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.

America - do what you what, we trust you!!!

Posted by Kate Morgan on March 25, 2013

Appears in Business, Livestock, Pigs, Technology

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!!