Region’s pig farmers reach ‘critical state’ as challenges mount

Alastair Butler of Blythburgh Pork with some of his pigs in the freezing conditions. Picture: SARAH

Suffolk pig farmer Alastair Butler says the build-up of problems faced by the industry will be too much for some - Credit: Archant

East Anglian pig farmers are facing a deepening crisis as sows approaching the end of their productive life get stuck on farms.

The UK industry is under huge financial and mental pressure due to a “perfect storm” of events, sector leaders have warned.

The National Pig Association (NPA) said the industry was in its “most critical state for decades” as pig sector leaders met with government officials on Tuesday, February 9 to try to iron out a host of problems besetting producers.

Disruptions to pork exports and coronavirus problems in pork plants are piling on the pressure as a backlog of thousands of pigs builds up on farms.

Bury St Edmunds pig consultant Peter Crichton said the region’s producers faced a combination of events including the fallout from Brexit and the practical difficulties caused by Covid at abattoirs and meat processing plants.

Added to these problems, a build-up in pig numbers on farms because of disruption to UK pig meat exports had conspired to put the regional pig industry under “enormous” financial and mental pressure, he said.

“There is also the ever-present threat of African Swine Fever (ASF) somehow entering the National UK pig herd, following on from the problems which have arisen in Germany where there have been over 600 cases of ASF hitting their wild boar herds. Fortunately at this stage their commercial units have not been directly affected,” he said.

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If the disease reaches these shores it could also lead to the valuable Chinese pig meat market being shut off to the UK at a time when the industry needs all the help it can get in finding markets for pig meat, he warned.

At the same time, the cost of feed and bedding has soared, with cereal, protein and straw prices all adding to pig producers’ woes.

It means the cost of production is now running at an estimated 20p to 30p/kg behind pig meat values, he said.

“The recent Arctic weather conditions and the prospect of more climate-related challenges to come, especially during periods of extremely wet weather are all adding to the psychological and financial challenges currently hitting the industry,” he added.

“Onerous” pig meat export red tape needed to be streamlined and digitised and closer scrutiny paid to cheap foreign pig meat imports entering this country to help restore the viability of one of the eastern region’s key farm sectors, he said.

Alastair Butler, of Blythburgh Free Range Pigs, a free-range operation in north Suffolk, said the industry was under tremendous strain.

“When it rains, it pours,” he said. “The way it appears is our country appears to be open to importing vast quantities of European meat and our supermarket shelves are lined with it.” At the same time, the European Union countries weren’t taking UK culled sow meat as before, he explained.

This had led to a build-up on farms, including his own, with more housing and feed needed to accommodate them.

“In the whole of January we didn’t sell a single culled sow and we would be looking at selling between 60 and 80,” he explained.

“As a result, we have had to incorporate them back into our system. It seems to be one of the effects of Brexit. There’s a bit of a lack of demand at the same time for meat within Europe.”

While their farm has been lucky with its abattoir services, other parts of the country have struggled amid the pandemic crisis, he said. “The pig price is crashing as a result of all that,” he explained. “Pig farming is a complete car crash and will be for the next six months.”

Meanwhile with pig feed costs soaring, his family business faced the cost of keeping the extra sows while new ones were still coming on stream and the loss of income from not being able to sell them. Luckily, Blythburgh’s own niche free-range pork market had stayed firm, he said.

But for some in the industry, this latest crisis is likely to be “too much”, he predicted.

“There are some older pig farmers out there who are coming up to retirement age and we are going to lose them with this latest blip,” he said. “It’s a tough time but at the end of the day I try to avoid worrying about something I can’t control.”

A recent NPA members’ survey found 86% of producers were having pigs ‘rolled’ by processors – or held over to a later date which meant keeping them on farm for longer than would usually be the case. A further 44% said this was a regular occurrence.