TFWF#48: I can buy pork shoulder for $6.99 at the Mad Butcher….

I know its been a long time between blog posts but so much has happened in the last year that something had to give and it just happened to be the blog. Thats said we are currently working on a BIG project to create a processing factory for all our meat(s) and products so expect to see more blogs soon (don’t worry I am taking lots of photos and notes as we progress) and you can follow our progress via our newsletter.

This blog entry is really a ‘SPECIAL ENTRY’ which came about when I read a recent report from NZ Pork and then saw an advert on TV for low cost pork sold by ‘New Zealand’s Butcher – The Mad Butcher.’

I am probably the last person to support intensive pork farms, where ever they are in the world, but I feel that there is a story that needs to be told and perhaps it will be more poignant coming from a farmer who is focused on animal welfare and higher quality meat.

The story starts at the abattoir last week. Whilst dropping off some of our pigs I was talking to the handler and he happened to mention how bad the market for pork was at the moment and how pig kill numbers were low because the company was overstocked with meat. Here at Woodys we can’t produce enough to meet demand so I asked him why they couldn’t see the meat and the response was blamed on foreign imports. I, like most people, thought this was just an excuse for poor sales practice and that it only affected ham, bacon, sausages and other processed meats but it turns out its ‘fresh’ meat too and its shamefully true. As it happens a few days later I received a report from NZ Pork (based on NZ Statistical data) showing the level of imports versus locally produced pork. Here is just a small section of the report showing that in 2014 imports exceeded local pork supply and this has subsequently caused local supply to shrink ever since.

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So what does this mean? It means that in our continued wish to buy cheaper meat we remove the viability of businesses in our own neighbourhood, the outcome is that businesses collapse (or can’t afford to improve) and jobs are lost, perpetuating the need for cheaper food. Over 33% of this pork comes from Spain, where they are heavily subsidised by the European Union and experience far low grain prices that we do (they also have questionable animal welfare beliefs). The total volume of pork imported to New Zealand in April 2017 was 4,303 tonne, up 4.31% from last month and up by 8.18% from the same month last year. Let me repeat 4303 tonnes of overseas pork landing in NZ when our local meat processors cannot sell what they have just killed. This is CRAZY behaviour and in many countries it would be stopped by anti dumping laws.

So is the $6.99 per kg pork in the Mad Butcher is from Spain? Not necessarily, it might be from NZ but it is only that price because of the flood of product from overseas. The point is that we should start to be more vigilant about where our food comes from and not just how much it costs. ALWAYS ask where does this meat come from, always look for the country of origin and if its not on the packaging DO NOT BUY IT. And if it says (as bacon often does) ‘made from local and imported

I want to make it clear that you should NOT be buying cheap pork from intensive farms (or freedom farms), we can only change the industry if we support free range farmers who are trying to put animal welfare first. But if you really feel the need to buy massive chunks of cheap protein then PLEASE buy NZ born and raised meat, not only will this help to reduce the imports it will create (or at least save) NZ jobs.

 

Sub note on pricing: Our grower pigs live for nine months outdoors, until they are about 65-70kg. Each day they are fed 1kg of specially formulated pig feed each feed (two feeds per day). Each kg of food is about $0.80. If you do the maths you will see that our pigs cost more that $6.99 per kg (not including all the other cost involved in running a farm and a business.) Intensive pigs are not able to move much so burn off very little food and subsequently gain weight faster, they therefore only live for 4-5 months. Regardless of this you can see that $6.99 per kg is NOT the real price of these animals.ingredients) then you can be damn sure that the meat is from overseas and the only local ingredient is probably the Manuka smoke.

TFWF#45: Sharing the survey results

This particular blog is specifically to thank my loyal customers and to share some of the many excellent responses that we received from our recent customer survey, and if you have not yet taken the survey you can do so HERE.

Last week we sent out a survey mainly for two reasons. I have come to the conclusion that simply growing pigs and selling the meat is not a sustainable business, after fixed cost are deducted (almost 70% of which is pig feed) the rest of the money we receive from sales goes on farm and vehicle upkeep. To make it even worse I cannot run the farm, sales, website, marketing and meat production alone but finances mean that I can’t afford to hire anyone either, I believe this is called catch 22.

The answers are, of course, to reduce costs and/or increase sales revenue. Our main costs have reduced slightly as we have found a new feed supplier who has managed to get us down from 70c to 65c per kg, however to counter this the pigs have increased and we are now getting through 230kg per day, or nearly 7 tonnes per month. Butchery and processing costs vary but are mainly stable.

This leaves increasing our sales. To do this we either put the prices up (we are cheaper than most Freedom Farmed products), we start producing more artisan products like charcuterie or we find products that we can sell to complement our own products and meet our ethical standards. And it was with these questions in mind that I produced the survey.

We sent our survey out to our newsletter list, our Facebook friends and twitter followers and were very pleased that so many people took the time to answer the questions. I was even more please to see a lot of really excellent and useful comments (and some not so useful – luckily the survey is completely anonymous)

Having received these great responses I thought I would take some of the more regular questions and give you some answers. Once again thanks for the questions, ideas and comments. Here we go:

 

We want more frequent shipping days and not sold out so often?

Absolutely, so do I. The problem is that we don’t have enough pigs for that. Our pigs take eight months to grow to the right size (slower in winter) as opposed to intensive pigs that get to weight in just 5-6 months. We are now supplying over 600kg a month but we know we need more. Because of this I am soon starting an approval and audit scheme for other free range farmers to grow and fatten pigs for Woody’s Farm to sell. Don’t worry the pigs will have the same care and freedoms that ours have and will be processed by our butchers to ensure continuity.

 

We want to see your products at more famers markets or in retail?

I love going to the farmers markets and meeting customers but it takes a whole day and the farm suffers as a result of this, the reality is that when I am off the farm the pigs are not getting fed and the work not getting done. Because of this I have had to scale back the amount of markets to one per month however I have been considering employing someone to attend the markets fro me and this might be the answer for 2017. As for retail markets we have been talking to some big retailers, like Moore Wilson, but we will have to consider their margins and the quantities they need on a regular basis. At the moment I am considering a product range specifically just for them (and potentially others in the future).

Can we come and visit the farm?

When I started the farm I wanted everyone to be able to visit the farm, I wanted to show people how we farm and educate children on where bacon and sausages come from. The reality however has been that a lack of manpower and facilities (in case of rain) has made this very difficult to arrange. That said we are planning to have an open day later in the year when the weather is a bit dryer. This open day will be limited to a small number of visitors (as a trial) and we will be charging a small fee for the staffing and facilities I will need to hire for the day.

Additionally I will be holding a more detailed course for people who are interested in small scale pig farming. At this stage I hope to hold this late 2016 or early 2017 depending on when I can get the information together for the course.

Why can’t I buy individual items, not packs?

I do understand that this is frustrating but it is based on three major factors, the first is that my IT skills have not yet risen to the challenge, secondly the boxes that we use to despatch the goods need to be over 50% full and so we have calculated that their must be a minimum of 6 items in the box. Finally the reality is that all the meat we currently sell comes from a pig that we have slaughtered, unlike a butcher we can’t just buy a loin or a leg, we have to use the whole pig so by mixing the packs I can be sure that every bit of the pig gets sold. Supermarkets have made us think that we only have to eat what we want but we hate waste and so we have to sell the whole pig, its called sustainable eating.

All of that said, as we get bigger we will find that we can be more flexible and rest assured our website will become more flexible in the future, I’m working on it now.

Do you have a farm shop we can visit?

We do have a shop on site but we don’t have opening hours because I can’t guarantee when I will be available to take customers. At our shop all the stock is frozen and normally held for farmers markets. However if you do what to come to the shop email me on info@woodysfarm.co.nz with your preferred day and if I can find enough customers for that day I will open the shop. If you have already ordered from the website and collected meat you will know that we are very flexible.

Can you give us advise on having our own pigs?

As per my blog I have enjoyed being very open about what I do and how. However as time has gone on the number of emails we get asking for help has increased and I am now unable to reply to them without incurring costs (lost time etc). In addition to this some of the help that we offered to others in the early days has been used to set up competing business which have copied us (even the format of their website). Therefore I have just started up a side business for consulting on matters related to pig farming, business start-up and even website management. If this is of interest to you then please email me for more details at info@woodysfarm.co.nz.

 

Finally we asked you what would you think about us supplying other products online and the answers were very interesting. During the last three years I have met and talked to lots of like minded farmers and producers and I think it would be great for me to share these suppliers products with my customers. I wanted to know wether you would be happy to buy other products that were not made/grown on Woody’s Farm, here was the response

I was really pleased that 65% of people would like us to produce Charcuterie and 28% wanted other pork based products, this is something that we can make out of our own meat and I have recently started to look into this side of the business. More to follow. What was even more interesting is that 37% of respondents would be happy buying other meat products from us, once again this is something I have been wanting to introduce and have started talking to specialist farmers about building this into our business.

 

Bye for now!

TFWF#44: Introducing Porky Points

As always it has been far too long since my last blog post. The unfortunate thing about blogs is that they are so exciting at the start of a journey, you just want to tell the world about your great idea and what you plan to do….then the reality sets in and the work piles on top of you and you realise that its not all roses and the hard work wears you down. You realise that you don’t want to tell the world how tough it is and how you just don’t have the time to sit at a computer and type something that reminds you of your struggles. Then the nail in the coffin comes when you realise that not only does your blog not provide an income it actively helps others to learn from your mistakes and create competing businesses.

All that aside, lets start with a thank you that I have been promising for years. I have been planning for a long time to implement a loyalty scheme and also to offer a reward for recommending a friend. Like everything it seemed simple but actually became very complicated to implement on the website. I am please to say that at long last perseverance has paid out and I am very pleased to announce the launch of the Woody’s Farm loyalty programme called Porky Points.

Woody’s Porky Points is our way of saying thank you for supporting our business and our ethical mission to encourage free range pig farming. All you have to do is click on the tab on the right hand side of the screen and join our loyalty program to start earning points. Once you have enough points you click on that same tab and start spending – its easy.
You can get rewarded for completing all the actions below and once you have amassed enough points you can spend them via the same tab.
Now please understand that the Porky Points is currently in a testing phase and we will have some problems along the way so if you have a problem using it or just can’t get started then please email me at info@woodysfarm.co.nz and I will sort it out as soon as I can. I once again thank you for your support on this and everything else.
You can read more about our loyalty scheme HERE

TFWF#43: The great sales conundrum.

Its been busy on the farm since the flood. Not only has there been lots on fencing to be done we have also changed our structure for feeding, sorting and weaning the grower pigs, in addition to this we have also had eight litters in two months and increased the breeding herd to 22 sows.

Whilst we have been busy many of you might have also noticed that we have been absent from the markets, the cafes and the restaurants. Our disappearance from the outside world is due to, what I shall now call, the great sales conundrum (or GSC), brought about by a lack of good free range pork producers and a plethora of supportive customers.

The GSC is basically an over demand of product and whilst I know I am lucky to be in that situation I really don’t like letting people down, turning down opportunities or being sporadic in supply. In order to explain my conundrum in more detail I thought I might outline all the potential sales channels that we have, each with their own pros and cons and then I thought it might be nice for you all to give me some advice and feedback, via a comment on here or on Facebook.

Farmers Markets.

When we started the business we always planned to attend farmers markets, we chose Fielding and Thorndon because they appeared to be authentic grower markets. Unfortunately as time went on we found ourselves competing with a butcher from Wellington in Fielding and a general retailer selling meat from the store in Hawkes Bay at the Thorndon market. Despite this I really enjoy the markets, I get to meet a great deal of lovely customers and characters, I get direct feedback and its a great opportunity to grow business opportunities. I have also been able to try lots of different cuts of meat to see what sells best and showcase the quality of the meat. On the downside the markets take three days of valuable time on the farm, a day to prepare and two days at the markets, and the success of the day is very dependant on the weather. Financially the markets work for us because we sell direct to our customers and the only extra costs are the market fees and the fuel.

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Online Sales.

We had always planned to sell product via the website but we never had enough stock to attend the markets and sell online. The flood changed all that when we were unable to get to the markets and had a trailer full of meat to sell. We thought it best to trial online sales and managed to sell out in 49 mins. After that first trial we continued attending the markets and also selling small quantities of meat packs online. In August we took a break from sales to focus on the farm and came back in September with a greater focus on the online side of the business. The packs have been selling very well, I have enjoyed the customer feedback from all over the country and without any middle men we make a full margin (less the costs of sales). Obviously it takes a day to prepare and pack and we worry about the delivery arriving fresh but so far all has gone well and we have successfully delivered over 800 packets of bacon and sausages. I do miss getting to meet my customers face to face but the gain in time on the farm is, at this point, much needed.

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Restaurants and Cafes.

I love working with the owners and chefs of restaurant and cafes. These are the people that challenge the preparation of food and have the experience to truly grade the quality of our meat against others, it is their feedback that helps me to provide better quality product to everyone. I have been lucky to work with some excellent restaurants who have respected the way we grow our meat and promoted Woody’s to their customers. But, with only limited stocks at the moment, we have to manage our profitability and therefore we focus on our direct sales via the markets or online. This means that we are not able to supply the chefs on a regular enough basis, or large enough quality, and will often loose out on opportunities.  My goal is to be able to work regularly with a small number of restaurants around the country as soon as our stock levels rise.

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Speciality retailers.

Without a doubt the best way to promote your product and your brand is to have product in front of customers all the time. Unfortunately markets are only once a week and selling online relies on customers to find you, not the other way around. Putting product on the shelves in speciality stores who promote quality, niche products associates our brand with theirs and  encourages sales on a daily basis. The downside is again that retailers also need to make money, to pay their associated costs, and with limited stock we simply cannot afford to be on too many of those shelves. Additionally, whilst speciality retailers are very good at explaining to their customers about the provenance of the food they sell we, as the grower, do not get to talk direct to our customers, something that I think is very important.

Supermarkets.

In my previous life as a consumer electronics executive I spent a lot of time selling to supermarkets. Unfortunately supermarkets have all of the bad elements of speciality retailers with none of the good elements. They are not willing to take the time to talk about provenance, they do not fairly share profitability and over time they gradually reduce the value of your product in the consumers eyes, normally by heavy and unwarranted discounting. Any farmer who works with the supermarkets knows that the vanity of a high turnover of stock is not a replacement for the low profitability. Of course nationwide exposure and a single point of delivery is attractive to some, but not us.

Having broken down the pros and cons of all our potential retail outlets I am keen to hear what you think we should do, and who we should focus on. At the moment our limited stocks means that we can only afford to concentrate on the markets and online store but we hope to be able to continue supporting the restaurants, cafes and small speciality stores that we currently sell too. Moreover the chiller trailer is currently out of action so we have to concentrate on online sales until some work has been carried out on the trailer, when that is fixed we intend to attend one market a months and sell online twice a month. Maybe one day we will have greater exposure across the country.

TFWF#42: The night the arks floated

As many of you will know the night of the 19th June was a very wet one for much of New Zealand. Here in the Manawatu we were hit very hard by the run off from the Tararua Ranges. Our farm is split in two by the Waikawa stream, a normally calm babbling brook that you can wade through in gumboots. On the night of the 19th the water level rose to almost 2.5m, breaking the councils measuring system in the process, and the flow peaked at over 200,000 litres per second (on average it is normally around 500l/s). The noise all over the farm was deafening and, it was scary.

The day started early at 5:30am with preparations for Feilding Farmers Market at 8am. At 6:45 I left for the market and whilst the weather was far from enjoyable I had a great day with lots of new and old customers dropping by. We had been warned about the rainfall but standing in the town square it looked like the forecasters had been a little overly cautious, the showers were interspersed with sun and did not feel like flood levels of water.

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The weather forecast for 19th June, watch for flooding they said…

It wasn’t until I left the markets at about 2pm that I started to see the volume of water that was starting to build up in the paddocks and roadways on the journey home from Feilding through Sanson and into Levin. As I drove through the puddles the tension regarding what I would find back on the farm had started to build. Turning into the driveway I could already see the Waikawa stream was high and loud as the water crashed into the banks.

After any market I am tired and frankly want to sit down and have a beer but as always I have a number of food and farm related jobs that have to be carried out. I counted the remaining meat, loaded the fridges, filled in my paperwork and got changed into my farm gear in order to head out to feed the pigs. I filled up the feed buckets and headed out to check on the grower pigs who live in the paddock closest to the Waikawa stream. By now it was about 3:30pm, the rain was still falling hard and the paddocks were very wet, but the stream was no higher than I had seen it before and the water seemed to be draining freely via the drainage ditches that the previous owners of our farm had, poorly, installed. Feeling a little calmer about the situation I went back home to check the forecast, the councils data for the stream and eat some lunch.

The rain continued, hard. My stress levels continued to build. Every couple of hours I headed out into the farm to look at the stream and check on the paddock with the grower pigs. 5pm, 7pm, 8:30pm, the water was rising but seemed manageable. The drainage ditch was now flowing over the track into paddock and would make moving the pigs to higher ground difficult but not impossible. Night had fallen and it was getting hard to see the real situation, at 9:30 I headed out again to look at the paddock and found that the water had risen further, the pigs were not in danger but if this carried on I was in real trouble of endangering life unless i did something.

At times like this the first thing you need is moral support, with my mind racing at a thousand thoughts per second I was running the risk of becoming too overwhelmed to actually do anything. At 10pm Claire asked me to take her down to the paddock so she could see the situation herself. It wasn’t until the next day that I realised that the river had actually peaked at 10:20 and broken the banks at the end of the paddock, as Claire and I arrived we were faced with total carnage as the river made a horseshoe type flow across the paddock cutting it off from the farm. The paddock track was impassable, the drainage ditch had overflowed and the water running over the track was almost waist deep. We could see the pigs in the first section of the paddock, all huddling in their ark shaped house completely surrounded by water, they had no higher ground to get too. It was a terrible sight and both Claire and I had to take a moment to calm ourselves. We decided to go back up to the house and try and call Russell who used to farm all the land around this neighbourhood, we thought he would surely be able to make some suggestions (we later found out he was in Fiji on holiday). Meanwhile I set out in the dark to the DOC campground which backs onto our paddock to see if I could get to the pigs from the other direction.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this 'river' was actually the farm track into the paddock.

It was dark so the image is not very clear but at 11pm this ‘river’ was actually the farm track into the paddock (thats my car parked on higher ground). And those rope like things are the high tensile fences being swept away, the pigs are in the paddock on the right.

Pulling into the campground the sitting water was everywhere. I got out the car and made my way to the fence line, it looked like I could get through and get to the pigs, my plan was to cut some fences and let the pigs get to slightly higher ground in other sections of the paddock. As I walked towards the paddock a quad bike pulled into the campground, thinking it was Russell and at the same time finding the whole darkness, headlamp and roaring river thing a little creepy I headed back to my car. The quad was being driver by Brad, another neighbour, he offered to take me over to the fence line on the quad, I jumped on. We both climbed over the fence and went to look at the pigs. Water was everywhere, at least 12″ deep, but much of the paddock was above the waterline and most of the pigs were at no risk, we kept walking over to the first section that Claire and I had seen underwater about half an hour ago. It looked like the water had receded a little but you couldn’t tell what was likely to happen. Having spent weeks putting electric fences all over the paddock splitting the land into smaller sections for rotation of the pigs I now knew that the only thing I could do was cut the fences and hope the pigs worked out the best places to be. Soaking wet Brad and I jumped back onto the quad and headed for my car.

Back at home Claire had been unable to get hold of Russell and I simply didn’t know if the water was rising or falling, it was now about midnight and we had no option than to call around and get help. Our friends in Otaki couldn’t get through, the highway was cut off just outside Otaki by a stream crossing the road and the Waikawa had actually washed away the highway just north of Manakau meaning that we were also cut off from Levin, isolated in both directions. Our only option was the neighbours and what followed was nothing short of a miracle of logistics by Claire. Whilst the names will mean nothing to you just marvel at the organisation as we rallied the neighbours at midnight

  • Doug was home alone as Julie was stuck in Levin, he couldn’t leave his children who were asleep
  • Claire offered to babysit Doug’s kids but then we needed someone to babysit Fred, also asleep.
  • Denise came around to babysit Fred
  • Brad came back to help, sporting what I think was a wetsuit
  • Chris got our of bed to come and give a hand
  • Doug arrived in his Land Rover

We had a team and we set to work trying to grab as many pigs as possible and get them to higher ground or, thanks to Doug and his amazing trailer towing skills, into the stock trailer. What followed was a torchlit version of a black and white slapstick movie as one by one we dived at black pigs, missed, landed face down in the mud and tried again. We soon got a rhythm and by the time my grip gave out, from the power of grabbing the pigs by their fast kicking legs, we had caught and re-homed about 30 pigs of all shapes and sizes. It was about 2:30am.

As we returned to our respective homes everyone looked drained and ready to sleep, except Brad who I think could have carried on all night wrestling pigs. After a well needed warm shower I sat down at the computer and informed all our Facebook followers that it was looking very unlikely we would be at the Thorndon Farmers Market that day, despite having a trailer full of fresh meat. It was now 3am and I had been awake for 22 hours, tomorrow the clean up had to start and the pigs needed somewhere to live other than the back of a trailer.

From the bottom of my heart I would like to thank all those people that came out to help that night, some of you might be reading this. Apart from simply being a really nice thing to do I suspect that you probably saved a life and definitely saved my business. Thank you so much.

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.