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!