National Pig Farmer of the Year hails the team behind his success
- Credit: Ian Burt
A commitment to herd performance, animal welfare and team-building has scooped a national title for a Norfolk entrepreneur. CHRIS HILL spoke to the 2016 Pig Farmer of the Year, Steve Hart
More than 20 years ago, former grain trader Steve Hart invested his last £500 to start a pig business in Norfolk after an unsuccessful attempt to earn a living as a contract breeder in Lincolnshire.
Now the enterprise has flourished into a high-welfare production powerhouse, with 9,000 outdoor sows and 70,000 growing pigs, supplying high-end meat to customers including Waitrose, McDonald's and Chipotle.
And the growth of the firm, its commitment to animal health and the dedication inspired among its 90-strong workforce has earned Mr Hart a national accolade after he was announced as the Farmers Weekly Pig Farmer of the Year for 2016.
His company, Norfolk Free Range, is based near Wisbech but has breeding units and growing farms spread around East Anglia.
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Its main direct customer is BQP, part of the Dalehead business which supplies Waitrose supermarkets – and it is a supply chain that shares ideas so innovations and working practices pioneered on farms can be rolled out in other sectors.
'No-one is ever perfect all the time, but we have standards to work to and it does make you proud of what you do,' he said. 'You are not just producing meat and forever worrying about the price and whether you can afford to keep doing it.
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'This is one of the reasons I went in for the award, to thank Waitrose for their integrity. Our group is always seeking to set our – and hence their –– product apart from the rest. Red meat is a category that is in decline but we are maintaining our levels and a lot of that is down to what we do as a group.
'We are always tweaking things. It is invariably not just cutting costs to make more money. It is showing that we are honouring our side of the deal we have with the retailer, which is to show least cost of production, but to the highest standards. In return, they need continuity of supply. It is not totally selfless and they ensure that we are here to survive the market downturns.'
While the company's three-week batch farrowing system has achieved productive returns, and new measures to reduce antibiotics have improved herd health, Mr Hart said there had also been innovations in the field of people management – although he is keen to remain a 'hands on' manager.
'All the breeding units are based around two-man teams, with strategic help during the three-week batch farrowing cycle,' he said
'The two-man thing does help with how staff get on. If they have issues they resolve them because they are reliant on each other.
'That was an idea of my own making. As a consequence we have more people looking for jobs rather than seeking to leave.
'I have got some fantastic people in the business, and some rough diamonds. I have got one farmer where there are three generations still working for us.
'We are quite a size now, with 90-odd people, but I'm still very hands-on. Sometimes the guys might hate me because I don't turn up in a suit and tie and if they have not done something right I can go and do it myself. I cannot say they respect me for it – perhaps it is begrudging – but they know that I'm always about. It does get harder when you are supposed to be in the office all the time, but I am much happier being out here.'
About the farm
Norfolk Free Range has 30 growing farms and 11 breeding units, ranging across west and north Norfolk and into Suffolk at Woodbridge and Newmarket.
The breeding units operate on a three-week batch farrowing system, using 100pc artificial insemination.
Pigs are all farrowed individually and each has an individual feeder with a clean water tank which increases food consumption during lactation, which improves on weaning weights.
Two years ago Mr Hart switched to single parity herds – keeping sows together from their first litter and not introducing new gilts to the herd – to reduce aggression and help control disease.
Since these changes, output has increased from 23.5 to 25 pigs weaned per sow per year and average weaning weights are up by 0.7kg.
Reducing antibiotic use
The pig industry has committed to a programme of action to reduce antibiotic use in UK agriculture following the final report of the O'Neill Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.
It is an approach which Steve Hart of Norfolk Free Range endorses, having already taken steps to eliminate the use of antibiotics in his animal feed.
He said: 'We are leading the way with reduction of antibiotics use, and the responsible use of antibiotics. We are going to launch a training tool for staff to understand antimicrobial resistance and how it impacts the world.
'The first step in reduction is recording. We record collectively as a group and all of that is passed to Waitrose's technical team.
'Reducing stress reduces any need for treatment, so our system is all about the reduction of stress. We are acidifying water in breeding animals on one site to improve gut flora and health and that's had a huge impact on antibiotic use. We use vaccination to mitigate illness and improve antibodies within the growing animals.
'All of this is quite straightforward but we are recording it and showing a reduction and showing responsibility. We are trialling an app where any administration of antibiotics is recorded and immediately zapped to a computer so everybody knows. We are developing a system with the free range growing pigs where any animals treated with antibiotics are taken away from the group so the majority of the animals come to slaughter age antibiotic-free. 'We withdrew all in-feed medication back in spring 2016, and we've got much more prescriptive and much more focused on any treatments which become necessary.'
Following the publication of the O'Neill Review in May, Defra made a commitment to a reduce antibiotic use in livestock to an average of 50mg/kg across all sectors by 2018.
The National Pig Association (NPA) launched its Antibiotic Stewardship Programme, the introduction of the eMB-Pigs database to record antibiotic usage. Last month, the NPA said more than five million pigs had been entered onto the database and recommended that this should be made compulsory under the Red Tractor Pork scheme.