Monday, April 23, 2018

Maximising performance

April 3, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Gloucestershire pig and poultry producer Sophie Hope aims to take Alexander & Angell Farms to the next level. Simon Wragg reports.

Having locked into production-plus contracts to reduce the volatility of commodity-led pig meat prices, Sophie Hope now faces a new dilemma over farm finance: where to invest limited capital to get the best improvement in production and, hopefully, profit?

Main earners for Gloucestershire-based Alexander and Angell Farms are a 380-sow farrow-to-finishing pig unit, which supplies retail giant Tesco via processor Tulip; and an 81,000 bird poultry enterprise, which produces fertile eggs for the broiler sector, sold via Avara.

Owned and managed by Sophie and her father Andrew, the business incorporates many facets. Sophie explains: “We also let out arable land and a pick-your-own fruit farm, have light industrial units, horse liveries, and firewood business.”

As diverse as the farm portfolio is, production-related challenges have also had to be tackled to reduce risk to revenue. “With help from our vet Fran Baird of the George Veterinary Group at Malmesbury we’ve tackled APP (actinobacillus pleuropneumonia) – a lung condition – which was identified in the grower pigs.

Performance

“A number of treatments strategies were trialled and we’ve eventually settled on using a vaccine which acts on the toxins the bacteria produce. But it has come at a cost and I still feel we’re buying in performance.

“Although antibiotic use is still below the industry benchmark at just 1.1mg/kg pig meat, as a test we are running one batch without the vaccine to see what impact it makes.”

Other fundamental production changes have gone hand-in-hand. The unit – managed by Andrius Mulevicius – moved from continuous flow to a five-week batch system to allow accommodation from farrowing to finishing to be washed out and rested.

“Having worked for pig group BQP in East Anglia I had seen the positive impact that not mixing pigs and washing out between batches had on performance,” says Sophie.

At the Hope’s main site at Court Farm, Witcombe, some 90 sows farrow every five weeks with some heats synchronised to group up sows initially. Piglets per litter have increased from 12.7 to 14.0 in the last two years with a reciprocal improvement in numbers weaned under the new regime.

Infrastructure

Finishing times from weaning to bacon weight have also improved from 158 days to 152 days. Pigs are marketed through Thames Valley Cambac with 200 fliers – the fastest finishers – going out with a further 300 and 400 at weekly intervals thereafter.

The next challenge is to make capital improvements to infrastructure. “It’s knowing where to invest that’s the issue. Some of our sow accommodation dates to the 1960s and is both labour intensive to manage and may benefit from new feeding equipment.

“Or do we invest in the finishing sheds where pigs are on solid floors with straw bedding and move to slatted accommodation to reduce labour and bedding costs?”

It is this sort of information which will be sought from levy body AHDB Pork and commercial companies if time allows a visit to next month’s Pig & Poultry Fair, taking place on 15-16 May at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.

“We have potential to improve the output from the pig unit. Baconers average 82kg and can go to 100kg within contract, although 85kg would be optimal for this farm,” she calculates.

Poultry production

Encouragingly, recent investment in housing has paid dividend for the poultry enterprise. “We produce fertile eggs which become tomorrow’s broilers. Hens arrive at 18 weeks old but hatching eggs are only sent from 25 weeks old. Each bird should produce 150 chicks before being sold out at 60 weeks old.

“We aim for a hatchability target of 83%-84% and regularly incubate our own hen eggs to monitor fertility of the flock. Again, this enterprise is operated within a managed margin contract to remove some risk from fluctuations in income.”

Wider industry challenges will be faced, she expects. Brexit’s impact on the labour market is a concern with five of the farm’s current staff – several being long-term – coming from mainland Europe. “We are fortunate to have a good team here,” she says.

Sophie also sees the need for more domestic promotion of pork to combat the challenge from other proteins including chicken as a meal option. Looking further ahead, health issues such as African swine fever which is creeping closer to UK shores will also increase risk, she suggests.

But a future in both pigs and poultry is ingrained in the family.

Sophie’s grandfather, John Hope, set up the Cotswold Pig Development Company which was later amalgamated into breed group JSR – Alexander & Angell Farms uses JSR 900 and 400 sire lines on PIC Camborough Landrace x Large White females.

“My brother, James, who is head of chemistry at Milford School, has no day-to-day involvement with the farm. But I’ve a young son, Tom, who may one day want to join the farm business,” adds Sophie.

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