A fairer way to trade pigs

Anglia Quality Meat Association (AQM), which started life as a pork-marketing group in the mid-1960s, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Pig World’s Graeme Kirk has been to the co-operative’s Hertfordshire office to find out more about the organisation

Pig prices, and whether producers are getting a good deal from processors, have always been hot topics in our industry, but rarely more so than in the early 1960s. At the time, about 80% of finished pigs were still sold through the livestock marts, but many pig farmers were beginning to wonder if there wasn’t a better way to market their stock.

According to AQM’s current business manager for pigs, Richard Doel, the producers’ biggest concern was that they’d no negotiating power. “But the situation was worse that that,” he says, “in the worst case scenarios, prices were being organised by the buyers forming buyers’ rings.”

The meat sector in the UK had been closely regulated during World War II, and in fact rationing had continued until the mid-1950s. When deregulation came, hundreds of new abattoirs were built around the country and the livestock markets flourished as they supplied these new customers.

Thanks to its ready supply of wheat and barley, East Anglia was already a major pig-producing area and home to a large number of forward-thinking producers. Among them was Cambridgeshire-based Paul Mason, who was concerned he wasn’t getting a fair return selling through the livestock marts or direct to abattoirs via agents. He was convinced that the way forward was to set up producer groups that could deal directly with the meat trade through the abattoirs.

An advertisement placed by CB Playle’s Cambridgeshire abattoir seeking to deal direct with farmers attracted Mr Mason’s attention, and he started supplying his pigs by this route (although he felt there was still room for improvement on the consistency of pig grading Playle’s offered). But the final piece in Mr Mason’s plan fell into place when compounder BOCM agreed to back him and assist in the formation of a group to market pigs.

In November 1961, Mr Mason invited an informal group of interested people to a meeting held in his farmhouse kitchen. They agreed to call themselves the Anglia Quality Pork Association, and that discussions should be held with CB Playle about setting up a contract based on a more rigorous grading system. This was agreed, and a 12-month fixed-price contract was initially established with the group, although this later switched to three-month contracts as Government subsidies on pigs changed.

Paul Mason, who was appointed chairman of the new association, summarised its objectives as: “Simplicity, service, security and good prices for good pigs – these are the cornerstones of a new system and of Anglia’s future plans.”

By the end of 1963, the association had 21 members, had proven group marketing could work and was ready to take the next step in its development. Following a meeting with the Agricultural Central Cooperative Association (ACCA), it was agreed that the group become a registered society (co-op) under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act, and also become a member of the ACCA. It was also agreed that it should be registered under the new name Anglia Quality Meat Association.

April 27, 1964 marked the birth of the new co-op, when it held its first AGM. Paul Mason, who remains an active director of AQM today, was appointed chairman, while eight other directors were also elected. The meeting agreed that the co-op’s first employee, a fieldsman should be appointed, and set up two committees: the Steerage Committee, to deal with day-to-day issues like organising economic transport; and the Livestock Improvement Committee, to look at ways members could best benefit from the grading system their stock were subject to.

Industry structure
In the mid-1960s, pig production was still spread across a large number of small herds on mixed farms, although the tide had started turning towards a more professional approach and the first specialist pig genetics companies were starting to emerge. AQM helped to speed this process by carrying out research work on pig grading with the forerunner of the MLC, the Pig Industry Development Association (PIDA).

AQM introduced an ultrasonic measuring service to help select the best pigs to breed from to produce quality carcases, and the research work continued with PIDA, particularly on gilt-performance and boar testing schemes.

From the start, AQM put great stress on producing and marketing quality stock. This led to the organisation operating a quality bonus scheme that was paid annually to members on all the pigs marketed. This continued right into the 1990s, when the bonus was discontinued and translated into lower marketing fees.

Weaner sales via AQM began in 1965 when a committee was formed to look at ways of marketing them more effectively through the co-op. This led to the organisation’s fieldsmen being supplied with a portable weigher they could take to each producer and weigh and select pigs to improve the quality and overall finisher performance of the batches of weaners being supplied.

AQM’s first move into other species also took place in 1965 when a pilot marketing scheme for lambs began. This proved to be of great interest to lamb producers, and again the co-op was instrumental in developing more accurate carcase grading.

As well as Playle’s, AQM supplied pigs to Elmswell Bacon Factory and RF Garnham & Sons during its formative years. Even here the group was ahead of its time and saw its pigs going through the Elmswell site strip-marked with the AQM logo and sold to the Harry West butcher shop chain in North and East London. Unfortunately, a change of management at Elmswell brought this arrangement to an abrupt end.

During 1966 the majority of pigs were being marketed to Garnham’s. AQM tried to get them strip-marked to show their provenance, although the abattoir would only agree to add labels to the pigs showing they were from the co-op. As most of these pigs were sold through Smithfield market, this provenance had no chance of making it through to the retail trade.

Although AQM was initially run from one of the field officer’s homes, by 1968 the organisation moved into an office at Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire, where it was based until 1971 when an office was rented in Royston High Street. Growth of the co-op resulted in two more moves, first to an office that AQM purchased on Royston High Street (and later extended), and then to the organisation’s current base in a purpose-built office in Melbourne Street, which has been AQM’s home since 1997.

The early 1970s was a boom time for AQM as the number of producers using the co-op peaked because of increasing disillusionment with liveweight selling and the draw of being paid fairly for the quality of the stock that was being sold. There were 100 pig units finishing pigs and another 100 selling weaners on the organisation’s books.

Richard Doel, who’s now pig business manager, first joined AQM in 1972 and recalls that the market for weaners, especially, was very different from today.

“We traded a lot of weaners in those days,” he says. “There were a lot of people who would buy them, from farmers that just kept a couple to raise for the fridge, to those that would take 50 at a time to finish as part of a mixed farming enterprise.

“Of course, it’s completely different today with most of weaners going to larger-scale bed-and-breakfast operations, although many of these are still on independent, family-run units. The returns from pig keeping have a chequered history and the smaller operators started asked themselves why they should continue keeping pigs when it was much easier to concentrate on growing crops.”

Although the number of pig producers went into a slow decline from the middle of that decade, the fact that herds were becoming larger meant that the number of pigs being sold continued to increase – subject, of course, to the occasional dip as prices slumped and producers reacted to bring supply and demand back into balance.

Mr Doel, who left AQM in the mid-1970s but returned again in 1982, says that in price terms, the sector peaked in early 1996 when it was announced that scientists had established that BSE in cattle was linked to CJD in humans.

“That was pork’s hey day,” he adds. “For a few weeks, nobody would touch beef and everyone was buying pork. The prices went crazy.”

Not long after, however, the course of the pig industry changed dramatically as two major disease outbreaks hit the sector in close succession.

“The numbers of pigs that AQM was handling peaked in 2000 just before classical swine fever (CSF) was confirmed in East Anglia,” Mr Doel recalls. “And it was from that point that the industry began to reduce in size.”

CSF had been eradicated from the UK in 1966; there were sporadic cases in 1971 and 1986, but the 2000 outbreak was considered much more serious with the disease being confirmed on 16 farms. Notifiable disease movement restrictions saw many pigs destroyed on welfare grounds as stocking densities increased to unacceptable levels, and AQM’s pig marketing business was adversely affected. But there was much worse to come.

“The following year, foot & mouth disease hit the whole livestock sector,” Mr Doel says. “Unfortunately, that had the effect of cutting the pig industry in half.”

Forward looking
The shape of AQM’s pig producer membership today is about 70% farrow-to-finish, with the rest finisher only. Although there are still a handful of smaller producers, the average number of finished pigs marketed by each member has increased from about 45/week in the 1970s to 150/week now.

The co-op takes most of its pigs from producers in the Eastern Counties, although there are also a few members in Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and the East Midlands. On top of this, AQM markets sheep and cattle for its own members, and also on behalf of the Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative.

The forward-thinking attitudes that led Paul Mason to establish AQM in the first place have persisted at the organisation, which has been at the forefront of new schemes and technologies to improve returns to members. For example, when the profitability of the pig sector became dire in 1976, the co-op bought weaners itself for the first time and put them into finishing farms. It also started providing finance to bed-and-breakfast operations to allow them to buy weaners and take them through to slaughter – a scheme that remained in operation until 1998.

More recently AQM has become even more involved in the breeding and ownership of pigs right through to slaughter. Its Livestock Production Partnership (LPP), which was agreed by the board in 2009 and established in 2010, was set up for the production and finishing of livestock in partnership with its members, enabling a sharing of profits where there’s shared investment between the member and AQM.

In practice, AQM is currently supplying outdoor-bred weaners from two breeding herds with a total of 1,650 sows to six finishing sites in East Anglia, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. The finishers are taking the pigs from 7kg to 110kg on straw, when they’re mainly sold to Cranswick.

“LPP has been running for three years and we’ve learnt a lot,” Mr Doel says. “We survived the high feed prices and have found that with the right people, we can drive the scheme on.

“Traditionally, pigs were a way to get a foothold in farming and LPP is a modern route for new starters to move into the sector. We take all the producers under our wing and work with them on a frank and open basis. We visit twice a month to keep them on track, and provide plenty of advice on feeding regimes.

“The only part of the scheme that’s set in stone is that we’ll only supply weaners from one source to maintain the highest health, but everything else is open for discussion, including the size of the operation and the type of buildings that will be used.”

AQM also has a track record for getting involved with technology projects and was an early adopter of information technology (IT). In 2003 it received a grant from BPEX to totally revamp its IT systems, and it has continued to develop new systems – both on its own and in partnership with others – ever since.

In 2005, for example, qbox analysis – developed in conjunction with Harbro – was made available to AQM members via the co-op’s website. Two years later, it was working with Harbro and Innovent on trials of qscan, which uses cameras to estimate pig weights.

Today, IT projects are being headed by James Doel, Richard’s son, who joined the co-op in January 2013 from a career outside agriculture. With the support of the board, he’s pushing ahead with plans to develop new services and management tools for AQM’s members.

Some of the most exciting prospects for the future include work with animal identification specialist Shearwell Data on electronic ID for pigs using RFID eartags. Trials are also underway on the filtering and treatment of water from boreholes to drive intakes.

AQM management
The management team at the co-op is led by managing director Tim Leigh, who’s been with the organisation for more than 20 years.

Richard Doel, who’s now been with AQM continuously for 32 years, is pig business manager and Malcolm Evans, who also joined 32 years ago, is ruminants business manager.

This small and experienced team works closely with a board that comprises of 10 non-executive directors and is currently headed by Suffolk farmer Peter Havers, who’s chairman of AQM.

The directors are mainly farmers, supplemented by directors with special skills such as accounts and IT, and the board meets on a regular basis to work with the management team to achieve its key objective, which is to deliver initiatives and strategies that benefit all the co-operative’s members.

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