The long term case for investing in advanced and efficient buildings.
At the end of my article in the Building supplement in March 2018 I stated that ‘It is true that confidence drives the demand for new buildings... if making a case for replacing ageing housing was the motivating factor it would have happened years ago’. I then went on to list the drivers in our industry which caused such an astonishing flurry of building activity. Apart from ‘sustained high prices’ the others remain relevant to the situation a few short months later. These included the opportunity to return to the use of natural fertilizers, the rise and influence of another, younger generation of pig farmers, the willingness of the old guard to go along with them and the widespread exploitation of renewable opportunities which created a new entrepreneurial mindset in many farm businesses. For the first time in my long memory we approached the number of finishing places required each and every year, in one year, as a national total. So all we have to do now is the same again, and again and again.
Well we can’t can we? The price has dropped.I have to say that with a healthy order book we have been encouraged by the lack of back-word-itis which historically accompanied a price drop. This shows a more mature understanding of business investment. The attraction of embarking on infrastructure development at a time of low prices is sound business sense. Many years ago in the heyday of ICI, then a world leading company, they always heralded a downturn in national fortunes by announcing a large investment programme. They were then in the perfect position to take advantage of the inevitable upturn. Our experience over time is that money, or the lack of it, is rarely the reason for delayed investment but lack of confidence almost always is. Our late founder, Mick Warkup, had a customer many years ago who had built a finishing house for a thousand pigs, large by the standards of the time. He astonished Mick by ordering another one as the price of pig meat had rather unusually remained low for quite some time. Mick questioned this order and was told that such was the improvement in the new building that he was losing £10 a head less in it. We all appreciated the sentiments behind such a positive view. If you are serious about being there for the long haul then understand about the need for such investments, the danger of waiting for the ‘right’ time.
Understand the imperative of controlling the costs of production and if this requires investment, and it is the right one, then the business argument should secure funding.
Everything seems against us at the moment.
In addition to poor prices there seem to be so many other hoops to jump through. Given the proximity of March 29th I hesitate to mention Europe. If you think we have it tough then spare a thought for our Northern European counterparts. Spare a thought for some regions of our own market, Northern Ireland particularly. In Europe the sheer weight of legislation, difficulty of slurry disposal, costs that we don’t even have, and yet they still manage. Visiting Danish, German and Dutch farmers cannot believe the lack of pig density, more relaxed legislation and the opportunities, in their eyes, for servicing an undersupplied home market with home produced meat. In Ireland higher costs and lower returns stretch the ingenuity of pig farmers, but still they survive and indeed thrive. Confidence can be boosted if we identify and quantify the opportunities rather than allow problems to drive our decisions- they don’t.
We live in such uncertain times.
We always did. The only change is what from time to time we are uncertain about. What doesn’t change is that until people stop eating then we service one element of a food chain the importance of which never diminishes. Fads come and go, fundamentals remain.
I joined A M Warkup towards the end of 1986. The UK herd was between 900 and 950,000 sows, 2 to 3% outdoors. We built kennels, veranda weaner, grower and finisher buildings, first and second stage flat decks for the more adventurous and most finisher houses were still part slatted although new ones were offered with full slatting. Stalls and tethers were the most common way of housing breeding animals. ACNV was taking over in finishing houses. It replaced generally ill maintained and ‘expensive’ fanned systems. That was 32 years ago. Compare this to where we are today. We have a national sow herd of approximately half the number, 40% outdoors, producing about the same amount of meat, in generally fanned buildings- certainly the new slatted ones- kept in much larger groups and subject to much higher levels of welfare legislation. Sow stalls and tethers were banned ten years before anywhere else, a move understandably condemned by our industry at the time, but which arguably helped to save it. We are subject to much higher levels of veterinary, legislative and public scrutiny. We know much more about our animals’ performance and are embarked on an ambitious programme to drastically reduce antibiotic use in the animal’s production.
Projecting approximately the same number of years forward brings us conveniently to 2050. We are told that by then 10 billion people will have to be fed. We are beginning to realise that we still have a significant ‘wasted’ potential in the pig’s genetic ability, with some authorities believing that this is as much as 40% of current achievement. So the potential for more from the same I believe is possible but how to unlock it.
We will have to know a lot more about the individual animal and start to increase our performance inputs. Buildings will have to perform at all stages of the production cycle. Hygiene and the ability to maintain it will directly affect the herd health status with clean buildings being a basic requirement.
Individual measurement is technically possible now but the will to do it is not yet there. As ever the impetus comes from two sources- financial desirability and legislative and financial necessity. Front runners of course, always searching for more performance, will always be ahead of the curve adopting new techniques and equipment as it becomes available.
The conditions the animals are kept in will not just have to be good but will have to be optimal. Climate computers will become production computers with the animals actively linked in real time and on an individual basis. Its history, performance and the evaluation of both will contribute to overall herd performance going forward. The internal building environment will be as important as the buildings’ impact on the external environment but both will have to be controlled and optimised.
Much of the technology is in place and development continues apace. The trick is to recognise the value of such and further imagine the added value when applied to improving efficiency. That it will come is not in doubt but when does depend on many external factors. As in the past a good start with predicting the future is to keep a close eye on the poultry industry. They have much to teach us and much of their emerging technology has relevance to our industry. We have learnt the importance of having an industry voice from them but their willingness to embrace technology as an industry is still ahead of ours.
Any journey starts with the first step. If you haven’t already done so and you are interested in a long term future go outside, have a good look, and a good think then pick up the phone and start talking to someone.
The future lies that way and I hope you are part of it.
For further information please contact:-
Tel 01262 468666
Tel 07836 713727