden Designer Diarmuid Gavin.

He did quite a grand and formal design for me and we got it finished just before the deadline at the end of July.

It was broadcast in mid August and we even did a few hours filming with the pigs so while I expected it to be my first time on TV for something that wasn’t pig related – I still managed to get them included!

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