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. We’re raising 6 Berkshires this year! We’re bringing them in tomorrow!

  2. I completely empathise with the situation. Running a hobby farm myself i am well aware of the tiny margin between profit and loss. I only keep one sow and fortunately have a select group of loyal customers who are willing to pay double the price for a berks over a pink pig however they are a rare group. With production of 16 weaners a year it is possible to find a loyal group of customers however i do have access to a boar without keeping one myself. I also have a guernsey cow and i estimate i save approx $3000 a year on milk/cream/yoghurt/cheese/Beef costs. Minus the feed costs a milk cow is definitely economically worthwile if you are looking for a cost negative animal to utilise the land. All the best Stony i have read this blog for years and learnt a lot.
    Mark from Nova Scotia.

    • We have a group of very loyal customers, too, but they’re not sufficient to support our operation as it is. I did consider buying in a small number of weaners to fatten and doing pork only, but it’s very difficult to source good quality pigs in our neck of the woods. In fact, it’s very difficult to source even poor quality pigs at the moment, even if I wanted them and I don’t.

      I talked to one of our neighbours a few days ago. He’s an experienced farm manager with a lot of accounting experience, too. We were talking about livestock and it turns out he’s just got rid of his own herd of cattle. Even with calf payments (£100 a year each), the herd wasn’t financially viable. He didn’t see much point in changing to sheep as the market for them has been too volatile over the past few years, with more bad years than good.

      Someone else said we should go further down the self-sufficiency route until I pointed out we needed income to pay for things we can’t made ourselves: wire for fencing, posts for fencing, sand and cement for repairing buildings, veterinary medications, seed when saved seed isn’t sufficient or a crop fails, and so on.

      It certainly makes for an interesting life.

      • Someone recently said to me that ‘you made a choice to go into farming’ [so you shouldn't expect people to pay bove the cost of production]. They’re right, I did make that choice, but you only get one life & if you wait for farming fortunes to change you’ll find that you’re too old to farm and you’ve wasted your life waiting.

  3. So sorry to hear you have to cull your herd. I hope in whatever you choose to go into next will be more hopeful and not as stressful for you and your family.

  4. Pete from Huntly Reply 9 August, 2012 at 10:47

    i think its worth repeating what i told you when i contacted you about weaners two weeks ago. you should be charging the market price for pigs and then working out efficiencies to keep costs below that. if most customers are like me and expect to pay £25 to £30 for their weaners that means the market price is £25 to £30…you even say most customers epxect to pay that. you cant just charge what you want—the market decides not you and you cant expect a rare breed premium just because you think your pigs are better. like leo says youve got to be more efficient—keep costs under market price. then youll make a living. i also think its outragous for you to have pigs and not sell them—youve choosen your job and its having pigs and pork for people like me to buy. and you cant then say well i’m selling to them but not to you!

    • No he shouldn’t, he should be charging what he needs and if people don’t buy them, get out of pigs. Then the people who want to pay £25 for a weaner will have to rear their own and take the loss themselves. We charge £40 for weaners and if people can’t afford to buy them then that’s tough – I can’t afford to spend thousands on scale & efficiencies just to satisfy a few people who want it cheaper. It’s better to have a surplus of a few pigs at full price than a shedload of cheap pigs that you can’t sell (been there, got the t-shirt). This is mainly because you stand more chance of feeding & selling a few as meat The more you produce, the further down the price goes – if you’ve got loads of piglets on the place at £25 people will rock up and expect to pay £20. If a piglet is half price people don’t automatically take twice as many, because they will still have double the cost of feeding them.

    • I do not go to work everyday to earn money to support my family to then give away pigs to you or any other folk who think we have an obligation to give away our livestock. I wouldn’t call you or them customers because we do not sell to you or the likes of you. The pigs have to pay for themselves not be subsidised by my salary if they don’t they have to go. I would no more hand you money out of my ‘pay packet’ than give you pigs for less than a third of the cost to produce them.

      If our pigs are not better then why do you want them? We are not purveyors of cheap meat. If you are interested in ‘efficiencies’, such as economies of scale, then there several major supermarket chains that specialise in such efficiencies; your nearest ones would be either Tesco or Asda.

      Be aware you will have to pay what they ask for though—you won’t be able to take £60 of groceries to the checkout and say “I’m only paying £25 because my mates and I have decided that’s what the market value is”.

      If you can not afford to pay what our pigs cost then I suggest you look else where. I can not afford a new BMW but I don’t demand they sell me one for £10,000 rather than £30,000+. Nor do I claim that it’s outrageous for them to have cars and not sell them to me.

      I am glad, however, that you have put your thoughts in writing for others to read because some people find it hard to believe people contact us and use such tactics.

      Like you, I think it’s worth repeating a few things. I find your attitude and behaviour outrageous. We have not chosen to produce pigs and pork to effectively give them to people like you. And we CAN choose who we sell to—and who we don’t. You’re not one of them.

    • I hope your boss tells you on Monday morning that he is cutting your pay to less than half and if you complain he’ll tell you to be more efficienct in the way you live, because there is a Pole that’ll do your job for less and you *must* meet his living costs. And if you quit he’ll say that it is outrageous for you not to work if you are able. Then you might understand.

    • You neglected to mention something you told me. You admitted that all three of the pig producers you’d brought stock from in the past have quit as it was too expensive to continue. And you admitted that two other pig producers you’d contacted had quit, too. Again, you said they’d quit because they were losing money.

      If supply is contracting sharply because it’s too expensive to make the product while demand remains strong, then doesn’t the “market theory” so idolised by the likes of Leo and yourself state that prices should rise? Of course, I know you will disagree because you only choose the dogma that suits your agenda.

      • I’ve heard you say over the years how people get in touch to tell you why they should rob you but I’ve never appreciated it until now just how you weren’t exagerating one bit.

        I once had a lady ring me up asking to hire our boar, because their usual supplier had gone out of business, upon giving the price she said it was more than they usually pay (well that was a surprise) – but she stopped short of telling me I had a duty to hire her the boar.

        • There are a number of comments from other people with similar views scattered through the blog. You can also see similar views on smallholding forums. I’ve heard similar things from people with small businesses. It’s no exaggeration.

      • I know there are people out there on the internet who want the moon on a stick for half the price, but it was the bit about them actually bothering to turn up at your gate/ring you up that surprises me.

  5. well said indeed. The place for those who dont think it is worth paying more so that animals can have a decent life and the end product taste of something……is in a budget supermarket buying stuff from god knows where that has been treated like god knows what.

  6. Sorry to hear you are giving up on the pigs stoney but having read your blog for a few years now its not really a supprise. There is only so long that you can keep losing money before you have to say enough is enough, so maybe the only supprise is how you managed to keep going for so long breaking even at best but more likely losing money on them.
    What are your plans now for the land? More crops or just more room for the chickens?

    Pete from Huntley I think you are talking out your a*se. If you cannot make a profit from any buisness how do you pay bills? The last I heard you could not turn up at the Town Hall with a side of pork and hand it over the counter in exchange for the council tax each year.

    • We’ve not lost money until now. Until last year, we made enough to cover the day to day running costs plus the capital costs (spread over five years).

      Last year was tight and we had to cut a few things to balance the books: two new pens weren’t finished, building maintenance wasn’t done, the trailer wasn’t rewired and we didn’t get the two new gilts we needed. If things had picked up this year, last year would have been an acceptable glitch and we could have worked to overcome the delays.

      However, costs have continued to soar this year, it’s imperative to get new breeding stock in, and the number of potential customers demanding lower prices has grown to 80% of people who contact us. Therefore, it’s no longer feasible for us to keep producing pigs or pork.

  7. Pricing is not about what the producer thinks the customers should pay. Pricing is about what the customer is prepared to pay. Customers are the market and they determine the actual price paid for goods and services. The idea that customers should pay a particular price is naive. The customer is king and decides what he (or she) is prepared to pay. That is the price—not some arbitrary figure dreamt up by a producer.

    And, of course, what customers say they want and what they actually buy are usually totally different. Customers are always “hypocritical” in that sense. They want to convey a certain image of themselves to the wider community so they say they want, for example, free range, high welfare and local production. But, as Stonehead has found, customers do something else when it comes to handing over their money—they opt for the cheapest source, especially if it conveys the perception that it’s more than what it is. So people buy cheap eggs with a picture of a happy chicken on the box instead of buying slightly more expensive eggs from genuinely happy chickens.

    If you want to survive in business you have to work out what the market price is, work out what image your customers want to convey, and then develop a product that meets both those goals while also giving you, the producer, a decent return.

    In other words, Stonehead has to produce pigs and pork to the market price (say £25 for a pig or £4.00 per kg for pork) while having a marketing message that says “local, cute and nice”. The modern global economy is consumer led and consumers, via the market, decide the price. Producers must charge that price and no more, while giving customers the experience and image they desire. It’s naive to think you can give customers a reality that matches the desired image and get a price that covers that reality.

    Oh, and I know what I’m talking about. I run my own business, charge my customers what they expect to pay and give them a product whose marketing has the desired image. They don’t care what the reality of my business is behind the scenes so long as they walk away feeling like kings. While that continues to be the case, I do well.

    • You know what you’re talking about eh? So how come your message is one full of theory but lacking in any practicality? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and ask how you propose Stonehead produces piglets for £25 a head and still takles a decent return?

    • ‘The Market’, according to the farming press, is commanding £40/head and at the other end of the paper is a report about the national herd contracting beause producers aren’t making any money. There must be some massive money making opportunities for all these people who think they can produce a profit at £25.

  8. But that message would be false and misleading, the animals wouldnt have a nice life. Which would mean that ethical producers, like Stoney, would choose not to supply at all. That might be inevitable and customers do have the right to make a choice, but it should be an informed one first of all (all the outdoor ‘bred’ marketing crap from the supermarkets etc is just designed to mislead) and also if he chooses not to play that poor welfare, sleight of hand game I dont think anyone has the right to say he cant, he shouldnt and he has a ‘duty’ to mislead customers and run a low welfare operation.

    If your own product doesnt involve other living things, then I think the moral stakes are much lower. But please, not with livestock.

  9. One should also consider the lower welfare standards of many overseas producers have an impact on the costs. The UK had adhered to higher welfare standards than most of mainland Europe for some time and always enacted required laws before the rest of the EU. Moving to higher-welfare cages for hens is one example, another is Sow stalls that the UK and Sweden stopped using some time ago. The rest of EU not until 2013 (if they obey the law!). There is more to an economin and efficiency arguement than simple economics and efficiency!

  10. Agree with mhairi and peter. We approached stonehead last year with a view to buying three weaners for free range pork for us and our friends and made it clear we needed them on the last weekend of the school holidays at easter. I work offshore and we have our family holidays away for most of the holidays and then i go offshore again just after so its imperative we had the pigs then. But stonehead refused to sell us pigs when we needed them saying he could aim for a six weeks window but no guarantees.

    Its ridiculous to be in business and not give the customer what they want when they want it. Why should we wait until it suits him. We’re the customer and he should meet our requirements. I checked and he could have used an injection to bring the sow on and then used AI to time farrowing so the weaners would be ready when we needed them. Pig farmers do this all the time apparently. Why not for us and other customers.

    As for the prices. I saw a river cottage episode where Hugh says £30 for a weaner and on their forum lots of people think a fair price is around that but they also concede weaners sell at marts for £10. And even for £2. Wanting £60 is bang out of order especially when he wont provide the pigs at a time that suits the customer. He even wanted more money to deliver when so many businesses off free delivery now. Because he wouldn’t give his customers what they want hes missed sales and we missed out on pigs. We didn’t have pigs this year either because there was no point going back to stonehead and there isn’t anybody else. Its really not fair that businesses can deny people what they want when they want it at the right price.

    • This is so absolutely disrespectful to Stonehead I am shocked. Why would you come on someones Blog and write in this way.

      This is a Blog NOT a Forum and most definitely not a place to be rude about the person that writes the Blog or to criticise their way of life or business.

      The way I see it Stonehead raising his pigs the natural way, the way we did when we had them, and as such you cannot guarantee the timing of a litter exactly. To ‘bring a pig on’ would have meant drugs in your weaners systems, surely you were after rare breed pig meat because it is healthier and not pumped full of drugs.

    • Wow, do you really exist? I haven’t had such a good laugh for a long time – there isn’t anybody else, yet you quoted the River Cottage forum – why didn’t you go to someone on there for your weaners? After all delivery doesn’t cost anything, right, so you could have travelled anywhere in the UK and got a bargain. In fact weaners sell at marts for £10 – so why didn’t you go to a mart?

      What happens if he did AI, at your request and his expense, and the sow cycled again – you’d be three weeks out of your vital timeframe & he’d probably have lost the sale and left paying for it.

      • Yes, he really exists. He’s one of numerous people who contacted us last winter wanting pigs around Easter. And in quite a few cases visited us for the walk-around and education programme. Some were fine with a six-week window, many weren’t. This year was the same, except the number who expected pigs on specific days increased. As I’ve said before, many people don’t want to know the reality—they just want to pick a pig or two off the shelf on the day they decide they want one.

      • Oh, if you think that’s bad, don’t forget we’ve had potential customers who didn’t realise they’d have to kill the pig to get the pork. Then there was the one who wanted a pig to keep in his flat. And the one who pulled out a massive wodge of cash to buy a piglet for his girlfriend to keep as a pet in her townhouse. And…

    • You do realise you are dealing with living creatures here? It sounds like you are talking about a tin of paint or accessory for your car.

      Stonehead’s prices are the realistic ones, others are doing it at a loss to offload the piglets in a misguided belief that things will improve or are following the sort of methods you are advocating which completely conflict with the sort of reasons someone would be in rare breeds rather than pink flabby trash in the first place.

      Why is reimbursing the fuel that it costs to deliver an animal to your front door so offensive to you? Cant get my head round that.

      The reason ‘there is noone else’ is because of people taking the approach that you are. So thats fine, there will be no choice, you can go to the supermarket, its cheap there.
      I wouldnt sell you an animal :-(((

    • “Why should we wait until it suits him”

      You are not waiting until it suits him.

      You can try to argue with a pig’s reproductive cycle. But. Well. You do know how this works…don’t you.

      “I checked and he could have used an injection to bring the sow on”

      Couple of obvious issues here. You may be dealing with a producer who doesn’t do that. You can’t complain if you buy a Ferrari and realise the fuel consumption isn’t what you want. Businesses don’t give every customer what they want. They give some customers what they want. This is obvious. It’s why ferrari and Skoda both exist. Plus. You want this service for ten quid.

      Comparing random, intensively farmed pigs, presumably not guaranteed rare breed pedigree, whiuch are going to be from stock you have no knowledge of, from a farmer yyou have no knowledge of with the Berkshires on sdalle from Stoney. Well. If you can’t see the difference, that’s your issue. You don’t have to buy them, but you equally can’t be allowed to get away with such a basic and ridiculous misconception that they are comparable.

      Re Hugh Firmly Setsouthisstall, quoting prices from the nineties as a direct comparison with now is beyond ridiculous. I presume you expect to be paid a salary from the mid nineties. Do you have similar conversations with petrol attendants while paying for a tank at 1997 prices? Or do you go the whole hog and pay only in thrupenny bits, farthings, and bags of boiled sweets from the 1950′s?

      No business anywhere ever charges for delivery. It’s unheard of. All deliv ery is universally free everywhere. Stamps, for example, are a bourgeois affectation. DHL are a charity. Parcelforce is run by nuns and volunteers. Every farmer I know would clasp you warmly to their bosom with a misty eyed affection when you insist on ten quid per unit and free delivvery. Marts especially offer free deliery on every ten pound weaner.

      To make such ridiculous, palpably erroneous assertions when someone is culling their herd. Frankly, it’s indecent. It’s wrong. It’s embarassing.

      • People like that are never embarassed. Ever. The OH and I take potential customers on a walk-around, give them the facts of life about pigs and pig-keeping, and set out the costs for us and for them. Some people decide it’s too much, thank us and go on their way. Some people decide it’s fine, thank us and organise the purchase of pigs or pork. And quite a few people hear us out, then demand a fantasy that’s completely at odds with everything they’ve been told. The disconnect can be breathtaking at times.

  11. Oh Stoney, I somehow feel I need to apologise for all these “customers”. I won’t, their idiocy and appalling manners shout loud and clear for everyone with half a brain. I’m so sorry you’ve had to cull your pigs because of stupid people like this (and the f****d up economy of course).

    Perhaps the most upsetting thing, for me, is that they can almost certainly afford the price you require and presumably acknowledge the premier quality meat you produce, but want to be able to tell their pals about getting “a bargain from an exclusive little producer I know”. I’ve met lots of these people over the years – they’re invariably economically very secure. This has nothing to do with market forces, they just think that, as customers, they have more power than you and are stunned to the point of belligerence when you refuse to give in to their bullying tactics.

    I hope you can start breeding pigs again soon, or that you find something you equally enjoy doing that might prove more economically viable.

    • Well said. Working offshore, holidays to fit in, it all indicates someone who is economically able to treat his suppliers decently and understand that they, like him in his work life, need to earn a sustainable price or they will not be able to continue. But, in this case, they choose not to. …Not nice. You can be a leech for so long, but sooner or later your victim isnt there anymore….

    • I’ll almost certainly take something of a break until next spring. There will still be plenty of work to do around the croft, but I should have time to do a few other things. We may even find the time—and hopefully cash—to have our first family holiday together. The last time the OH and I had a family holiday was when our oldest boy was six months old. He’s now 12 and his brother is nine.

  12. Hi stoney,

    Sorry to hear you\’ll be dropping the pigs. Raising a family, running a home, and ploughing extremely hard work into something all require a reasonable return. At least if you are in a position whrere you have to earn a living.

    The idea that you should, somehow, continue with the enterprise – which would involve putting a negative value on your own time and work, as well as making a loss per unit – makes zero sense. And it seems perverse, and bizarre that a commenter on your blog, enjoying your content for free, should insist you have no right to make any money from them (that\’s @Mhairi).

    I\’ve enjoyed (and been educated by) your writings about them, your obvious care and affection for them, as well as your pragmatic, capable and extremely competent approach to their maintainance and care. It seems grossly insensitive for someone to decide to get stuck in about the pragmatism or not of your culling methods (not to mention misapplied – anyone who reads you has a square and honest idea of your hard headed pragmatism, organisation, and competence).

    And commenters who are applying intensive farming economics to a sustainable, rare breed niche model of farming, on the basis that the comparison is like for like are making fundamental reasoning errors. The analysis is flawed. It would be like arguing that, for example, Heston Blumenthal should charge the same price you pay for a family bucket of KFC. Both things have their place, but price comparisons on a like for like basis are not possible.

    Thanks for the generosity of spirit, in sharing your experience, expertise and time. It’s really appreciated, and I, for one, will e incorporating ideas, lessons, and hard won common sense in my own smallholding. Thanks.

    I hope, at some stage, you can find a way to make the enterprise worthwhile again – either from finding a reliable market from your produce, or perhaps from sharing your expertise, knowledge, and pragmatic viewpoint with those who could benefit from it.

  13. apologies for poor typing but i have a feeding baby in the other hand.

    i’d just like to thank mark w for the belly laugh that is his post – in the past i had thought stonehead was exaggerating a wee bit when talking about his dafter customers. i now realise that no, there are people THAT foolish out there! people who bemoan the outlandish prices asked and completely fail to link that with the fact that all other local producers have mysteriously dissapeared….people who claim to give a monkeys about welfare/breed preservation/sustainability and then in the very next breath throw it all out of the window by demanding rare breeds live the way industrial pigs do, being injected with hormones to suit a timing whim!? satan will ice skate to work before i do that kind of thing to living animals to satisfy an ignorant-yet-dogmatic customer, that’s not why i got into farming, i actually like and care about the wellbeing of my animals! you need to get yourself over to smithfield foods for your pork, mate!

    hfw’s programmes on weaners are what, 10, 15yrs old? what’s happened to inputs since?

    yes we can all rely on hobby breeders happy to subsidise your food with their wages, but that’s a sad day for rare breed pigs as it means that they are by and large, doomed.

    sorry you’ve had to deal with these incredible twits, stonehead – apologies for thinking you were exaggerating!!

    • No exaggeration. The Other Half has stood next to me while people have made similar comments—and worse—to my face. She’s taken phone calls from people with similar views.

      Whenever I post about the costs of pig production or the difficulties of meeting the expectations of potential customers I get at least one comment lecturing me about “the market”, about the customer being king, and about how I should do this, that or the other.

      I’ve also had conversations with and blog comments from people who work in jobs that involve dealing with customers on a day to day basis. They’ve told me of similar experiences.

      It used to be that a minority of potential customers behaved in this way and expressed similar views. We were quite surprised at first but became used to it. What we didn’t expect was that this attitude was burgeoning. More and more people expect small producers (or indeed any small business) to grovel at their feet because they, as customers, are king and must have their every whim met. We’re supposed to be grateful for whatever they cast our way.

  14. Well I, for one, have realised the error of my ways from the ‘customers’ on this subject. We recently bought a new mattress in the sale for £100, but there are people throwing them away at the tip! If people can afford to throw away a perfectly good mattress then the shop must have ripped me off big-time, right?

    • Similarly with £500 Kona mountain bikes. Someone threw one, in excellent condition, in the skip at the Huntly recycling depot—and do you think the operator would let anyone take it out?

  15. Apologies if I’ve not replied to anyone’s post. I’ve lost track of who said what and where. Plus it’s late and I need some sleep.

    And if you want to read someone else’s grumpy rants at this late hour, pop over to Life At The End Of The Road where Paul is dealing with people who dump their bairn’s used nappies beside the road leading to his croft. Lovely.


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