Together we’re closing the gap

British pig producers are starting 2015 on the front foot as we’re now on a par with Europe, writes BPEX’s knowledge transfer team leader, Steve Winfield

For the first time, the British pig industry is on a par with the European average from a breeding herd point of view, and I feel it’s important that we recognise the progress producers are making.

In fact, when we look at the 12-month rolling Agrosoft average to June 2014, we’re actually ahead of all the other EU countries on improving our weaned per sow per year (indoors); we’re closing the gap on the elite at a faster rate. We’ve increased numbers weaned by more than 1.5, whereas the Danish average has only shifted 0.38.

And, when we look at the data from a finishing point of view, our growth rates and feed conversion ratios (FCR) are on a par with the best in Europe, and you’d have to say that’s quite impressive given the wide range of systems used here.

There has been good profitability for a sustained period that’s seen significant investment in new buildings and equipment that will no doubt have contributed to the increase in performance, which in turn makes us more competitive with our global counterparts.

This ties in with the fact that we seem to be keeping the cost of pig meat production under control, according to the 2013 Pig Cost of Production in Selected Countries report, published last month. While all EU countries experienced an increase in the average costs of production (in sterling terms) compared to 2012, in Britain the increase was only 4% (to £1.59/kg deadweight) compared with an average 6% increase across the EU (to £1.56/kg deadweight).

Now, I appreciate we all have work to do to keep this going, particularly with potential for a slightly less favourable market due to global trading issues and adjustments to feed prices, but I believe we should allow ourselves a little pat on the back as we start the new year and recognise that we’re doing a decent job.

So where does BPEX come in and how can we help? Well you’ll hopefully be aware that last year saw the launch of “Going For Growth”, our 2014-2018 strategy, and we felt that if we were going to make this a success there needed to be a new approach. One that saw an increase in trial work, demonstrating new products and techniques in this country and overseas; along with a more tailored approach to customers, because of the specialist information that people now need to move their businesses forward; and more presence on farm to share up-to-date production advice. We’re moving more towards a “what can we do to help you?” approach rather than “one size fits all”. Whether you have 20 sows or 20,000, there’ll be something we can do to help improve performance, and that’s important to know.

The first step was to set up four regional forums made up of producers, vets and other allied industry representatives. These forums meet every six months to identify ideas for our new trials programme, ensure that BPEX is addressing the needs of producers and to be a critical friend when we don’t get it quite right.

BPEX innovation team manager Charlotte West and field trials co-ordinator Peter Dunne are currently pulling together some proposals for protocol-driven trials. The ideas include looking at small pig management, feeding the sow and optimal housing requirements for finishing pigs, plus many more. Charlotte has put out a request for people to come forward if they feel they have suitable units to run trials.

This is a deliberate move away from the perceived quick-and-dirty trials of old. Once trials are completed, we’ll be in a position to give firm recommendations based on solid data about what can make a real difference on-farm to closing the performance gap.

There have also been changes to the knowledge transfer team, with Andrew Palmer joining in the East and Kate Mellor in the South. Along with Richard Bows, now in the North, and Angela Cliff covering the Midlands, the team has significant practical on-farm experience, essential to enable them to relate to the day-to-day issues you face.

The knowledge transfer managers are increasing their presence on farm, with more face-to-face engagement in order to help deliver our KPIs of improving FCR by 0.1, average daily liveweight gain by 50g/day and weaning an extra piglet per sow per year, along with other aspects of technical performance. You may feel these are low targets, but they allow people who may be struggling to make a start at improvement and those who are high performing to try and squeeze that bit more. Remember they are just a starting point.

The farm review process has always been in place, but it needed updating in order to include more people from across the industry and generate as much benefit for the producer as possible. Where relevant, we invite along a vet or other allied industry representative who can provide a fresh set of eyes to spot opportunities and help ensure we are delivering consistent advice that all parties involved in the unit are aware of. We can also act as a conduit to point people in the direction of the other industry experts when required.

This new approach has been welcomed, and since April we have carried out more than 100 farm reviews. The report from the review is shared with the relevant people in the farm business and it may also highlight a need for more support from other areas within BPEX such as Helen Brothwell’s communications team or Martin Smith’s veterinary team.

We also recognise that, with increased levels of investment, the need to maximise performance of buildings and also comply with increasingly complex legislation has never been more paramount. To help meet this demand, Thomas Burling has joined BPEX to work alongside Nigel Penlington and Sue Rabbich. He’ll be getting out in the field and delivering support and advice in areas such as ventilation and efficiency, using tools such as thermal imaging. As his role grows, he will also be involved in supporting producers on issues such as buildings and planning, odour and ammonia issues, soil management and cross compliance.

As I said at the start of the article, the industry has achieved a huge amount in the past 12 months and 2015 will no doubt have new challenges. But I’m excited at the prospect of the new BPEX technical team working alongside vets and allied industry colleagues to help our customers make the most of the opportunities and withstand the challenges. If, as an industry, we all pull together as a resource, we’ll continue to close the gap and, if you need support in your business, please pick up the ‘phone – we’re here and ready to listen.

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