How a Norfolk food firm recovered from disease outbreak to become the best pig farm in the country

Swannington Farm to Fork is owned and run by Rob and Helen Mutimer. Picture: Ian Burt

Swannington Farm to Fork is owned and run by Rob and Helen Mutimer. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

What makes a champion pig farm? According to the Norfolk winner of the 2018 national Pig Farmer of the Year title, it has a lot to do with resilience, common sense and staff involvement.

A Norfolk pig farm's journey to being crowned the best in the country took three years of growth and improvement – and it all began with a devastating disease outbreak.

Rob and Helen Mutimer, who run Swannington Farm to Fork near Reepham, were 'delighted' to win the 2018 Pig Farmer of the Year category in the Farmers Weekly Awards earlier this month.

The farm, which produces around 14,000 pigs per year from its high-welfare herd of 700 sows, was applauded for its customer focus, its mix of markets and the involvement of its staff in a profit share scheme.

But all of this had to be re-built from scratch after a major setback in 2015, when the breeding sows had to be killed after the herd was diagnosed with swine dysentery.

Mr Mutimer said the business refused to be defined by the outbreak – instead, they found a way to take advantage of this misfortune.

'It was a very, very difficult time, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone,' he said. 'But it gave us a bit of time to stand back and look at how we manage the pig unit with a view to changing our management structures, enabling us to get better health in the herd.

Most Read

'We had to kill out all the animals, wash and disinfect the whole farm, and bring in animals of the right breed and the right age to breed on the farm.

'We started running a completely closed herd, so we only bring in semen and not live animals. And there is a lot more attention to detail in key areas, weaning and vaccination policies. In some ways we were quite lucky to have been given that clean piece of paper to drive the management of the herd.'

Other management changes have reduced the farm's usage of drugs, vaccines and antibiotics by maintaining strict herd health policies.

'The most common issue we have in the pig industry is respiratory diseases, when you start mixing pigs of different ages,' said Mr Mutimer. 'It is like when you send your kids back to school after half term and they come back with coughs and sneezes after picking up all the bugs.

'So we have the discipline of not mixing animals of different age groups, and making sure farms are washed down and cleaned between batches. It is all common sense and it means we have got a much better chance of keeping the herd healthy.'

Another aspect which caught the awards judges' attention was the farm's two-banded marketing strategy, with about 85pc of its produce supplied to Waitrose, and the rest going through the in-house butchery, adding value to the meat which is sold to pubs and restaurants throughout Norfolk.

'It did not feel right strategically to just have one customer, however good that customer is,' said Mr Mutimer.

Mr Mutimer has also established a scheme to share profits with staff – acknowledging their importance to the success of the business and its decision-making.

'We have got very loyal staff,' he said. 'If you grow from half a dozen to 20-odd, like we have now, you lose contact and don't get to talk to them so much. But they are the people on the ground so we want them to talk to us more, rather than less.

'We put a profit share into the annual review, and also we have a community of different members of staff who meet four times a year to discuss strategic decisions for the business.

'One of the jobs we were doing with vaccinating pigs was taking a lot of man hours and causing a lot of stress. They were picking up 1,000 piglets, each weighing 7kg, every third week.

'So we designed a system that allows the men to vaccinate them without picking them up or handling them. It took out eight man hours.

'These are the sort of things you get from your staff, because they are doing the job every day.'

Mr Mutimer dedicated the national award to the efforts of his team, adding: 'We are delighted. Norfolk has got some of the best farmers in the country, so it is lovely for our staff to get this recognition.'