'Relentless, desperate, unmanageable' - living through the pig industry crisis
10th Feb 2022 / By Alistair Driver
As producers, processors, retailers and Government gather in London today for a pig industry crisis summit, some of the producers and a vet who are taking part explain just how serious things are on farm - and what they are hoping for from today.
'It is totally unmanageable - staff morale is absolutely in the gutter'
Tom Allen, pig farmer in Oxfordshire
We've got pigs backlogged on all our sites and our weights are the highest we've ever had by about 10 kgs, if not more in places.
We are having to move pigs from A to B to C to D etc just to juggle the space constantly - it is totally unmanageable. Our contingency plans ran out months ago.
My staff morale is absolutely in the gutter – they are really struggling with the logistics of it all and the welfare issues of having too many pigs on site.
I'm getting penalised for overweight pigs, which are costing me a ridiculous amount of money to feed. The feed prices are destroying me.
It is costing around £2/kg to produce pigs. I've got pigs getting heavier and heavier and eating more and more feed, which is so expensive.
Then there are all the other costs that are just there lurking in the background – electricity looks like it’s going to double or triple, fuel prices are going up and up, and my labour costs are also rising, absolutely everything is rising.
But I can't pass that on anywhere and I’m getting a lower and lower price every week compounded by the overweight pigs that are getting penalised - I don't even get anywhere near my potential top price, a price that is so far below cost of production it is ridiculous.
This has all been happening since last July and it is just going to get worse and worse and worse through this year. How is anybody supposed to survive that?
We have had to reduce our business considerably because we just can't afford to reinvest in it, a business that has taken us several generations to build. It is totally heartbreaking and I have never seen anything like this in the last 20 years I have been involved.
This is a disaster for the pig industry, and we desperately need to get something positive out of this summit.
Feeding pigs for longer has cost me £420,000
Richard Lister, pig farmer in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire
It is just relentless. It is never ending. We still go from one week to the next not knowing what's happening, not knowing whether we are going to have enough space, or what we are going to do.
There seems no end to it at the moment - and that is creating a lot of pressure, both financially and stress wise, on me, the family and the staff.
The price of feed is just making the whole thing even more damaging - that requirement to feed pigs for an extra two to three weeks within our businesses has probably cost us in the region of £420,000.
Then, couple that with the impact on the pig price of overweights and you add another £130,000-plus in terms of losses, so there are just big, big extra costs out there and no cash flow.
These pigs should be in the bank, but they are on farm and just consuming more feed every week. It’s tough and I'm afraid the industry is going to be whittled down as people can’t stand it for much longer.
There is more the Government could do to help. It could make Private Storage Aid more attractive – there are clearly some big barriers that are preventing it from being taken up.
We need to ease some of these requirements on butchers coming in, for example the English language requirement, to make that an easier process.
A lot of this is based on problems around Covid - there's no reason why the Government couldn't pay a Covid recovery fund. It’s producers who are taking all this cost on the bloody chin, and we’ve seen the devolved bodies given support, while you look around Europe and France have given huge support, along with others as well.
The processors and retailers need to show more urgency and take ownership of this problem, which was partly caused by their failure to prepare for Brexit and what that entails with labour. It all comes back to us on farm, so the least they could do is take ownership of the problem and help people navigate the way out of this as quickly as possible.
At the moment, we just don’t seem to have any end to it. People just can’t last much longer.
We just need to get pigs off farm and get a fair price for them
Jack Bosworth, pig farmer in Essex
We were OK until just after Christmas. We always anticipated there would be a drop off in sales in January, but it has been worse than we thought.
We have utilised our emergency accommodation that we set up last year as part of our contingency plan - we've had to use it time and time again.
What we need is just to get pigs off farm and to get a fair price for them. One of the abattoirs we supply is paying 20p/kg more than another we supply – over the course of year, that is £100,000, which is just madness.
We have got pressure on the stocking rate, we have got pressure on the staff – and you try and budget for the year as best you can and then you start having an extra few hundred pigs on farm and you are buying in even more grain and one thing leads to another. This is what is happening with everyone and it is just spiralling out of control.
We need better, clearer supply chain relations - there has to be some sort of cost of production template that processors have to follow. We can’t go on the way we are at the moment – it is just going to be turmoil.
We are hoping it will pick it up again, but we need more support from the supply chain and we have all got to do a little bit more to promote our produce and get it off farm.
I've contacted a customer of the abattoir we use in Essex, and they are going to come and have a look round next week - I am going to tell them the reality of the situation and that the more pork they keep buying and the more pork we can get off farm, the more they can help the situation.
We are struggling to even tread water, and so many people are having to extend their overdraft or borrow more money. We are all just trying to survive.
The situation on farm is getting worse
Duncan Berkshire, pig vet based in Yorkshire
I think the situation on farms is getting worse at the moment. Although there are more pigs moving off farm, the amount of juggling that people have had to do already is now catching up with everyone.
The pigs I have seen in the last 10 days have been the biggest and the tightest in terms of space that I've seen through the entire time. I don't think I've been to a single farm that has been unaffected this quarter.
Last quarter, you could say some people were getting away with it because of flexibility within their systems, but that flexibility has just run out. Every single farm I've been to, there has been some issue or some challenge going on because of pig flow problems.
This has meant, sadly, that we have been forced to cull healthy pigs, or take pigs out of the system, whether that be through sending in-pig sows for cull or aborting the sow - I just still can't fathom in my brain how we are so many months on and yet still challenged with the same problem upstream, but only having to deal with it on farms. It beggars belief.
The worry is that people will just look at the headline slaughter figures coming through and not really understand that the implications of all the last few months are still hitting people hard on the ground.
I hope people don’t superficially glance over what is actually still the major challenge - the problems on farm right now. We have got to sort out the dire situation on farm now before we can look at addressing issues too far into the future, although, of course that is also important.
This has been going on since July, or even elements of it before July, and you cannot under-estimate the mental and emotional impact of all this.
Right across the country, this is hitting really hard and it seems to hit everyone in different ways, but whether it's the lad working in the farrowing house or the owner who's overseeing the whole production set-up, they are all being affected. I have seen desperate people in tears at all levels of the production process and that is really difficult.
- You can read Duncan's latest Pig World column, in which hge expresses concerns about the health and welfare implications of the backlog HERE
It is awful - you lose faith in everything that you trusted and relied on
Vicky Morgan, pig farmer in Yorkshire
Vicky, along with other members of her family, is one of the main organisers behind the Save GB Bacon campaign. They have arranged a gathering today at Defra’s York headquarters to support producers represented at the London summit, and to raise the media profile of what is currently happening on farms.
The situation is just awful. It is really, really serious – I don’t think it could get much worse.
It is affecting so many people and not just producers. I've been speaking to you a guy who's trying to organise on farm culling and that is really stressful.
The backlog is horrendous, with huge animal welfare and health problems, financially it's a disaster, and it is not getting any better.
These are issues mainly caused elsewhere in the supply chain and pig producers right across the country want people to step up and help – and share some of this burden.
We are gathering at York today to support the producers are involved in the actual summit and get the media really interested in what's happening on a farm level.
In terms of our situation, we are on a knife edge. Last week, we thought we were going to have to kill 700 pigs, but thankfully we managed to get some pigs away and we didn’t have to.
But we are so tight, it's unbelievable. There is no break in the system whatsoever – we have got 700 weaners going into a yard that has only just been emptied today. So it's just it's crazy.
You can't even do some of the basics – the knock-on effects of this are going to be massive for months and years ahead probably.
In terms of our future in the industry, we have done nothing but soul search – you lose faith in things, that's trouble. You lose faith in everything that you trusted and relied on.
It is just awful and I just hope everyone understands what is happening and we get the support as an industry we need.