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by Linda MacDonald-Brown
Close to the pretty village of Penpont in Dumfries and Galloway, you will find pigs. Not as you might expect, one or two pigs belonging to a smallholder but a large outdoor pig production unit of around 300 sows.
Dalgarnock Pigs is a success story, a rare feat for an area usually known for its tourism, rather than large scale pig production. The unit is situated at Floors Farm, part of the Buccleuch Estate. Alan Stannett, managing partner of Dalgarnock used to manage the estate before he left and rented Floors from Buccleuch along with his co-partners.
Alan initially became interested in pigs when he was at university, and his interest was enough for him to seek work on a pig unit in Devon for his first job. However as sometimes happens, there was a career change and for the next few years it was the dairy industry that kept his attention.
His interest in pigs remained strong and when he was fortunate enough to secure a job in the 1980's managing the Buccleuch Estate, he introduced a small pig unit with the aim of adding value to the cereal enterprises.
Initially they bought in pigs from Aberdeenshire and finished them in sheds on the farm, but over time Alan developed it into a breeding unit, which soon received approval by RSPCA Freedom Foods – the only pig unit at the time in Scotland to do so.
In 2001 Alan left Buccleuch, rented Floors Farm and along with two others set up Dalgarnock Pigs with all the stock that had been purchased from Buccleuch. Nine years on, the relatively small number of pigs that Alan started with, have grown to around the 4,000 mark.
Only breeding sows are kept at Floors however. Once weaned at four weeks, weaners that do not require special attention are transferred by trailer to straw covered yards, a few miles away in what was the Buccleuch Estate garden.
The day to day care of the pigs is down to a capable team of three; in fact two of these, Paul Bennett, the manager and Tam Blacklock are the original staff who worked for Alan in the early days. Kerrie McDermid , is the newest member of the team but is already proving her worth confidentally carrying out A.I to tractor handling.
They farrow around 15 sows a week and aim to have a pre-weaning mortality rate of 2% or less. Alan believes it is the care and attention to detail that contributes towards the low mortality rate. Straw, he reckons, plays a vital part in helping the piglets survive. Only the best straw is used for the breeding sows and when placed in the farrowing arks will be teased out. By doing this, it has been noted that the sow will settle quicker and will be less likely to keep getting up and down, thereby running the risk of squashing a piglet. Sows that are due to farrow are moved into a single farrowing paddock with an insulated ark manufactured by Glendale Engineering and they are then left completely alone to farrow, peacefully and stress free.
Piglets follow as natural a life as possible and are very rarely handled. Unlike indoor units, where stress and boredom can affect the behaviour of the piglets, that can in turn lead to injuring their siblings, there is no need for the usual preventative measures such as cutting teeth or tailing. Even iron injections are unnecessary as the piglets source all their iron requirements from the soil. For the first few days, the piglets are contained behind a fender attached to the ark, but once they have grown strong enough, they soon learn to clamber over the sides of the fender and join their mum as she wanders around.
After the last foot and mouth outbreak, Alan and his team made the decision to keep a closed herd. They now breed all their own gilts using either homebred boars or semen.
Three populations have been set using the pyramid system, Large White x Duroc then put to Landrace after which the offspring is crossed with a Pietrain to produce the final finishing pig. The Pietrain was introduced as a terminal sire as Alan felt that the breeding stock, in particular the Large White, had become too inbred.
The dry sows are fed on pig rolls provided by BOCM Pauls. Previously they were fed meal but too much was lost in the winds, which in turn encouraged vermin.
The finishers are fed using a wet feed system made to the farms own specification, a system Alan feels, benefits the condition of the finishers rather than feeding dry.
Unusually the farm does not carry out a worming programme, although regular dung sampling is undertaken to ensure that the pigs stays worm free.
The pigs are kept in larger than normal areas, the dry sows for example are given a hectare for every 12 pigs, and this coupled with the fact that the land is incredibly stony helps to keep the land in reasonable condition. After two years, the pigs are taken off and the land is rested for two years and usually within that time it will be ploughed and reseeded for barley, grass or silage.
The day begins at approximately 8am when the mammoth task of feeding starts, a job that can last Kerrie up to three hours. Each day has its own particular job with serving on Mondays. Tuesdays and Fridays are spent bedding down, whilst Wednesday is weaning day. The weekend is usually spent tidying up and catching up on jobs that couldn't be done during the week.
The pig industry has taken a battering in recent years but Alan feels things are on the up. The price of cereals has dropped whilst pig prices have increased and for the time being at least, the future for pig farmers is looking rosier.
All the pigs are sold through a marketing co-operative, Scotlean. Alan is a Board member of Scotlean and keen to encourage new markets to develop for Scottish pork and Freedom Food in particular.
Floors Farm is a glowing example of how a large scale pig unit should be run. Alan and his team are passionate about the pigs and strive hard to ensure the quality of the meat is always high. This is one meat you won't find in the cut price section of a supermarket.