TFWF#41: Part 3 – Money

I started Woody’s Free Range Farm with animal husbandry and welfare as my number one concern but after 18 months the reality of farming, just like any industry, is that money comes a very close second. Just like any startup business, we are very reliant on much bigger businesses who will only give us a fair go if we have a good cashflow position and pay our bills regularly, companies like abattoirs, butchers, feed mills and courrier companies.

For every person that dreams of giving up the corporate world and starting a small farm (or even worse a pig farm) there will be many more who tried it and failed when they realised it was eating away at savings and, rather than providing an outdoor lifestyle, it actually tied them to the farm every single day of the year.

Choosing farming as a new career is not an easy path to take and I believe that the key to making it work for me has been a mixture of stubbornness, competitiveness and being a control freak. However all of those ‘admirable’ qualities aside the main reason the farm is still going and the business improving is because of the savings that I had before we started the farm.

Farming is expensive. Aside from the cash flow issues of feeding animals for eight months before being able to take any produce to market there are also the capital costs of simply running a farm. We are lucky enough to have eighty acres of land but with it comes an obligation to look after the land, and with that comes costs. We have to pay the mortgage, rates, earthworks, farm structures, vehicles and water reticulation. All these expenses need to be paid and with only, at this stage, six pigs to sell a month we simply can’t rely on just that income alone.

Our largest ongoing cost is animal feed. In order to ensure the consistent quality of our meat we buy in a special feed formula for our grower pigs and another specific feed for the breeding herd. We do supplement this with used brewers grain which we collect for free from The Garage Project in Wellington but this is just a ‘filler feed’ and does not replace the professionally designed feed formula that the pigs get fed. Each and every day our pigs get fed at least 1kg of feed per animal per meal, and have two meals a day. On average a kilo of feed costs $0.83 per kg, this soon adds up depending on the number of pigs on the farm. At the moment we have 57 growers, 20 sows and 3 boars all eating 2kg of feed per day – thats a total of 160kg of feed or $132.80 per day.

On the other side of the coin our income has, up till now, almost exclusively come from the sale of meat at farmers markets and through restaurants and cafe’s. We are small and can’t meet demand but since the beginning of this year we have taken 32 pigs to the abattoir and sold 2403 packets of meat, this equates to 1239kg of pork including 5425 sausages and 233kg of bacon and ham. We have been lucky in that we have had no problems selling our products but our sales methods are also very time consuming and mean that I get to spend less time on the farm when I need to be at the markets or collecting the meat from the butchers.

Our prices are closely matched to retail prices. We are obviously more expensive that intensively reared meat but I have always tried to keep the prices at a level that most people can afford, if only for a special event. Our bacon is often cheaper that the Free Farmed versions for sale in the supermarket and always cheaper than the products available in high end stores such as Moore Wilson and Commonsence Organics, this is because we are the producer and there are no middle men or retail margins to be paid. Our goal is to be able to supply you with excellent meat products are reasonable prices, and by making a purchase you are 100% supporting us the growers.

Despite all this the reality is that we are currently not growing enough pigs to make enough money to run the business in the black. We simply need to breed more pigs and with this will bring the economies of scale that will make the farm a viable business. I write this blog not to complain or to plead poverty but rather to ensure that anyone with an interest in a similar lifestyle understands that it will take time and during that time you will need savings, a great deal of will power and probably most important…a very supportive partner.

TFWF#41: Part 2 – Sex

In the second part of this farm update I focus on sex. Not the type of sex that gets the heart beating and the mind racing but the type of sex that makes the running of a farm completely dependant upon spreadsheets and calendars.

I have mentioned the maths before but to reiterate a pig comes into heat every 21 days. Once pregnant the gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. After the farrowing occurs the piglets spend 8 weeks with their mother, suckling from her milk and eventually some creep feeding of the grains that the sows eat. Finally, after the 8 weeks, they are collected up and transferred to the grower paddocks where they will live for another five to six months.

Well thats the theory, what about the practice, and more specifically how do we get them pregnant and how do we know they are pregnant. Here on the farm we use natural methods for getting the sows pregnant, better known as Hugh and Gordon. On larger farms they prefer to use artificial insemination as this ensure the sows don’t get hurt by the boar and they can be more certain of the date of impregnation, however we have the space and the time to focus on natural breeding. The sows are put to the boar for a period of 25 days, this ensures the sows will be on heat at least once and normally twice. After this we cycle the sows and move them out to be replaced by the next lot. Sometimes we don’t have another sow to put in with the boars so to ensure the boars don’t get lonely the sows are left in the paddocks for a longer time.

Gordon and his girls

Gordon (at the back getting a scratch) with his girls.

Despite giving the sows at least 25 days with the boars it is still important to be able to tell when the pig comes on heat. There are normally physical signs to help to identify this and most pig farmers will also tell you that if you push the sow from behind and she refuses to move then she is very likely to be on heat. The problem with both of these methods is that they are open to interpretation and can sometimes be unreliable. Unfortunately the cost of an ultrasound machine is simply too much for us to buy so we have to use the old methods of checking for signs of heat and being patient. In most cases I have been lucky and the pigs have all been pregnant first time but as we get busier its more difficult to leave the sows with the boars for longer and not all sows come on heat in the same way, making it difficult to know if they are pregnant or not.

Recently we have had a few failed attempts and this can have a real effect on business plans because we are suddenly ten pigs down on expectations. The first sow to let us down was Martha. Martha is a very Large Black who came as a package deal with two registered rare breed Berkshires, unfortunately, after living with a boar for months, she simply did not come on heat and could not get pregnant. I had two options but given the complications of slaughtering a 250kg sow, the abattoir will not take pigs over 80kg and I cannot sell the meat if we home kill her, she has escaped culling and has become our companion sow who will keep any lonely boar company whilst they are not in service.

Martha, the Large Black  companion pig.

Martha, the Large Black companion pig.

The second sow to fail to get pregnant was more of a surprise to me, she is a registered Berkshire and had originally arrived on the farm already in litter, she was a good mum with 11 piglets but second time around she failed to come on heat and I suspect it was because of a hip/leg injury making her unsuitable for mating. Jennifer is a typical example of an untypical pig. she is difficult to tell when on heat, there are very little outward signs and she is so stubborn she will refuse, when pushed, to move if on heat or not. I waited with in trepidation and baited breath as the 15th May approached and passed, it was obvious that she was not pregnant but being a big pig I still had some hope that she was simply not showing. However its now 20 days after her litter was due and whilst she has proven to be a great companion to Ruth, who had a litter at the beginning of May, she will soon be put back to the boar and I will be watching very closely this time. Its a sad fact of life on the farm that all the animals on the farm need to provide a return, we simply cannot afford to become a rescue home to old animals which continue to cost us $2 per day in feed. Let us all keep our fingers crossed that Jennifer delivers us a litter soon.

After 18 months on the farm I have learnt a lot about pigs but I still need to become better at recognising the pigs heat cycles, planning the mating and ensuring the pigs are pregnant after being moved out from the boars. Its all part of the learning experience and I have quickly learnt, to my detriment, that planning the breeding is the most important part of the business because when I get it wrong it results in a shortage of stock to sell eight months down the line. This is actually the biggest difference between my old career in Consumer Electronics and my new career as a farmer, whereas I used to be able to quickly increase supply by buying more products I now have to plan eights months in advance to meet my customers demands, and if I get it wrong we have nothing to sell.