Norfolk pig producers Michael and Ian Baker are prioritising herd health and welfare as they strive to ensure their business remains viable for the future.
The two brothers farm free-range pigs across a number of breeding and finishing sites – and believe sustainability goes beyond environmental goals, encompassing profitability as well as moving towards net zero carbon emissions.
“There are three key arms to our business which are all interspersed helping us to achieve success,” explains Ian.
“The first is the farming system itself. We ask ourselves whether what we’re doing is sustainable and aim to make sure we’re not depleting natural resources or reducing our ability to be profitable in future years.”
Secondly, the business operating model needs to be sound. Ian has a background in finance and focuses on the commercial side of the business. He looks after people, workflow and processes, while Michael manages pig husbandry and production.
These clearly defined roles and responsibilities are central to their success. The business employs around 60 people – which means it needs to keep delivering for the workforce locally, not just it terms of profit.
The third important factor is the environment. The brothers say their environmental focus is fundamental to the way they farm and work towards their ambition of achieving net zero carbon emissions.
They have already made a start by measuring their carbon footprint. They are now drawing up
a plan for how they might achieve net zero by 2040, the NFU’s
target timeframe for UK agriculture.
“There’s still some way to go to answer the questions on how farming might get there, but we’re certainly looking at what we might change,” says Ian.
“Machinery and fuel use is a big challenge, as is animal feed. We’re not afraid to try new feed ingredients, mixes or rations to see if this improves our environmental impact, without compromising health or performance.
Environmental challenges with outdoor pigs include their potential impact on soil. But pigs also benefit the land if managed correctly – including adding nutrients. “Healthy, content pigs are all part of the sustainability equation,” says Ian.
The Baker brothers are ambassadors for the MSD Animal Health UK Growing Healthy Pigs initiative which helps producers maximise pig health and welfare. These factors are also interlinked with improving production and carbon efficiency.
“We switched to a single-parity herd a few years ago so each sow follows the same cycle, having six litters, before all are culled at the same time. Since moving to this system, we’ve seen a significant reduction in antibiotic use.”
All staff work on designated sites, each with different coloured overalls, and follow strict biosecurity measures when moving from one location to another. A separate yard for the main farm office and wash facilities makes for a “pig-free base”.
The brothers have a comprehensive vaccination programme for all gilts and finishing pigs. To further improve welfare, they use intradermal vaccination where possible, and have invested in new pig handling facilities.
Consumers expect good animal health, welfare and a good environment too, says Ian. “There is a keenness within the supply chain to move forward with the green agenda, which is in line with public sentiment, and I have no argument with that.”
But low pig prices remain a challenge. “There needs to be more acknowledgement that cheap food doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with high animal welfare and sustainable farming.”
Affordable food that gives a sensible return to farmers who adopt sustainable farming practices would be beneficial. But most people still buy their food on price and convenience.
“We need clear messaging to help make consumers aware of the consequences of the way they buy food. If they choose the cheapest option, or imported food not produced to UK standards, they are not playing their part in improving sustainability.”