Why the lessons of the past will help us prepare for the hard times ahead

Andrew Freemantle is on the NPA Producer Group representing the South West. He runs a 350-sow unit, farm shop and hog roast operation near Exeter

I had the pleasure of Stewart Houston’s company for a convivial dinner a few weeks back, which gave me the opportunity to gently interrogate him about his work as a pig industry leader over the last few years. The question I most wanted to ask was: ‘Does he think that the challenges the UK pig industry will have to face in the next 20 years will be greater than the challenges it has overcome in the last 20?’

Because when you look back over that time frame, you begin to wonder in amazement that we have a pig industry left at all. As we look forward to the next 20 years, the lessons the industry learned from the last 20 will help us every step of the way.

I see it in the campaigns not to allow imports from farming systems with lower welfare standards than ours. We can back our arguments with real figures on how this once dramatically cut back our breeding herd.

I see it at meetings about how farm subsidies will be reformed and the lack of outstretched hands for handouts from pig farmers – a level playing field was the only thing asked for. I see it in the way we work with Defra, processors, supermarkets and NGOs.

Every traumatic event that befell the pig industry has made us better prepared. What was Mr Houston’s answer? After a pause… “No”.

At Kenniford, we are all but there with our move to five-week weaning every other week, a process started last January. This gives around 400 pigs a batch, which fills up a room.

In our weaner/grower house we started by weaning one group at five weeks and one at four weeks for a parity. By June, we were weaning both lots at five week.

Now with the aid of regumate we are farrowing our 32 sows in around one week. We regularly wean pigs over 11kg and the whole batch over 10kg and the first have come through finishing at 94kg dw average, a record for us. Everything seems easier with a heaver pig at weaning and the amount of creep we feed has dropped dramatically.

The intakes we can get into them two days after weaning are up to 0.5kg per day. The pigs go into groups of 100 weaned on a Thursday and,by Saturday are eating two bags a day; by Monday we have them on a link diet and by the following weekend a grower diet.

One thing we did not consider was the fact that our sows are in free-access pens for the last two weeks of lactation. We had been considering replacing them with crates but, as our vet pointed out, if we did, they would be in crates for more than 35 days, which is not allowed by Red Tractor, so there is something to ponder.

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