Kate Morgan - High welfare systems - Can they meet world food demand?
I am 29 years old and live in the small town of Driffield in East Yorkshire. I am a Director of our family pig farm which has 1700 breeding sows and takes the progeny to slaughter, selling to Sainsbury’s via Cranswick. The whole family is involved in the business, my Mother and Father and also my two older sisters.
I studied at Newcastle University and graduated in 2003 with a 2:1 joint hons in Agri Business Management. After University I worked in marketing but this was not for me! So I decided to do a ski season and then continued to spend a year travelling round the World. I have many hobbies, ranging from Eventing my two horses to playing hockey and running.
A busy day today, I managed to get a meeting with Murphy Brown at their head office in Ames and so have squeezed that in at lunch time! Our first meeting is with Dr Mark Honeyman, a professor at Iowa State University. Mark gave us a great overview of how the industry has changed since the 80's and how his attitude towards research was really a little before its time, he started looking at the welfare of the sow and the different building types back in the 90's. He has written a number of papers which he gave us about the comparison of performance in different buildings and a few of his findings were quite a shock.He really likes the hoop barn and did a comparison against confined pigs and found that during the summer the pigs performed better in a hoop than the confined pigs however in the winter they performed a little worse, the confined building pigs were very consistent as you would expect! However to my surprise they did not build a kennel in the hoop barns which I feel is the most important part of weaning small pigs into natural buildings and I think it would be interesting to see how these figures would have compared, I can't help think that potentially these buildings have a place for our finishers, very low capital cost and proven to work, with a a few minor changes I think I could get them to be quite productive in England, watch this space!!
His ideal unit would be bedded hoop gestation, indoor bedded farrowing, group lactation - bedded and then finishing in a hoop barn bedded. He has thought this is the ideal system for a number of years! He traveled a lot to Denmark and Sweden and like the Swedish systems. He however does not see the US going download the straw route, he thinks they will go stall free which is obvious really but he does not feel it will change much more. I have not yet had chance to read his papers but I think it will be very interesting.
Our meeting with Murphy Brown went really well but I have to say they were very 'Murphy Brown' brain washed and had few views of their own, which I guess is what you get when you start talking to people in the office of a large company, the guys on farm had been very passionate about the farming where as these guys were priced driven and not pig driven if that makes sense?! However, we still got quite a bit from it. The estimated cost of them changing all their sows into Gestation pens rather than stalls is $330 million which they say has been driven by the consumer but after a while I think it's partly that and partly because they needed to invest in buildings regarding maintenance and so was an ideal time to do it, when asked who was going to cover this cost they say they are not sure, to me it's a hell of a lot of money to not know how they are going to gain it back and if their is an opportunity for a small premium, I just don't think they wanted us to know but I'm damn sure they won't be taking the whole hit! They did mention that they thought the sow would perform better and when asked if they had to build new buildings they said that they had just reduced the herd size, again I'm a little doubtful of this, they have increased the space from 14 square foot to 24, so that would be a very large reduction in sows but who knows!
All of their sow units are based in the south because they want them to be isolated which makes total sense but then some of the piglets will be on the wagon for 24hours, this seems an awful long time but they feel that the stress of weaning is the same if the pig travels for 1 hour or 24 hours, I'm not sure where the research for that is but I'd be keen to see it!
Other areas that they think they need to look at or will have to look at are Tail docking, Castration and the use of growth promotors.
Figures were not easy to get out of them but I got the feeling that performance of the sows were a little poorer than they hoped for, however the farms that are now stall free has seen an increase in farrowing rates, in stalls they were low to mid 80% and the pens they are now high 80's to low 90%. They were however only weaning 10.5 per littler and having high mortality as they said that they were pushing 13 born alive, a little more questioning and I think that their farrowing pens are very small and so they are experiencing a lot of laid on's (60% of mortality). They are however very pleased with their finishing production and are trying to move more to a wean to finish operation rather than a 2 stage system. I tried hard to get the COP but I had no luck! I have a few people's e mails so I may continue to push for that info!! They finally stated that they did not think the US will expand the herd but will go for more efficiency, which a day after my meeting with them I gets report through on e mail stating that the US herd size has expanded already this year!,
Our final meeting of the day was with Dr James McKean, the guy who has helped me a lot during our trip so we just met up for a bit of a conclusion meeting. He talked about the age of the farmers and that a lot of farmers will be out by 2017 when they are meant to be out of stalls and so they are not too worried, this seems so short sighted to me, surely they want the industry to continue, farming is not popular currently which is something they need to try and change. He said about the US customer being very different and that he does not feel that they will pay extra for a higher welfare pig, and that they really don't have a clue about pig production, even less than the UK consumer, but they are not trying to educate as they don't want to bring extra costs to the industry! He has a view of welfare and thinks that ESF systems are fantastic but again the farmer will not invest in this as they are old and technology is not something they are good at, it really does seem a bit selfish and very backwards but I guess it will change, weather this will be because the independent go out the the larger companies take over and push for a certain building and system but I have no doubt that the use of technology will happen in the US industry, the change in housing is more of an unanswered question I would say.
Our last meeting was on our way back to Chicago, we stopped at Becker Lane pigs, a young lad called Jude runs this organic farm, he has 300 sows and seems to be doing it very well and making money, something which we have not seen so much of in America. He has spotted a niche and is doing it very well! Again very well traveled and using ideas from around the world. He would like to expand but finding land is very difficult at the moment but there is a market if he can produce more. He tells us that the general commodity pig is getting around 55cents per lb, a Niman ranch
Maybe 70 cents at best and he is getting $2.16 per lb so he's getting a massive premium. He thinks its costing him about $280 to feed a finished pig. He was finishing them in old cattle bar s with access to open yards where he feed them, the pens looked really good and again potentially an option for us to look at.
What can I say, I have had the most amazing time in both Brazil and America and come to think in every country I have been lucky enough to of visited, I have seen and learnt so much and met some great people who I hope will come and see me or at least stay in touch! One things for sure is that no matter where you are in the world if your with a farmer you can guarantee that you will finish the day sat outside in the sun or round the kitchen table with a beer and some amazing food, I guess us farmers are all the same really and we all love talking farm and the beer and food part goes without saying!
I now have the hard task of trying to write everything that I have learnt into something that will be interesting and benefit the industry, I guess that's the hardest part but for now I'm sat at Chicago airport and I'm not heading home but heading to New York to see a friend for the weekend so for now I'm forgetting about the report, I will spend many hours stressing about that! OSA few more days of beer and food before its back to work and to be honest I'm looking forward to working, I guess that's another thing all farmers share, the love of doing some good hard graft and boy it sounds sad but I've missed it!
Thanks for reading and I will continue to write a few logs but for now I'm signing off!
So, I have had a little time to think about what I have seen and I actually do feel a little clearer on what I wrote in my last blog! America has certainly got me thinking and I don't quite know how I was so blinkered before, they really have no set assurance policies and even the ones they have I really don't think they have any way of policing them!
After our visit to Eden Farms we headed to Omaha a small town just on the boarder of Iowa and Nebraska. Here is the head office of Aberdeen foods, a company run by Dr Gary Dial, the company focuses very much on high welfare. Gary has been involved in the industry for all his life and is actually a vet by trade. He has worked for and run some very big farms but felt that he was making money and was very successful but to him he had forgotten about what mattered to him as a person, and that was animal welfare and the family farm! This view is quite a unique one in America I feel but he is passionate about it and so that's what he is now focusing on!
Gary has traveled a lot looking at animals and the welfare associated to them and likes the modern technology that we use and most of the EU, he feels that the US do follow what we do but they are generally 20 or so years behind. American culture is so different from the UK, we depend very heavily on the government were as in the US they are market driven which the government have little to do with!
Finally I found someone that stated quite clearly that the no Antibiotic rule over here is lowering the welfare however that is what the consumer wants! On a commodity farm they don't have to record drug usage and so this could potentially be why the consumer is worried as who knows if the meat is drug free before it goes to slaughter?! And they are happy to treat everything and anything!
Aberdeen farms has 10,000 sows all no AB however they are not isolated either which to me would be the 1st thing I would do if I was going to stop all drug usage and up the bio security to a max but that's not what we have been seeing or hearing, it really does make me think! Again though he is quick to state that 20-30% of pigs will get treated and therefore sold to a different market which makes me feel a little happier that they acknowledge that they do treat some! He drew us a great diagram of how the industry looks at the moment and shows organic on the far left then next to 'No Never AB' which break into a number of sectors, but in general GAP audited or non GAP. Then was the minimal use of AB, this is probably the sector I would must favour, a little attention on the housing but still being able to treat the sick pig. Then the far end was the commodity pig - stalls, creates, growth promoters, use of AB etc.
Gary gave a rough figure of approx $9 per pig for being No never AB, and he put a figure of $250-$325 for 1 finishing place with Aberdeen Farms paying $40 per pig space per year on average, approx $28 over the base market price. This is from 60 - 270lbs.
Aberdeen farms would like to develop the minimal use market however they are aware that its not currently the correct system for the US, if they could follow the EU model then they think that would be the correct way to raise pigs but they will have to wait a few years before this will be a possibility. This system has only been present in the last 4 years so it has an opportunity!
Prices seem to be hard and I have had a number of different numbers thrown at me and currently unsure which is correct but Gary states it costs 50% more to run a No Never AB system than a conventional, remember that a lot of the No Never systems are also loose housed and free farrowing to a degree! The Aberdeen farms operate a farrowing pen that has the sow shut up until the piglets are 3 days old then they are let out and after 2 weeks the sow has to be let out of the pen to go for a walk! They are averaging 12BA with a mortality of anywhere between 7 and 10%. They wean at an average of 31 days and they are about 18lbs at this stage. The business has protocols for every task and so different farms do operate similar. Average of 26/pigs/sow/year. So at least he is productive and competitive.
They are very keen on the meat quality and use different genetics for the meat, they do a lot of testing in the plants, checking PH levels and marbling, something that perhaps we should learn from, I think the retailers are just thinking about this. Ow in England!
I think the thing that has really stood out to me is the fact that the majority of the pigs farmed in America will not be assured and a vet won't of been on the farm ever! To me this just sounds crazy, I feel,we learn so much on improving production from out quarterly visits and close communication with our vet. The farmers we have met have all been quite old and what I would call stuck in their ways, over 60% of pig farmers in the Iowa region are 60 years old or older with a lack of interest from younger people! This is what Gary wants to change he wants to get the family farm up and running and get the children involved making it profitable however I'm finding it hard to believe that the American consumer really cares, all I see is that they want meat and a lot of it for as cheap as possible!
Our next meeting took us to Niman Ranch, the largest producer of No AB pigs. We saw one of their farms last Monday and that's what confused me massively, how could they sell it as high welfare when I really did not see any form of welfare! This was going to be interesting!
The first thing was that they are selling the pigs as outdoors or bedded, in hoop buildings or on pasture, sounds great! They free farrow and everything has room to move, a great high welfare system I feel, however, then there is the No AB, of which she could not tell me what percentage of the pigs would not make it to the Niman Ranch brand as it had had to be injected but was sure that the farmers did not lie about using drugs! When one is not getting audited and they know they don't have a market for the pig once they have jabbed it I feel quite confident in saying I'm sure some slip through the system! But maybe that's just me!!
The figures just don't add up, they are weaning 8 piglets per litter on pasture and 10 in the hoops. They wean at 5 weeks of age and the company sells approx 2000 to 3000 a week. The average size of the farms are 40 sows and they have about 475 farms, just using very simple maths they have 19,000 sows, say 130,000 finished pigs a year (2500x52) that's an average of 7pigs/sow/year!!! How can this be? But that's what she was quite certain of! They pay $1.04/lb of dead weight against a commodity pig $0.70 but I just can't see how this works, I'm certain a commodity farmer will be producing 25/pigs/sow/year. Niman Ranch pigs take 7 months to finish, it's just so strange, and unless I'm seriously missing some fact or figures it is no surprise to me that the company has not grown since 2007, but it is a surprise that they are still about, I think the farmers which farm for them are unsure of their costs - feeding the corn they produce was one excuse she gave me but that de valuing the corn, they would make more selling the corn rather than feed it to the pigs!
Another thing which I found interesting was the lack of bio security and the phrase 'ever farmer has to use as many vaccines as possible' so that's fine pump as may vaccines into the pig and then you don't have to treat it again, but if you do unlucky you loose all your money and we won't help you market that pig! CRAZY but I must say this is my opinion and they are still a business and so this can not be the case for every one of their farmers although I did ask why they did not have their own farms and pigs, that was not the way they wanted the business to go!
Well I have to say I'm still not convinced, I have a meeting with Murphy Brown tomorrow which will be good to ask them their views on Niman Ranch, they are a very large commodity producer and I think after all the 'high welfare' values I have seen I will be happy to see a pig that is produced to make money! It's nice to know that although welfare is important to me I am still very very aware of making money, at the end of the day it's a business and if you don't make money don't do it!
I also had a looked round some retailers today, I went to Hyvee, Fareway, Wheatsfield and Wal Mart, and to be honest I saw what I thought I would see! The only place I saw Niman Ranch product was in Wheatsfield, a organic and natural retailer! Wal Mart and Fareway only offered commodity pork and Hy Vee offered No AB and standard. The prices were cheap I have to say and even the No AB where not overly expensive, to me I don't know why just using no AB should raise the price that much if done correctly, I fact it should lower the price, healthier pigs will grow faster, it's just not what I have seen as they are suffering! It's the system that should up the price. I have a meeting on Wed where I'm hoping to get different coatings on the systems which may help me.
Right I think I have written far too much and to be honest after all this time away I'm starting to get a wee bit fat, too much food and beer and so I'm going to hit the gym and pool before I hit the bar! Surely it will help tonight's intake!!
Humanely reared, what does this mean?!
Dad flew home and I was alone in Rio for just one day, we had heard of a few muggings but to be fair I felt safe and so had a lovely day on the beach, my last day in the sun for well, with England's weather it could be the last for a long time!
I left rio late at night heading for Chicago via Atlanta. The flight was long but not so bad as far as flights go and I arrived in Chicago at lunchtime on paddys day. What a day to arrive, Chicago goes wild on paddys day, everyone was dressed up, the river had been changed to bright green and the beer was even green!! I could not help but celebrate with the rest of the city, I had a great afternoon and night, people had come from all over America to be in Chicago for today and I can see why, everyone was on great form and a great time was had by all!!
Monday morning and Matt Simmons, a scholar from Oz finally arrived, it was great to see him again and we grabbed a car and headed over to Ames, in Iowa. After being in Brazil where the scenery was so beautiful I had trouble coming up with a way to describe the drive, I ended up just saying dull!! Flat, straight and everything was either covered in snow or looked very dead, not quite Brazil!! God it's bloody cold here!!! Even colder than England!!!
We meet James McKean in our hotel, James is the Associate Director of the Iowa Pork Industry centre and has help set up a number of my meeting whilst in America. We had a drink with him and he let us know the days he had sorted out for us and I informed him of the other meetings I had arranged, it all seemed to be working out which in every country it shocks me that I have actually managed to organise a good agenda!
Our first meeting was about 2 hours away in a small place called Whittermore with a guy called Chuck, he is rearing pigs for a large company called Nimans Ranch. They produce pigs in a 'welfare compassionate' way, they rear pigs without using any antibiotics, apparently the US consumer is concerned about the level of drugs in the meat, because you do not have to record medicine use in America the consumer or a small percentage of consumers worry hence the reason why there is a market for No Antibiotics! Im not totally sure how Nimans Ranch market themselves but I have a meeting with them next Monday so it will be interesting to find this out as Chuck tells me they are marketing themselves as high welfare, I personally can't see how this can be high welfare, if a pig gets sick Chuck says he thinks twice before treating it as he instantly losses money on that pig, how can this be correct?! This is only my opinion I must stress! The sheds are not miles from any other pigs and so they are bound to get infections etc from local pigs! I really need to understand the reasoning behind this before I can fully reflex on it! Chuck also has commodity pigs and is very open with us in the fact that the pigs that go to Niman Ranch are at a loss and they are deciding in June if to pull the plug on the whole system. They operate in the GAP assurance system which has different tiers within it and currently I have to be honest I'm finding it hard to understand it! Im struggling to write much of what I was told on Monday as I don't feel confident in what I heard and saw and I don't want to write something I will later regret but I have to say the day has added a whole new angle to my study and to be quite honest the word welfare seems harder and harder to define. All I can say is that I'm looking forward to talking with Niman Ranch and I hope I can then inform you that I was wrong but from what I saw I'm just going to hang fire on it at the moment.
Our next day takes us to a farmer who sells to Eden Farms, another company who is selling No Antibiotic pigs! Luckily they have a bit of a different system and they have two outlets, one for the pigs that go through life with no challenges and the other for pigs who have had to be treated but not for the last 100 days of their lives, this does seem a better system and they are not using welfare as a selling point they just know that there is a market for a No Antibiotic pig and so they are supplying into it! They are supplying a 300lb (136kg), the fatter the better pig! They are a pure Berkshire pig which produce just 13-14 pigs/sow/year! Crazy! They wean them anywhere between 14 days and 27 days!! It really has been an eye opener!! When asked about their COP they did not know however they were very fast to tell me they were not making money! Sounds like the average farmer!! The pigs are all vegetarian. This farm was a family run business by 3 brothers, Randy, Tom and Mark, all three of them were great characters and gave us a insight into what American thought about government and the general state of the country, again a real eye opener but to be fair a lot of it made sense!
A phase that keeps getting mentioned is the 'humanely raised' when I have asked people to define this I have not received one answer they just say they use this but it has no definition, and all I can think is what would happen in the UK if we used a word that had a lot of meaning yet could not define it! It's deceiving the public and I think this happens a lot over here, it's like getting horsemeat rather than beef!!
I'm jumping about a lot in this blog, sorry but I really am a little confused! The farmer can basically do what they want over here, they have no legislation unless the company you are selling to have their own standards otherwise you would not even have to have a vet on your farm at all! Crazy, what would the true potential be in America if they had rules, I can't help but think it would be better but maybe I'm stupid, the information we get from our vets is invaluable and helps us to push our production, surely this is the case!?
One thing i did like were the hoop buildings a very simple and I think could be quite productive, cheap and low labour. Certainly one to consider, keeping them warm would worry me a bit but seem as it was -8 today they may be ok in England although pigs looked a bit cold but I would block the wind if this was the case.
We next went to see Nick Jones, the general manager of Eden Farms. I have to say he cleared a few things up for me and stated that they only tried to do AB free in isolated areas otherwise it would be more like 100 day AB free which made much more sense to me and to be fair the majority of our pigs would not be treated after 100 days but we don't need to make a big deal of it as recording drug use etc is strongly policed in England! He states that the Berkshire pig is his selling point and sells to Resturant's all over America and also abroad. The farmers are only getting about 15 cent premium on every lb, and to me and my simple maths I just can't see how this pays, the pigs take 7 months to get to slaughter and are only doing 13/pig/sow/year, no wonder they are loosing money, I still feel I'm missing out on something?! Im beginning to think I'm stupid!! Or maybe just clarifying that I am!! When we talked about retail price the loin would sell for double a commodity price, the farmers must be getting screwed even though Eden Farm is not a profitable company someone else if its not them are getting the money!
This AB free sector has only become present in the last 5 years and is very small however a few people have told me its a growing market, I'm just not sure at what cost!!
The more I write the more I confuse myself and probably you so I'm going to take a break and I hope it's not bored you, I am hopeful I will be able to put everything straight over the next few days so keep reading!!