In Chris Leamon’s farrowing shed, dozens of week-old piglets snuffle around eight grunting sows, vying for milk. But in three months’ time, this barn will be silent, the sows sent to slaughter and their metal pens sold for scrap.
Leamon, 59, is ceasing to breed pigs and turning to a model known in the industry as “bed and breakfast” — raising animals owned by another, large-scale farmer or a processor. The move is a major step for Leamon and his brother Rob, whose parents set up the 20-acre Essex pig farm almost 70 years ago.
They are making the switch in the face of an industry in crisis: with UK abattoirs struggling to find staff after Brexit, and reduced Chinese demand, processors are accepting fewer pigs for slaughter, leaving Leamon, and many others, operating at a loss.
The pair had planned to retire or scale back one day, but “it’s come a lot sooner than we anticipated”, Leamon said.
Some farms are suffering far worse: at least 14,000 pigs, and probably many more, have been culled on farms unable to cope with the backlog of more than 100,000 surplus pigs nationally.
Pig farmers lost an estimated £130m in the first half of the year, said Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, having just broken even last year. At least 40 of about 2,000 UK pig farmers registered with the Red Tractor assurance scheme have quit the industry this year, compared with five or six in a normal year, she added. Others are shrinking their herds or, like the Leamons, switching to raising others’ animals under contract.
“There is general acceptance that there is going to be a restructuring of the industry as a result of this,” Davies said.
Most abattoirs are running at least 15 per cent short of skilled butchery staff, with some 25 per cent down on normal production levels. The government has agreed to bend its post-Brexit immigration rules to help: 800 temporary visas were allocated in October for overseas butchers. It has also set up a scheme to help abattoirs store slaughtered animals.
The visa concession was secured after industry leaders showed ministers and officials shocking photos and footage of pigs being culled, farmers said.
But the length of the visa issuance process, along with vetting the overseas butchers, means they have yet to arrive, said Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association.
“And will they actually appear two weeks before Christmas, or will they say ‘That’s fine, but we’ll come in the new year’?” he said.
Stephen Thompson, a pig farmer near Sheffield, said he feared a further backlog as a result. “Christmas is looming fast, when the whole industry shuts down for two weeks but our pigs keep having babies for two weeks. That is our next crunch point,” he said.
Farmers would normally send extra pigs to slaughter before Christmas, but have been unable to do so because of limited abattoir capacity, he said.
The squeeze on farmers has been particularly acute because feed costs have risen to record levels in the last year, said Leamon. In the longer term, he predicted further costs from welfare and environmental legislation in the pipeline.
Pig farmers are charged a penalty by processors for overweight animals kept too long on farms. And so-called “distressed loads” of pigs slaughtered, chopped into six pieces and sent overseas at knockdown prices have weighed on market prices in recent weeks.
Leamon has about 300 more pigs than usual on his farm, bringing the total to 3,500; that has meant a struggle to carry out strict biosecurity measures needed to avoid the spread of disease.
Others have far more surplus pigs, though those forced to cull are reluctant to speak publicly. Davies said some farmers had become so desperate they had asked their vets to abort unborn piglets to ease the overcrowding.
“It’s the farmer that has had to deal with this, through no fault of their own. They haven’t done anything wrong here and are the ones having to effectively take the hit,” Davies said.
There is anger among pig farmers that while most are currently operating at a loss, processors are still reporting profits. Cranswick, the listed meat processor, last week reported a 12.5 per cent rise in pre-tax profit to £68.3m for the six months to September compared with a year earlier, though like-for-like revenue from fresh pork declined.
Adam Couch, Cranswick chief executive, said the company had been processing carcasses at weekends to help cut the backlog, and was hoping its Norfolk plant, one of three in the UK that surrendered their Chinese export licences last year after coronavirus outbreaks, would soon be able to resume sales to China.
Victoria Prentis, an environment minister, this month suggested that “possibly the time has come to begin thinking about fairness in the pork supply chain”.
Davies said that more pigs had probably been slaughtered since culling began in October than her previous estimate of 14,000. One rendering company, she said, had reported removing 250 tonnes of culled pig carcasses per week, equating to 1,600 mature animals or 35,000 piglets.
The pig sector should receive “some form of financial support [from government]”, Davies argued. “We are hearing that the banks are picking up on the media [reports] that everything is terrible in the pig sector and they are very twitchy about extending overdrafts and loans . . . everyone recognises that this is a unique set of conditions.”
But George Eustice, environment secretary, in mid-November told the House of Commons environment, food and rural affairs select committee that abattoirs should adapt by changing shift patterns to, for example, employ more mothers of school-age children.
He also angered farmers by attributing their plight to “commercial risk”. “A farmer who loses a crop due to frost or there is a market disruption or any other business that can be affected by events, that is commercial risk and often it is not fault, it is bad luck,” he said.
Leamon said he was accustomed to risk: before the current disruption, the pig sector traditionally operated on a five-year cycle of boom and bust. “You had to learn how to manage in the bust times,” he said. But switching to the “bed and breakfast” model will end that.
“There will be less management and less risk, and that’s going to be quite strange for us,” he said.
About half the industry already operates on a contract model, rather than independently, said Davies — as does almost all the poultry industry. “It is almost guaranteed that the processors will get bigger in terms of their ownership of pigs. This will test to the absolute limit the capacity of independents to keep their heads above water,” she said.
That will reduce variety among pig breeds and result in a loss of “identity”, she said. “But you can’t blame people for wanting more security.”