Are Scottish pig producers facing the perfect storm... again? – Jamie Wyllie Blog

The chair of NFU Scotland’s Pigs Committee, Jamie Wyllie asks: “Are Scottish pig producers facing the perfect storm... again?”

Feed prices are high, abattoirs are not taking pigs, not all supermarkets are committed to selling British pork, the Chinese market has apparently recovered, labour and issues persist and, to top it off, the price is dropping again. That’s enough worries to think about for one day surely.

Having had the last of my harvest rained off in Lanarkshire, the saying ‘it never rains but it pours’ seems to fit the bill, and the pig industry is experiencing a serious downpour right now.

The main issue hitting the UK pig industry currently is a lack of staff in the abattoirs. This shortage means abattoirs are killing less days a week and are unable to supply supermarkets with produce. Supermarkets are therefore importing cheaper produce from the EU to fill the shelves. This has resulted in a build-up of pigs on farm. These pigs eat more food and as they get heavier, they then inevitably go out of spec and farmers are paid less for them. It seems a bit of a vicious cycle, doesn't it?

This could be more manageable if the price of raw commodities wasn’t sky high too. The price of wheat as I write this (15 September) is £187/tonne for January future's, with barley trading at about £190 delivered into farm. High world prices due to huge Chinese purchases and reports of poor weather abroad have resulted in big exports of barley driving the market and keeping prices closer to wheat than they have been.
The price of wheat needs to be £20 less per tonne for us to survive with the price of pigs at the level it is now.

The necessity of good labour availability has been shouted about for a long time across the agricultural industry and the supply chain. Since Brexit and the ongoing pandemic, the shelves are increasingly bare, abattoirs are running at a reduced kill, and on farm staff are having to work harder because we simply cannot find workers.
The labour demand is there but if UK workers will not do these jobs, then we need the government to allow foreign nationals in on work-based visas to undertake the many permanent and seasonal jobs our industry is so full of.

In our business, 20% of my workforce is non-UK born, and have set up homes and families in the UK over the years.

The other concern is what was seen as the ‘golden goose’ by many countries across the world for so long - China. They have suffered from African Swine Fever for so long that it hindered their production of pork by up to 50% if unofficial official reports are to be believed.  

Many people, myself included, thought we would be able to sell our excess pork to the Chinese market for years to come. However, they appear to have made a staggering recovery and our product is no longer required.  

China is not buying nearly the same amount of pork from Europe that it was last year and is instead buying huge amounts of grain and straights such as soya, presumably to be fed to livestock.

How have they done it?  Perhaps it is down to increased intensification and the development of 10 storey high mega pig farms.  

The Chinese understand that a well-fed population is a happy population and has never liked to rely on imports, so securing their home supply of pork has been a huge goal for them for years. The sooner the UK government understands that the better.

Around 40% of the meat consumed by the average person in the UK is pork. So, without the produce that I and my fellow UK pig farmers produce, a huge proportion of the population will not eat pork sustainably produced to the high welfare standards we expect.

But even looking at this raw fact we get little help or protection (current and welcome covid support from Scottish Government for those supplying Brechin excluded) from the various stresses and strains we endure. You would think that the UK government would understand the importance of feeding people and protecting where that food comes from, but it certainly doesn't appear to.

My two take home messages for any politician that is reading this is:

1. We need labour, and we needed it yesterday. Open up the workplace visas of old or allow no skilled to low skilled immigration for key jobs such as farm and abattoir workers.  That is something that the whole supply chain agrees on.

2. Focus on British production first. Use tariffs or other measures to ensure supermarkets stock UK products first before importing. We cannot compete on a world market because of the laws that have been enforced on us. It is the reason we have some of the highest welfare standards in the world, but that is of no use if there is no home production left.

We are at another crossroads. People are talking about leaving the industry again. I have so far heard of 20,000 sows that are exiting from the UK and that is just the start. We cannot continue to go on like this. We need action and we need it fast.

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