Three hours from farm to chiller

Having previously looked at Karro Foods’ weaner operation in Scotland’s Highland Region, Pig World editor Graeme Kirk takes a look at the Yorkshire end of the set-up, as the pigs move from bed-and-breakfast accommodation to the firm’s Malton abattoir

Every week, Karro Foods sends about 4,000 four-week-old weaners from its units in northern Scotland to grower farms not far from the English border. Here, the pigs, which are increasingly being bred from Rattlerow-supplied Landrace White Duroc cross sows, are reared for a further three weeks before being transferred to finisher units within easy reach of Karro’s abattoir and processing plant at Malton, North Yorkshire.

Having arrived in the Borders weighing between seven to 10kg, the aim is to move the pigs on at 15kg when it’s still possible to get about 1,100 of them in a specialist articulated pig trailer. As we established last time, finished pigs are expensive to move long distances, so it pays to complete the growing process close to their final destination.

While Karro runs its own herds to produce the weaners, it doesn’t retain ownership of the pigs right through to finishing; instead the young pigs are sold to third parties that take responsibility for arranging the grower accommodation in the Borders, and the final finishing units further south.

One of Karro’s current finishers is Yorkshire Farmers, which puts pigs into about 18 farms all within an hour’s travelling time from Malton. Also based at Malton, it is a co-operative that was founded in 1932 and is still going strong. It has about 200 members and its services include slaughter pig and weaner marketing services, as well as finishing weaners for Karro.

According to the co-op’s commercial director, Robert Smith, its bed-and-breakfast finishing units currently range in size from 400 to 8,500 pigs (although admittedly the second largest is 2,400 head).

“That’s not to say we wouldn’t work with a smaller finisher,” he says. “A unit that could take 200 pigs would be viable if the set-up was suitable for the job. Karro is increasing its sow numbers in Scotland, so we have access to more pigs if we can find producers to finish them.”

Yorkshire Farmers knows it’s taking most of the risk in this finishing operation. It’s responsible for buying the pigs, supplying all the feed (three phased rations), all vet and med bills and the transport costs too. The bed-and-breakfast finisher is only responsible for providing suitable accommodation, straw and labour to look after the pigs.

“It’s a business where margins can be tight, so we monitor the finishers closely,” Mr Smith says. “We get feedback from our vet whenever he has to visit one of our producers, and we get an email to let us know when a finisher orders more feed.

“Naturally we also get a full report on all the pigs at slaughter and will measure the mortality, total feed use and feed conversion ratio on every batch of pigs on every farm.”

The bed-and-breakfast units tend to get paid a fixed amount for every pig they finish, although some are on fixed monthly payments based on the expected throughput. There are no bonus payments available to the producers, but any that don’t perform up to standard risk losing their contract.

Yorkshire Farmers’ target is to supply pigs into Karro’s Malton abattoir that will produce an 86 to 87kg carcase, and the co-op’s Graham Cross is charged with meeting that target. He visits every unit and marks the pigs that will go for slaughter each week.

“We don’t weigh the pigs, but rely on Graham’s experience,” Mr Smith says. “We aim to empty each unit in three draws, with the first pigs going after they’ve been on the farm for about 16 weeks.

“It’s a system that works well, and the fact we get immediate feedback from Karro on the pigs we’re sending means Graham is constantly able to fine-tune his selection process.”

Diversified operation
On a Monday morning in early July, Pig World was on a bed-and-breakfast unit near Micklefield, in West Yorkshire, to follow a batch of Karro’s Scottish-bred finishers from the farm to the Malton abattoir. The unit, which has a capacity of 675 pigs in four large straw yards, is a diversified operation that counts finishing pigs as just one of an eclectic mix of enterprises.

Graham Cross had identified 151 pigs ready to go on his visit at the end of the previous week (at slaughter this particular first-draw batch averaged 83.6kg and a P2 of 11.9), and contract pigman Andrew Speight – who splits his time between working on this farm and a larger unit nearby – had spent three hours on the Sunday separating the pigs into a series of smaller pens ready for collection.

A little before 9.00am, Alan Barber of Chris Waite Transport arrived and backed his top-of-the-range Houghton Platinum pig trailer onto the farm’s loading bay. After a few minutes to change into clean wellies and over-trousers, he was ready to open the rear doors and prepare the trailer by spreading sawdust around and arranging the hydraulically operated lifting decks for loading.

The trailer is split into four bays and has a total of 15 pens available. It can hold a maximum of 200 finishers, so this load allowed the pigs a bit more headroom than normal as some of the pens weren’t required.

The layout of the farm’s buildings meant that loading was a relaxed affair. Andrew Speight let the pigs out of the holding pens and moved them towards the loading ramp, where Alan Barber slap-marked them on both sides as he counted them into the truck in batches of about 20 pigs for each pen. All 151 were loaded in little more than 20 minutes.

Precision planning
The scale of Karro’s Malton plant means that logistics can’t be left to chance and each day’s kill is carefully planned and scheduled by a small team led by pig buying manager Jenny I’Anson. Every load going into the plant has a booked delivery slot and isn’t allowed on-site more than 45 minutes early, so the Chris Waite Scania and trailer was cutting it fine when we arrived at 10:48 for the 11:30 booking. By about 11:15, the trailer was on the unloading bay and was emptied even quicker than it was filled.

Unloading was just as smooth and relaxed as loading. The pigs had settled down on their one-hour journey from the farm, and appeared quite content in their pens as each gate was opened. Karro’s Jane Jobling, who unloads the pigs, counted them off and directed them into holding pens inside. An FSA vet also monitored the pigs as they came off the truck.

Apart from a bit of noise immediately after the pigs were mixed up again going into the lairage pens, they quickly settled down. Typically the finishers will only spend about 45 minutes here before they reach the front of the queue for the CO2 stunner, and by this stage everything is calm once again. A single operator is all that’s needed to manage the stunner. He uses a series of remote-controlled gates to separate the pigs into groups of seven that are loaded into pens in a carriage system (think of the London Eye, but with half the wheel underground) that lower them into a pit full of heavier-than-air CO2 and knocks them out ready for processing. An hour later, the carcases are ready to load into chillers.

Karro Food’s Malton operation
The Malton plant typically runs four days a week (Monday to Thursday). It can process about 580 pigs every hour and aims at a throughput of 4,500 pigs/day. There’s a staff of 87 on the slaughter side of the business, plus another eight FSA inspectors and vets.

It’s true that every part of the pig has a use; for example, Karro has built export markets for the intestines (used for sausage skins), bones and hocks that go to China, and ribs that go to the US. At various points along the slaughter line – and in separate side rooms – hearts, kidneys and other organs are also cleaned and collected ready for sale for either human or pet consumption.

Karro cuts and packs all the pigs it kills to add value. The cutting business is kept completely separate from the killing operation, with the firm’s cold stores forming a physical barrier between the two. The carcases put into the cold stores by the slaughter staff are typically removed again 24 hours later by the cutting operation, which prepares and packs the pork for UK retailers.

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