OPINION: More challenges ahead for hard-pressed pig farmers

Rob Mutimer with a 15-day-old piglet at Swannington Farm to Fork. Picture: Denise Bradley

Rob Mutimer is managing director of Swannington Farm to Fork, near Reepham, and also chairman of the National Pig Association  - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

The last six months have been a uniquely testing time for the pig industry, says Norfolk farmer Rob Mutimer of Swannington Farm to Fork, who was recently elected chairman of the National Pig Association (NPA).

We always feared that the end of 2020 could be a very tricky time for the UK pig industry with the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, but I don’t think anyone could have envisaged the turmoil that developed at the end of the year.

Our problems started with Covid outbreaks in both abattoirs and processing factories leading to significantly reduced throughput and the rapid build up of pigs on farms which became ever heavier and, in many cases, out of the contract specification leading to heavy deductions in the price paid.

On farm, the damage these animals caused to the buildings was significant and when 180 animals, each weighing 140kg-plus, decide not to cooperate on loading, the stress on the stockmen and drivers was considerable.

Brexit has at least come and gone, but the ongoing saga was not healthy for any of us. It has been very disappointing to see our government let all imports into the country with no extra checks while the Europeans have in many cases made life for our exporters incredibly difficult with heavy-handed bureaucracy and a "can’t do" attitude.

For us at farm level this led to a collapse in the cull sow trade and a further build-up of sows on farm in January and February. To put this in perspective the EU has always been our biggest export market for pig meat and that market was down 80pc in value in the month of February.

We still cannot export any breeding stock to Europe as there are no suitable border control posts in place. We at the NPA continue to remind government of the importance of the EU trade for our industry. New potential trade deals with countries such as Australia may have some opportunities for the sector but will never be of the same value as the EU and there is a long way to go on many issues before we have an acceptable stable trading relationship.

High food prices and low pig prices have led to significant losses for many producers with the AHDB (Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) reporting the average producer was losing £25 on every finished pig sold in the fourth quarter of 2020.

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Unfortunately, this has led to some producers quitting the industry, with as many as 10,000 sows being destocked. For us, on the outdoor unit, the weather has been extremely challenging over the past six months and it is massive credit to Jason and the other stockmen that we have coped through the winter months - at times it has been brutal keeping the unit running.

Through these challenging times the NPA has been very busy fighting the corner of the whole industry working closely with Defra over trade issues.

Getting Defra to host a roundtable led by ministers George Eustice and Victoria Prentis to see how we could clear the backlog of pigs on farms was important, as it gave us the opportunity to highlight issues such as the impact of Chinese suspension of abattoirs due to Covid and the need for compensation for pig producers who have lost money.

Both the Scottish and Northern Irish devolved governments have compensated their producers and it seems only right that the English producers are not negatively discriminated against.

Political pressure on the industry in terms of environmental and welfare issues is as always unrelenting and the NPA is working extremely hard to influence and steer government towards sensible practical solutions.

This is leading to intense debate about the future of farrowing crates which are used to protect piglets lives soon after birth, but which restrict sow movement for a short period. Around half of UK pig farmers use these at present so we must ensure that we avoid a repeat of the 1999 stall and tether ban which saw 40pc of producers exit the industry and more EU imports flooding in.

Of the many consultations going on, Red Tractor’s proposed standards revision has created the most interest. Red Tractor audits have developed hugely over the past decade, becoming increasingly thorough and all-encompassing.

Like many producers I am very worried the scheme has strayed away from the basic principle of good traceability and practices on farm and developed a high level of bureaucracy in order to be seen as all things to all parties in the supply chain.

I have to thank the Red Tractor board in holding a proper consultation with the pig industry which was conducted in a proactive way and we await the final outcome and changes to the scheme.