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Hugh Crabtree: Another decade over - what's in store for 2020 and beyond?

31st Dec 2019 / By Hugh Crabtree

NPA Allied Industry Group chairman Hugh Crabtree discusses the 'unstoppable trains' coming at the pig sector in 2020. 

Hugh Sept 19It’s inevitable that advancing years means the accelerating passage of time – where did 2019 go? But it also seems like everything takes so much longer to get done doesn’t it – how strange is that?

UK pig prices have been on a very slow upward trajectory since mid April while other markets appear to have benefitted more from the ASF outbreak in China. As is often the way, it’s not a simple story. What we can be confident of though is that the effect of the world losing a quarter of its pigs will be felt for some time to come and if we can really get our export house in order domestic prices will benefit.

Are we going to see ASF in the UK herd? I’m afraid to say it is a ‘when’ answer not an ‘if’. If Germany falls to ASF, as looks very possible, then the rest of western Europe is going to really struggle to contain it.

Unpalatable as this may seem, we’ve got to think contingency. Pig movements will rapidly grind to a halt so what are we going to do with all those pigs that should have been on lorries for market? Thinking about temporary accommodation sounds like a good idea to me – for producers and building suppliers alike.

Apart from Brexit there are a number of unstoppable trains coming down the line at us. The first is the continuing pressure to reduce antibiotic use in pig production. The UK industry has made huge advances but there’s more to do – particularly amongst the outliers, some of whom have yet to decrease their routine use.

Whilst the rest of the sector gets on with implementing change, a few heavy users can go on apparently unchallenged because the trend in the industry as a whole is down. Obviously, this can’t last and the sooner the majority is at or about the optimum the better as this will expose those lagging behind much more starkly.

Another unstoppable train is the need to comply with environmental regulation. Ammonia emissions are high on the agenda of the Animal and Plant Health Agency – APHA who at times appear to be over-enthusiastic about the application of advisory standards. Producers just need to get on with keeping their own records – however that is done – so that they have a position established from which they can argue their case.

There’s possibly some light at the end of this particular tunnel: Early indications from the ongoing AHDB Pork project to formally measure and assess NH3 emissions from pig buildings suggest previous assumptions have exaggerated actual emissions. The lesson here is that it always pays to measure stuff to remove the guesswork or worse, flawed assumptions. (See previous unstoppable)

My last unstoppable – for the time being – is the attention being paid to the farrowing crate. This just isn’t going to go away. Therefore, we need to a) look even more seriously at possible alternatives; and the building and equipment suppliers in the allied industries section of the NPA membership should be able to help here; and b) gather together all the evidence we can that honestly assesses conventional system performance against freedom farrowing alternatives.

There’s some desk research to be done here – but by whom? With their many university contacts could this be a job for the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock – CIEL to facilitate?

The challenges just keep coming for our unsupported sector. We might be able to make the case for help from government in future under the new agriculture bill. There might be a price and that price might be the need to share data. We should not be afraid of this as for far too long much has been said about big data with very little to show for it. The UK pig industry could lead the way in collaborative sector development. I, for one, would be an enthusiastic supporter of such a move.

To help meet those challenges and to become more time efficient, the NPA has decided to experiment with combining their two main committees – the Producer Group and the Allied Industry Group. The association will give this a go in 2020 and everyone is keen to make this work and develop better communication at this level between supplier and end user. If it succeeds, and I believe it will, we might see some other changes when we get to the next round of elections in 2021.

With all that in mind, what’s the outlook beyond next year? Is there a future for UK pig production? Whatever the current consumer trends, there is going to be a market for tasty, nutritious, safe meat protein that can demonstrate a clean bill of health with respect to the environment, close attention to animal welfare and great value for consumers.

We should forget arguing with those that simply won’t be convinced and address those who would buy our product honestly and positively. You can’t beat a bacon sarnie or a good piece of crackling – we all know that!

What we’re also going to see is an accelerating trend of professionalisation in the sector. Routine training and continued professional development in our people; investment in ICT in production management; virtual access to our facilities granted to consumers; product provenance from an on-pack QR code; and many new ways to buy the product. Watch out “Chicken George” we’re coming to get you!