Culling our Berkshire pigs

A Berkshire boar snuffling in the grass and mud.

The combination of ever rising costs and customer expectations of ever falling prices means we’ve started culling our herd of Berkshire pigs.

Prices were up again when I paid the bill at the feed merchants today, necessitating a dip into our household savings and that’s unacceptable even though we have three porkers going through at the moment.

Pork from the growers will recoup the money from our savings but there will be nothing left to pay for further feed, much less the replacement stock we need. Or fencing materials, veterinary costs, farm insurance and the like. We broke even last year so there’s nothing left in the bank for them at this point.

If we could cover our costs and get the small margin we need to rebuild our cushion, it might be worth going on with the pigs. But with the majority of potential customers for pigs and pork—five of seven in the past fortnight—demanding prices that are one-third to one-half the cost of the production we see little point in carrying on. (Ironically, we have a bigger base of potential customers than ever thanks to most other local producers quitting.)

As our boar, Gus, and one of the sows, Daisy, were already in ill health I decided to cull them immediately instead of running up further veterinary and feed bills.

A neighbour with a firearms certificate, endorsed for culling injured stock, brought his .22 over this afternoon and shot both of them.

I’d have preferred to use a shotgun as it’s safer and more effective—fired at close range into the skull about an inch above the eyes—but the people who let me use their shotgun (under supervision on my land) if needed were away. (UK firearms laws have so far prevented me obtaining a shotgun certificate.)

With both pigs, the first shot from the .22 didn’t hit quite square thanks to the pigs moving their heads slightly. The fractional change in angle, combined with the hardness and thickness of a mature pig’s skull, meant the bullets ricocheted up their foreheads.

I’d anticipated this and positioned the pigs with the empty hillside rising behind them, but it wasn’t pleasant to have rounds zip off bone into the air then plough into the soil far up the rise.

In both cases, the second shots hit square, at very close to a right angle to the forehead, and penetrated the bone. Both pigs dropped immediately, indicating their brain stems were destroyed by the rounds.

The neighbour and I moved the pig carcasses around to the hardstanding to allow the knacker to collect them tomorrow. They’re under a tarpaulin to avoid offending passers-by—we know from experience how few people like to be confronted by the realities of farming.

As for the remaining sows, I’d like to send them to slaughter. If we can turn them into sausages, chops and hams we can cover the costs of culling them, plus the costs of disposing of the boar and sow.

However, most abattoirs up here only take pigs to 80kg and the sows are in excess of 200kg. If we can’t send the sows to slaughter, we’ll have to pay the cull costs from the proceeds of the last porkers.

It will leave us a little out of pocket but not as much as keeping a herd of pigs on and subsidising at least half the cost of other people’s food, as an ever increasing number of would-be customers make clear that’s what we’re expected to do.

Well, their expectations won’t be met at our expense. Instead, they can go to the supermarket, fill their trolleys with cheap, imported and intensively produced pork while blaming the supermarkets for farmers not getting paid enough for milk or pork.

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91 Responses to “Culling our Berkshire pigs”

  1. Sad day in lots of different ways….

  2. Aw Stoney. I wish I had an answer for the problem. I don’t. No vague platitudes will be coming from me. Take care.

  3. Sorry, hope you can find someone to process the rest of them for you.

    • The abattoir we now use wouldn’t take adult pigs in the past. The abattoir we used to use wouldn’t take them either and is now very anti-smallholders/traditional breeds.

  4. Trudy Abernathy-Neill Reply 6 August, 2012 at 18:28

    Difficult times all over the world…we see it at our farm here in Indiana. I have been following your blog for some time. We are retired Air Force and lived in Great Britain for some years and our first daughter was born there. I don’t have any answers for you, just commend you for doing what must be done…best wishes. Trudy Neill of Windermere Farm.

    • It’s one of those things that’s part and parcel of farming. When something is no longer financially viable, you have to cut your losses and move on. Of course, it’s easier when changing from one arable crop to another or one vegetable crop to another than it is when you’re dealing with livestock, and particularly breeding livestock.

  5. Andy in Germany Reply 6 August, 2012 at 18:30

    Well, it’s hardly a suprise, but nonetheless it’s sad, and I can’t imagine how tough it would be for you.

    No answers or platitudes here either, but thanks for sharing what’s going on.

  6. a sad time, but this must be shared for people to know what is happening to farming

    • Many people are hypocritical: they claim to care about animals, farming and local producers but when it comes to down to it they’ll just go for whatever’s cheapest and has the prettiest packaging. Supermarkets get the blame, but it’s the customer who decides to buy the cheapest.

      • Andy in Germany Reply 8 August, 2012 at 21:41

        Hmm… I think that’s a bit black and white Stoney: we’re trying to feed a family on a tiny income and although we would love to get better food, we simply don’t have the money. We now have an allotment to help out a bit, but we’re on the poverty line here, and it’s supermarkets or don’t eat unless it’s harvest time at the allotment. We don’t like this, and we’re working on a long term plan to move out of it but it’s not like there are any ‘luxuries’ we can stop having in order to pay for better food.

        • We’re in the same position, but we manage it. Some might, and often do, say that we get our meat for ‘free’ or cheap, but we don’t, we have to buy it from ourselves at full price – any other way is tax evasion. We also buy the best food which means finances are always tight but at least we can hold our heads up when asking people to consider all the factors that make good food important.

        • Andy in Germany 9 August, 2012 at 06:49

          Believe me, we’ve tried: we are growing what food we can, we don’t own a car, partly to save money, and most of our income is used to pay for an attic apartment that is technically considered too small for a family so we can afford the rent. We’ve cycled over to local farms but it’s way beyond our budget. We repeatedly get told (by people with a nice secure income) that we should just drop our ‘luxuries’ so we can pay for ‘good food’ We dont have any to drop.
          This is the flip side of working with young people: everybody says it’s a great idea but no-one wants to pay for it.
          Now we’ve hit the point where, like Stoney we’re paying for things our of savings to keep working in this area so I’m leaving that area (except as a volunteer and learning a recognised trade in Germany.
          Hopefully after that we’ll be able to afford or grow decent food, but until then it’s a case of supermarkets or no food.

        • I guess things are different in Germany. Good food is quite often cheaper here, if I could manage without a car that would make things easier but for me with the cost of fuel. Food is my luxury though.

        • Andy in Germany 9 August, 2012 at 15:19

          Fair enough too. When we can afford a luxury we’ll try and make sure it’s better food. We’ve made a small start but still we are finding that in a region famous for apples, the only ones we can afford are from New Zealand. There is some improvement: supermarkets are beginning to stock local apples (occasionally, at much higher prices) and we get them when we can, but often local food here is treated as a gimmick, a luxury for the rich, not something for normal people.

          In a way Stoney and us are in the same place: both our families have decided we want to live in a way we believe is right, and we are both pushed out by the very strange economic ideas of a few infuential people, we’re seeing opposite sides of the same coin.

          I’ve got three years of a carpentry apprenticeship before I can do anything about it though…

  7. Totally agree with that last statement.

    x

  8. Sad and difficult post to read. We’re all guilty – often not even because of the price, but just because we have to think where to find properly reared meat, and it’s easier just to go brainlessly round with the trolley and salve your conscience with supposedly free-range chicken and lamb.

  9. Very sorry to hear that it has come to this. As a crofter myself, I am well aware of the fine lines between breaking even and making a loss. Most crofters in the Western Isles, myself included, work a full-time job, along with the croft. It’s not easy. I’d love to be a full-time crofter but the small areas of land means it’s always going to be tough.

    On the subject of pigs & slaughter, will your abbatoir slaugter them as cattle? Our abbatoir in Stornoway is the same, with an 80kg limit, but if you have a larger beast than that, they process it as cattle. Maybe something to quiz them on?

    Your blog is fantastic btw, one of my favourites (probably my fav) and encouraged me to start up my own a few months ago airanlot.wordpress.com

    • The Other Half works full-time off the croft. If I did the same, we wouldn’t have enough time to do all the work that needs to be done. I know because we tried it for a few months. Neither of us were here between 7am and 6pm weekdays, while I was working a shift rota that included Saturdays and Sundays. Also, we wouldn’t see very much of our boys as they’d be in before and after school clubs.
      Over and above that, I’m not going to take on an off-croft job to subsidise the cost of production so customers can get lower prices. It’s daft to subsidise other people’s food.
      As for the abattoirs, yes, they could put a pig through a cattle line but they won’t. What I’m told when I talk to the abattoirs is that it’s inconvenient, inefficient and costly to open a cattle line on a pig day for one or two animals with have all the set-up, operating and cleaning costs.

  10. Big shame customers have driven you to this. I have shotguns if you need assistance in future, but only 6′s sized pellets in cartridges not BB

    • Thanks. You don’t need buckshot when culling pigs. They’re shot at close range with the barrel only a couple of inches from the skull. Number 5/6/7 are ideal for the job at this range as the column of shot disperses inside the skull immediately after punching through the bone. There’s minimal risk of over-penetration and instant destruction of the brain stem is almost guaranteed. It’s why the Humane Slaughter Association recommends the use of a shotgun for culling pigs. I suspect the majority of people suggesting other loads or the use of rifles haven’t a clue as to what they’re talking about when it comes to the most effective means of culling a pig—as opposed to hunting wild/feral pigs or culling other species.

  11. If most people are hypocrites,

    You must be an idiot ,to post on the internet that you borrow a shotgun,and do Not have a shotgun licence

    You are paying for disposal of these carcases,it would have only cost you a few quid more for the knacker man to have shot them properly.

    • my understanding is that this is totally legal under supervision of the licence holder…..but I think strictly only if it were on the licence holders land, or at an organised clay pigeon shoot.
      So altho it might not be quite within the regs re location, it is perfectly legal as a principle for this to happen
      Stonehead has never come across as an idiot as far as I can see, and is unlikely to start now.

      • It seems daft to transport the pigs off the croft to land owned by the holder of the shotgun certificate so they can be shot there. But it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what the bureaucracy requires!

    • The knacker won’t cull pigs. I’ve asked before.

      As for using a shotgun, we’re working on my land under the supervision of the shotgun’s owner, who holds a shotgun licence. I suppose we could take the pigs to his land and have him shoot them there if our pragmatic approach is so problematic.

  12. Unfortunately I doubt the people necessitating such a harsh decision wont be reading your blog and accepting resposibility for it.
    Why is it that consumers have such unrealistic expectations regarding what are ultimately artisan products? Do we need to educate about the end product more? I dont know…so many questions.

    • We spend a lot of time educating people about the realities. We walk them around the croft, explain how we breed our pigs and produce our pork, set out the reasons why it costs more to produce pigs and pork in this way than intensively (no farrowing crates means higher death rates, traditional breeds convert feed to meat less efficiently, outdoors means fewer pigs per acre than indoors, etc), and show them our costings.

      I did this on Monday when a potential customer dropped in unexpectedly, right on dinner time. He seemed quite appreciative of the information but went away disappointed because we’re quitting.

      However, he is in a shrinking minority. Most people hear us out, then turn and say the likes of “well, I’m not paying more than £25”, “well, I’m not paying a rare breed premium”, “well, you should get more efficient”, “well, you should only charge the price the market sets and that’s £25”.

  13. So very sad. It’s a sign of the times that folks want cheap meat and other foods and they are all being imported. Do they even stop to think that in the future there may be a war or fuel crisis that could stop all imported foods and then they will turn to the British farmers for their food…….the farmers will not be there…..we will all be out of business thanks to the cheap imports.

    When we took a large Berkshire to the abbatoir (she was well over 200kg they put her through on the cow line for us, ask if the abbatoir will do it as a one off for you, they might just if you explained the circumstances.

    • As the overwhelming majority of potential customers have made clear, local, traditional breed, extensive, high-welfare pigs and pork are wanted but only if the price is less than that of intensively produced pigs and pork. They don’t want to know that stripping out all the “efficiencies” of intensive pork means costs will be be much higher.

  14. Surely you shouldn’t be trying to make money from rare breed pigs. It’s a privilege to own them and preserve them, and as such it’s going to cost producers money. That’s the way it is. I have Tamworths and Saddlebacks, and it’s always cost me money to keep them. I sell weaners below cost because people are never going to pay the full cost. My husband, who runs the family farm, is like you and thinks I’m mad but I’m doing it for the love of it. I had to take on a part-time job to keep the pigs going three years ago because he said the farm wasn’t going to subsidise my silly hobby or other people’s food. But if you’re going to save the rare breeds, that’s what you have to accept. They cost money and you’re not going to get it back. No rare breeds will be saved if everyone expects them to pay their way.

    • This is an extremely niave comment.for the future of Rare Breed pigs The ONLY way to preserve Rare Breed pigs is for the keepers/breeders of them to let the public know what this meat tastes like and how good traditional pork actually is, and the only true way for this to happen is for these very breeders to be able to make a living from this.

      It is the hobby farmers,playing at pig breeding who just have a few and sell their weaners just to finance the food of the parents or even at a loss that are the very ones putting the true Rare Breed pig farmers out of business.

      I have bred Large Blacks, Middle Whites, Berkshires and Kune Kunes, when we couldn’t make it pay we stepped out of the pig breeding business, firstly making sure that all our pigs went to new breeders who could make good use of their bloodlines. The few we took to slaughter we sold all the meat to our client list who have been spreading the word about the brilliant meat and we have now passed them on to other pig breeders for their future meat orders.

    • Rather a lot of rare breed have been saved that way and as long as there are people willing to sell below cost then breed numbers will never be sustainable. It is irresponsible and damaging to the breed to do this, I have to agree with your husband on this one. Rare breeds should not be museum pieces.

    • Are you happy to earn a few hundred pounds a month, sink it into your pigs and then give that money away to total strangers? Because that’s what you’re doing. If your weaners cost £50 or £60 to produce, and you sell them for £25, then you are giving away £25-35 each time someone takes a weaner off you. That seems more than a little daft to me.

  15. I’ve read the blog for a while because it’s quite entertaining, but I have no sympathy for the idea that British farmers are somehow more deserving simply because their British. The consumer wants, indeed expects, lower prices and businesses have to be ever more efficient and innovative to deliver this. If they can’t, they go to the wall and more efficient or innovative ones fill the gap. There was something on the radio recently about the British pig herd dropping by half in 10 years. So what? The same report said cheaper imports are available from the Dutch and the Danes. Well, if they’re more efficient, let’s buy from them at their lower prices. And if the Chinese end up being lower still, change to their pork. And if British farmers want to stay in business, get real and get efficient. Manufacturing has largely moved offshire and we’re all much better off for it, having access to much cheaper cars, white goods, TVs, clothes and more. If it’s cheaper to buy food from overseas, we should embrace it and turned the countryside over to uses that pay more efficiently. Besides, we can do without the smell of muck drifting all over the shop when the farmers are out with their spreaders. And as for wars, as someone said up the page, get serious. The days of WW2 are long past. We’re not going to have U-boats off the coast again.

    • I feel I really have to point out Leo, that the cheaper imports from ‘the Dutch’ are perhaps not really the meats you want to be eating, why…..well the Dutch people are just coming to the realisation that their intensive pig farming methods are not good for the animals or the people that eat the meat from them, hence the whole of our herd of Large Blacks were sent over to begin a breeding programme for what is being seen as a new healthier way of eating. What are farmers have been supplying for generations is being seen as the way forward over there, and they export all the ‘other’ meat.

      As for U-boats off the coast….how little you know, I am married to an ex-submariner…… the stories he could tell you!!

      • Hot bunks stinking of someone else’s BO, a permanent cramp in the lower back from being stooped, and the delightful co-mingled stench of cabbage, ozone, diesel, lubricating oil, rubber and several weeks’ worth of farts. Yes, I tried an Oberon class submarine once. That was enough. :D

        • Haha…yo’ve been there too, my Hubby says they are delightful places!!

          How strange that you both moved on to mucking out pigs!

    • Have you ever thought what happens if you follow your ideas to their logical conclusions – we’d end up exporting all our money to other countries and then what are you going to buy your imports with?

      Pig farmers have to comply with stricter legislation in the UK than Denmark or Holland – yes we’ve also exported much of our cruelty, environmental degredation & exploitation, but hey as long as you’re alright in the short term, that’s all that matters, eh?

      • Haven’t you realised yet, it’s a global market and that means money goes from the UK to other countries. If we want money to come back we have to supply things they don’t have and want or can’t produce as cheaply or effectively as us. Many other countries produce food more cheaply and effectively than the UK does. Its time to accept it, say goodbye to farmers like we’ve said goodbye to factory workers and coal miners and find something else to do that sells. Entirely logical. Stonehead’s croft isn’t efficient and making money doing pigs so he should use it to make money some other way. Again entirely logical.

        • I’ve realised, but you seem to be ignoring the reality of the global market and the reduced output the world is experiencing due to various climatic & environmental problems the world over. There may be countries producing food more cheaply, but exporting production to those countries doesn’t mean they will suddenly increase the size of their production facilities, ie land, or their yields (look at the rate of land price inflation in Bulgaria, for example). All it means is that the price of food will rise & we will find it more difficult to buy that food.

          I’m looking forward to your suggestions of what Stonehead can do with his croft that he can sell at a profit on the world market though?

        • Sorry, I mean Romania when I said Bulgaria.

    • You’re certainly correct in saying the move to off-shore agricultural production is moving on apace. I found this article in the Daily Mail of all places. And it certainly is cost effective to buy a village’s land for £3 and turn it over to monoculture focused on the Western markets. Whether it’s “right” is another thing.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Herds culled as feed prices rise | Musings from a Stonehead - 27 September, 2012

    [...] It’s happened to us on the croft and it’s happening all the way up the scale. If consumers won’t pay a fair price that covers the costs of production, then they will have either have to go without or pay more for an increasingly scarce product. The mass slaughter of millions of farm animals across the world is expected to push food prices to their highest ever levels. [...]

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