Building The Future.
At the end of an 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-it is” 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 October 31st 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.
In addition we have a golden opportunity to harness developing technology. Potentially this could be a game changer. Already slurry acidification systems are being installed on some units. Not only does this produce fertilizer from slurry but its higher nutrient value significantly contributes to the cost of the installation and in some instances attracts additional grant funding.
In a similar vein slurry cooling, essentially extracting reusable heat from the slurry produced and stored within piggeries, by the deployment of heat pumps produces hot water at 60 deg.C. This heat can be used to heat other piggeries where and when necessary, and of course this ‘free’ heat could and is used for a variety of other commercial purposes. Sensible non domestic uses can attract Renewable Heat Incentive payments to underwrite the cost of installation.
Both the above technologies by their very nature have an overarching advantage. They significantly lower emissions from the buildings they service.
With this timely advantage there is an opportunity to exploit these technologies going forward, with costs underwritten, whist addressing some of the urgent issues facing livestock farming.
We recognise both the importance and advantages of such opportunities and we continue to monitor, develop, offer and or incorporate these for the industry’s and our customers benefit.