From milking cows to running a B&B for pigs – how a dairy farming family has adapted to a new way of life
- Credit: Ian Burt
A family dairy business which fell victim to the milk crisis has found a new lease of life – by filling its redundant cattle sheds with pigs.
One year after making the heart-wrenching decision to disperse their beloved Gemini herd of 400 dairy cows and calves, Ava Barrell and her son Tim's farm in Shipdham near Dereham is now home to just under 2,000 finishing pigs.
The sale last March ended four generations of dairy farming for the family, as the ongoing slump in milk prices meant the business was losing £160,000 a year.
The sight of the empty and silent barns marked a particularly low point in the Barrells' lives – but the arrival of the pigs has given the family renewed hope for the future.
Mrs Barrell said: 'It was heart-breaking, absolutely heart-breaking. Tim and I tried going into the building two days after we came back from the sale and the emotion just hit us when we walked into the shed. We had to turn around and walk out because we couldn't bear it. It was eerie to see it all so empty. It was like a void, like being in a coffin.
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'My role in life had disappeared. I did flounder for a while, trying to find a new role to take on.
'We had to sit down to think: 'What are we going to do with these buildings?''
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It was then that long-term family friend Graham Shadrack, of AJ Garrod and Son in Rockland All Saints, near Attleborough, discussed the potential for converting the former cattle sheds into a pig finishing unit, after the Barrells were approached about the possibility by Wayland Farms, which now supplies the animals.
Mr Shadrack runs the finishing enterprise in partnership with the family, along with his pig manager Ben Wilkins.
'The sheds needed a lot of work doing to them but Tim worked extremely hard to make it happen,' said Mr Shadrack. 'When you work seven days a week you should be entitled to have a life, especially when you have gone through what these guys have gone through. So I would like to see them successful.'
To ensure the sheds were suitable for pigs, the cubicles needed to be removed, new concrete floors and boarding were built, and new feeding and drinking systems were installed.
Mr Barrell said the farm was also continuing to make the most of its other assets, including 500 acres of arable land, while adapting to life after dairying.
'I don't miss the lifestyle of getting up so early every morning,' he said. 'This is a completely different lifestyle. I'm still busy doing the arable and a bit of contracting on the side, which is keeping things ticking over. We are also selling straw and doing hay and haylage.
'You need a few strings to your bow to keep farming going.
'We are not just standing still. I think if you stand still you go backwards. I am one of those people who wants to be going forward and plan for the future.'
During the last 12 months, the emotional lows and economic worries have forced both Mrs Barrell and her son to seek help from farming's mental health charity YANA (You Are Not Alone) – a counselling service which they were both full of praise for.
Mr Barrell said 'You feel like you are in a hole and you just need someone to help dig you out of it.'
For Mrs Barrell, a reminder of her passion for dairy cows has been retained on the farm, where 10 calves from her Gemini herd, now owned Willow Liveries, are still kept – although she confessed she would never have the same affection for pigs.
'It has been a sharp learning curve, because of the differences between pigs and cattle,' she said. 'But we have had to portray a positive attitude because we have got to look forward.'
PIG FINISHING OPPORTUNITIES
The business which supplies the farm's pigs is seeking more East Anglian farmers to provide 'bed and breakfast' finishing service to meet growing demand for high-welfare pork.
The Barrells' farm in Shipdham is supplied with batches of just under 2,000 pigs from breeding units run by Wayland Farms.
The animals – which are born and reared outdoors and finished in barns on straw – arrive at 35kg and will leave at a target weight of 110kg, destined for the Watton processing plant of Wayland Farms' parent company, Cranswick.
The company has invested £27m in its slaughter and butchery capacity at Watton, as it seeks to bolster its supply line to major UK retailers, and take advantage of export opportunities in countries like China.
To meet this demand, Andrew Crosser, pig finishing manager for Wayland Farms, hopes to find more recruits across East Anglia who are in a similar situation to the Barrells – seeking a new use for redundant buildings, or a way to diversify their business.
'It is a good way to make use of these old buildings,' he said. 'We advertise on a regional basis for either existing finishers, people with buildings like this which can be made into pig finishing buildings, or for people with new buildings.
'Typically the farmer gives us a ring and asks if we can make use of their buildings, and we will go and have a look and chat about the possibilities. We then weigh it up as a business and see if it is worth them investing in the project and getting some pigs in there to earn some money.
'We supply the pigs, the feed and any veterinary input and medicines that are necessary, and the farmer has to supply the buildings, labour and straw. It is a good whole-farm partnership. The straw comes off the fields and the muck goes back on the land.'
For more details, contact Andrew Crosser on 01953 880636 or firstname.lastname@example.org.