Flying the flag for Ireland’s pig farmers

9 Sep , 2021  

As well as running Garrisker Farm in Broadford, County Kildare, Roy Gallie is also Chairman of the IFA Pigs Committee. In an exclusive interview with Irish Tractor & Agri, Roy speaks about the many challenges facing Ireland’s 350 commercial pig farmers, who between them generate almost €1bn in exports.

A pig farmer all his working life, IFA Pigs Committee Chairman Roy Gallie is deeply cognisant of the raft of challenges currently facing Ireland’s third-largest agricultural sector – a sector which generates employment for 8,000 people. These include the threat of African Swine Fever (which has the potential to cause unprecedented devastation on Irish pig farms), Covid-19, Brexit, the recent hike in grain and soya prices and the constant fluctuation of pig prices. Increasingly crucial areas such as the Nitrates regulations, Veterinary medicine protocols, EPA licencing, specifications of buildings and infrastructure, planning permission, energy costs and TAMS rules and regulations are all impacting on pig farming in Ireland.

In response to the ongoing threat posed by African Swine Fever (ASF) – which has already decimated the pig sector in China and caused massive damage in Europe, there exists a need for rigorous biosecurity around the island of Ireland. This will need innovative political cooperation and will power, which may not be so easy in a post Brexit world.

“African Swine Fever is a pandemic solely within the pig world,” Roy notes. “It is incredibly transmissible between pigs and between pig products – it is deadly and there exists no reliable vaccine for it. China is the single largest pig market in the world and pig meat is not just their staple diet but also a form of currency for the country. When they were hit with ASF around this time in 2019, millions of pigs were slaughtered and buried to help stop it’s spread, the consequent increase in demand meant they had to empty their cold stores to supply the market and by the Autumn of 2019 scarcity kicked in and prices began to skyrocket.”

There was a huge knock-on effect globally, including here in Ireland. “The pig price rose to just under €2 per kilo, which was unprecedented, and everybody was rubbing their hands with glee,” the Chairman of the IFA Pigs Committee reflects. “But this is a horrible disease, and it has spread through Poland and into the wild boar population in a forest on the border between Belgium, Germany and France.  This year, just like Covid, a new variant of ASF has once again decimated the repopulated pig herds in Northern China with millions of sows again have been slaughtered in an effort to curb its spread. Prices are once again starting to rise, all on the back of another misfortune for others.

“We would like the Department of Agriculture to ramp up their biosecurity to something more in line with New Zealand and Australia to make sure this deadly pig disease never gets onto this island of ours. It is rampant in the wild boar population in other parts of Europe and when I came back from a holiday in Romania in 2019, a country with a serious amount of ASF in their pig population, there was not a mention of it on the plane, as there used to be to prevent foot and mouth disease. Then as I was coming through the airport there were only a few signs at customs clearance, missed by most.

“We are wide open to importing ASF by accident. The Covid outbreak has highlighted the necessity for all island biosecurity but at the moment it is still on the backburner. We really need to keep this disease out of Ireland as a priority because if it gets here, north or south, in a single pig, our pig industry will be decimated. When it did get into Germany, China ceased importing German pig meat overnight.”

Of course, implementing all island biosecurity is not as straightforward as it would have been pre-Brexit… “If you want to make the island bio-secure, Brexit and politics come into play so it is out of the pig farmers’ hands but the repercussions of having a porous border could be disastrous. The natural place to have a border for this is down the Irish Sea. African Swine Fever represents the biggest single risk to our sector. If it was to get in, the consequences are unthinkable.

“Then with regards Brexit, a political decision outside our control but whose effects are felt in most facets of business in Ireland. To mitigate some of the effects, the Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed, and it is proving to be crucially important. I would like to compliment the Governments on both sides of the Irish sea and the Europe leaders for making this happen. With that protocol in place, we can still trade up and down with Northern Ireland – and therefore can trade with the UK – so Brexit isn’t having the devastating effect it could have had…just yet.”

An estimated 350 pig farmers in Ireland produce around four million pigs annually. The UK still accounts for 45% of pig exports, with China (25%) also remaining a vital export market. “The amount of paperwork associated with exporting to the UK could become a problem down the road but for the time being we can still export there, which is great as it’s our major market. We certainly don’t want a repeat of what happened with beef in the 1930s, which led to the great depression.”

On Garrisker Farm in north Kildare, Roy Gallie combines a 180 sow, birth-to-bacon operation with a grain growing enterprise – a small but successful self-sustaining commercial piggery. Roy produces high-genetic merit F1 gilts from his sow herd. Garrisker has remained completely disease-free since the mid-1980s when he cleared the farm out and imported disease-free stock from Blessington Farms.

Although he has been pig farming all his life and the sector has always been notoriously volatile, the Kildare man admits he has never seen an eighteen-month period like that from January 2020 onwards: “Covid and African Swine Fever have been the two big factors threatening to turn things upside-down,” he states. “The factories and slaughter outlets here have to be complimented for keeping the show on the road because while Covid did get into a facility or two, they managed their staff levels and killing capacity to make sure no pig farmer was left high and dry. In Germany factories closed, which led to a backlog of pigs on farms last Christmas, over one million at one point which led to disastrous prices below €1.20 for pigs across most of Europe. Our factories managed to maintain our pig price at around €1.50, which still isn’t great but at least wasn’t €1.20/kg that the Continentals were dealing with, and then if that wasn’t enough, the price of feed started to rise as well.”

Pig prices are currently in the region of €1.65 per kilo and rising “but setting the pig price is out of our hands,” says Roy. “We can do our bit to encourage the factories to lift the price as soon as it lifts in Europe or globally and then using the pig DNA traceback Scheme, to encourage people to eat Irish, but the price is determined by global factors beyond our control. Indeed, I should note that pork meat has been a beneficiary of the Covid era as it is an incredibly good value meat and was cooked a lot in Irish homes during lockdown.”

With the IFA President, Tim Cullinan, hailing from a pig farm himself, the sector is arguably in the limelight a little bit more than hitherto. However, Roy feels there’s still a long way to go before Irish pig farmers get the attention their contribution to the economy merits.

“There’s a huge amount of people involved in the pig sector here. Around 1,200 work on farms and another 6,800 in associated industries. Despite the relatively small number of commercial pig farmers, we generated almost €1b in exports last year. It’s a massive sector with some of the best and most motivated farmers in the country.”

Roy points out that pig farmers are also acutely aware of their environmental responsibilities and very focussed on top class animal welfare. “We all need to work together to make sure we live on a better, more sustainable planet. Global warming and emmissions of greenhouse gases have increased because there are too many of us humans – agriculture is simply doing its best to feed us all. There are several welfare issues coming down the tracks at the moment: square footage (stocking rates) which has been highlighted in Europe as something that needs to be addressed, which links into buildings and planning permission – a situation which also needs to be streamlined.

“We have incredible new genetics in Ireland now thanks to breeding company’s genomic progress. Born Alives are now at 15-25 piglets born per litter as a norm over the past five years instead of 12-15 heretofore. We now need to have a conversation about farm infrastructure and the TAMS grants which have been increased from a ceiling of €80,000 to €200,000 for pig farmers. I imagine the devil will be in the detail and I hope the specifications to be adhered to will not be more onerous than the grant itself, which has been the case at times.

“I hope the money will help us comply with our environmental and nitrates obligations in making sure slurries, or “pig plant nutrients” as it should be called, are spread conscientiously and in a timely fashion for the crops they are to feed. A solution I see is to develop a network of storage facilities on farms that are to be the recipients. These nutrients, which we produce all year round, need to be where they are needed, when they are needed. This is ideal for TAMS funding and will assist farms to use less chemical fertilizer, a win win situation all round that warrants grant funding at the higher level of 60% as an effective incentive.

“We also need money from TAMS help us deal with antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Pig farmers have worked very diligantly to reduce the use of antibiotics used on farms and I am now worried that the new prescription protocols about to come into force next January may lead to an increased risk of disease and poorer pig welfare because of the bureaucracy levels involved. A lot of farms need better houses and improved general infrastructure to help in this vital area of animal husbandry and welfare.”

This leads on to the thorny issue of tail docking of piglets, Roy continues: “Michel Barnier brought in a law doing away with all bodily mutilation of pigs, which means rearing pigs with intact tails. However, when pigs are reared in close proximity to each other in indoor housing, as is the case on all commercial pig farms, no matter what we do, they occasionally start to nibble tails. This is very nasty, both for the pig and the farmer and is almost certain to happen if pigs are left with long tails.  We want to continue to dock piglet’s tails here in Ireland, having said that it is still a fraught and complex issue. There are no pig farmers I know of who wants to comply with this legislation.”

The climate and energy consumption are other areas of consideration close to Roy’s heart: “The Irish government is way behind the curve when it comes to micro generation of electricity on Irish farms, and this is something that needs to be looked at. We’re way behind the EU and even Northern Ireland, where the incentive is there to produce electricity and put it into the national grid. I’ve put in solar panels and they account for about one quarter of my electricity usage but I had to sign a non-export agreement so I can’t sell any electricity to the ESB. Micro generation could be hugely beneficial, and I could double my production of electricity if the legislation changed, while there is a disincentive there, unfortunately, it makes no sense.”

Finally, our single biggest cost in producing pigs and another constant variable is the price of feed, primarily barley, wheat, and soya.  Again, this is something that is largely out of the pig farmer’s control. “Cereal prices and soya in particular, are having a major impact this year. It is often determined by the weather in the United States or South America or commodity traders in Chicago, compounded this year by the Argentinian port blockade and international politics,” the IFA pigs chairman concludes. “Pig feed is €30-100 a tonne more expensive than this time last year and we are very close to break-even at present with an ever-increasing raft of non-recoverable compliance costs that are not linked up to an income stream from the consumer. Again, this area needs to be looked at to reduce the squeeze on pig farmers incomes which may become unsustainable if not addressed properly.” It is not acceptable that the only time that pig farming is really profitable is when there is a major problem somewhere else, this time in China.

First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 9 No 4, July/August 2021