Pig farmer Kate Morgan recently attended a workshop organised on “Developing and integrated approach to health, welfare and productivity” funded by the Wellcome Trust and shared some thoughts about the practicalities of livestock production with fellow land-based professionals and academics. In the Landbridge blog she explains what life is like for a hands-on pig farmer who wants to set high welfare standards for her stock.
Welfare is a funny business when it comes to farming. Having travelled to many countries looking at welfare in the pig industry it’s fair to say that “welfare” depends on your perception and no two people see things in the same light. I am, however, very passionate about the way I see welfare and that’s the only way I want to farm our pigs. But this is where the problem starts. Raising a pig on straw does not carry a premium, yet it costs us more to produce and, in my opinion, it’s a better life for the pig.
I should perhaps say we have 1700 breeding sows indoors all based on straw. For one week out of the five they spend in farrowing accommodation they are in freedom pens. We also have an outdoor unit with 1200 sows. On both units we take all the progeny through to slaughter in large straw yards.
I don’t like to be all doom and gloom but currently the pig industry is in a bit of a crisis. There is just too much pork available for the demand. All the product from Europe which used to go to Russia is now flooding into the UK and with the strength of the pound retailers can’t help themselves but opt to buy cheaper meat. My problem with this is that farms in Europe don’t meet our standards. As a business we are in a really tough situation where we want to produce pigs to the high welfare standards that we believe in, but our efforts go unnoticed and we aren’t being paid for them. Retailers used to want a nice story about how we raise the pigs but things have changed. Now they are telling us to produce a pig as cheaply as we possibly can, and that means having slats, not straw. As our farm stands today we cannot compete against Europe because we just can’t produce a pig as cheaply, so what do we do? Are we fools to even think that people will pay a premium for an animal that’s had a better life? People demand cheap food, legislation is not enforced and, more importantly, what consumers say they want and what they do are two very different things. Do we get rid of all our nice straw yards and put fully controlled, insulated slatted buildings up and pack the pigs through? Whatever we do now we will have to carry on doing for the next 20 years. A 2000 place finisher building on slats will cost us over half a million pounds so it’s not an easy decision either way.
The work that the Wellcome Trust is carrying out could be a really positive move forward for livestock farmers. However, like with all research the hard part is not always the collecting the data but actually spreading the word. After attending the meeting with the Trust I came away thinking we were not stupid believing so passionately about the welfare of our animals and that other people also feel the same way however it’s all about perception and how you prove that one animal is happier than the other is a massive task in itself!
Antibiotic usage is only going to become under more and more pressure and rightly so. Numerous time I’ve heard people say livestock are performing well so they must be healthy and happy. I don’t buy this. We operate our outdoor progeny on an antibiotic-free system and so long as we operate an all-in-all-out system, with strict bio security, our pigs go through well, but they will never be the fasting growing animals. Antibiotics can be used as growth promotors and using them as a preventative is not the correct method, but farmers doing this will have quicker growing pigs than mine.
I love farming and to be honest I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t farming but I do feel we are up against it most of the time. We are all tarred with the same brush but are all sorts of farmers any time, because I have nothing to hide. But something needs to change because we are producing a product from a live animal that must be looked after and paid for fairly. So, to open another can of worms let’s leave the EU and support our country because I’m sure the EU need us more than we need them.