Tuesday, September 29, 2020

EcoFarm trailblazers believe it’s good to talk

January 7, 2013 by  
Filed under Profiles

The pig sector has its challenges and that’s why it needs producers with vision and leadership who enjoy communicating and trailblazing. David Robinson, who runs Sandy Pigs on the Suffolk coast near Orford, fits that bill perfectly. He was finalist for the 2012 Farmers Weekly Pig Farmer of the Year award.

David and his wife Jill sold their home almost 20 years ago, when their daughters were young, to raise the money to get into pig production. It was an audacious move that typifies the couple and it has paid off.

They began with 170 sows and were early adopters of outdoor breeding on a multisite. Swine fever and FMD hit them a few years later but they survived, and now run a successful agisted (contracted) farming operation with BQP.

“It suits us because it gave us a platform to begin our own pig farm without the stock or variable feed costs and risk,” he says.

The Robinsons worked hard to establish strong relationships with their landlord and they have been on the same family estate in Suffolk for eight years. The pigs get moved on to land previously used for intensive cash cropping, so it frees up irrigation requirements on part of the estate each year.

The farm is Freedom Foods-approved and has the Waitrose Select Gold Standard. Development of staff and strong management are key to success, with strict routines in place to ensure high standards and performance.

Farm manager Jamie Brown, 36, has an excellent relationship with David and Jill; it was confidence in him that helped them take on a new BQP initiative in 2010.

Called EcoFarm, the three-year project challenges the environmental and management practices of outdoor pig farming and is designed to look for solutions and best practice for the future. Outcomes are based on commercially workable practices and realistic economic costings, so that the wider outdoor pig industry is able to adopt the ideas. The EcoFarm scheme was absorbed into the business after talks with FWAG, Natural England and the landlord.

David admits that he and Jamie get a buzz out of doing things differently and being pioneering, so the project has been embraced wholeheartedly and positively.

“It’s the best decision we’ve ever made. We have been invigorated by it – enabling us to exploit our own abilities better,” he says.

David has no qualms about challenging BQP and having an independent view on how things should progress on the EcoFarm. He believes producers should be proactive in influencing policy before it is made.

Vet John Hayden is involved in every aspect of management and production, with health and welfare paramount concerns. The Robinsons operate on two sites – one at Sutton with 850 sows and the other at Sudbourne with 1,050 sows. They run a very strict service, lost day and gilt integration regime, with both units run exactly the same.

Herd targets are agreed with the vet and Paul Arundel, BQP’s breeding farms manager. Despite the synergies between the two units, it is no surprise that the performance results delivered on the EcoFarm demonstrate the advantages of applying best practice.

Trough feeding has been important in reducing feed usage and spatial defecation and contributing to a cut in farm diffuse pollution. It has also made it easier to vaccinate and handle pregnancy scans. Other experiments have included the selection of bespoke genotypes previously untested outdoors, and they have trialled the use of low-pressure tyres to minimise ground damage and use less fuel.

Marketing is handled through BQP, but the Robinsons are proactive in hosting farm visits, including delegations from DEFRA, Catchment Sensitive Farming, Natural England, BPEX and international groups. The EcoFarm must be the most visited outdoor pig unit this year and Waitrose seems pleased with the results. The retailer recently gave the trough-feeding approach the Waitrose Way Award for Waste Reduction.

On every score the EcoFarm is performing well by exceeding indoor and outdoor industry average figures on total born, numbers weaned and feed usage.

Reprinted courtesy Farmers Weekly. Pictures Jim Varney/Farmers Weekly