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Pig prices record biggest drop in five years as staff shortages bite

9th Sep 2021 / By Alistair Driver

The SPP recorded its biggest fall since 2016 last week as the staff shortages in pork processing plants dampen the market. 

Producers are facing a major crisis as falling prices, exacerbated by low EU prices, coincide with soaring feed costs at a time when pigs are being kept on farms for longer than would otherwise be the case. 

The EU-spec SPP for the week ending September 4 was down by 2.31p to 156.39p/kg, the lowest level since June and the biggest weekly drop since 2016. The measure, after five weeks of decline, is now nearly 5p down on a year ago, although still nearly 4p up on the five-year average. 

Pig prices Sep 4

According to AHDB, the further price falls are a result of constraints on slaughter and processing capacity due to staff shortages.

Recent falls in pig prices in most EU member states has 'likely also played a role', making pig meat imports into the UK more price competitive. At the end of August, the EU reference price stood at just 121.7p/kg, 21p down on where it stood in mid-June, with big falls in particular in Germany (117.5p/kg), Denmark (118.3p/kg) and the Netherlands (104.8p). The UK Reference price stood at 159.6p/kg. 

Slaughter down weights up

There are currently an estimated 85,000 extra pigs on farms across the UK, a number growing by approximately 15,000 per week.

The AHDB market update highlighted how the pig backlog is continuing to build. Estimated slaughter in GB stood at 155,700 head last, slightly lower than the week before (possibly influenced by the bank holiday), but 12,100 pigs down on last year and nearly 16,000 lower than the five-year average. 

This is inevitably impacting on carcase weights, which averaged 88.96kg last week, up another 0.6kg on last week and more than 3kg above last year’s level.

Record costs 

The huge logistical headaches of the backlog and falling prices are being compounded by the fact that producers are having to use more feed at a time when it is incredibly expensive. 

GB pig production costs in the second quarter of this year reached a record 182p/kg, primarily reflects rising feed costs, according to recently-published AHDB figures. This resulted in estimated net margins of -28p/kg (or -£24/head) in Q2, a similar situation to the first quarter.

Producers lost an estimated £116 million over the first six months of this year. With feed commodity prices remaining high – underpinned by recent weather events, strong demand from China as it rebuilds its pig herd and investor activity – and prices falling, there is little prospect of any improvement in this quarter. 

NPA view 

In a press release published this week, NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “We are already seeing producers up and down the country getting out of pigs or cutting down on numbers because they cannot sustain these losses any longer.

“The pig backlog is now creating further problems for farmers, forcing them to find extra cash for expensive feed and incur penalties for selling overweight pigs. Many are now being forced to face the real prospect of having to destroy pigs because there is simply nowhere for them to go. 

“Some of the conversations I have had over the past few weeks have been heart-breaking, with many producers getting desperate and not sure what the future holds.

“Without immediate Government intervention, more producers will be pushed over the edge. 22,000 sows have already been lost from the national herd this year, and this is just the start. Sadly we are expecting a serious contraction of the UK pig industry as a result, largely of the smaller independent farmers who are most at risk.”

The NPA was one of the food and farming organisations behind a report by Grant Thornton, which called on Ministers to introduce a 12-month COVID Recovery Visa to help alleviate the food supply workforce shortages.

The report estimates there are more than 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses and sets out how the COVID Recovery Visa could be a vital short-term measure to enable food businesses to access foreign labour while the economy recovers from COVID-19.

“Unless the Government intervenes soon to help alleviate the labour shortage, more producers will quit – and they won’t come back," Zoe added.