Operating two pig units in Ballinakill, County Laois, Paul Tully has been a pig farmer all his working life. We touched base with the personable Cavan native to discuss the ups and downs of running a successful and sustainable business within such a volatile marketplace.
Little did he know when he left his native Ballyjamesduff in County Cavan in 1987 to take up a Farm Apprenticeship Board work placement on a pig farm in Ballinakill, County Laois that he’d still be there three-and-half decades later, running that very same farm! Starting out as an apprentice, Paul Tully became manager of the farm, then leased it from the owner for seven years from 1993 before purchasing it at the start of the millennium.
“That original one was a 120-sow unit when I purchased it and currently has 200 sows,” he reveals. “In 2004, I purchased a second farm of 600 sows two miles away and I’ve been developing and modernising that one ever since. Today, I have two separate, integrated units, birth to bacon.”
Paul breeds Topigs on his modern units which are completely disease-free, with all pigs going to Dawn Pork & Bacon. Direct employment is generated for a long-serving team of eight, while the provision of all transport requirements in-house helps ensure the delivery of an efficient, cost-effective and uncompromised enterprise. “We have two trucks and we transport all of our own feed, manure and pigs internally for biosecurity reasons,” confirms the IFA Pigs Committee representative.
One of the biggest threats currently facing the pig sector in Ireland is that posed by African Swine Fever. Were this highly-infectious and rapidly-fatal viral disease to get into the country, then it would completely eradicate our third-largest agricultural sector…
“It’s a huge concern for the industry and we simply have to keep it out of the Irish herd,” says Paul. “Robust biosecurity at national ports and points of entry is highly essential. This is a risk that we can’t afford to take.”
The initial consequence of the catastrophic outbreak in China was ironically positive for Irish pig farmers in that there was a welcome price increase here, but there is really no upside to the nightmare plague that is ASF: “That was a short-term benefit and a welcome one but it was badly-needed to revive the modernisation of our facilities, compliance with current welfare regulations and environmental and biosecurity expectations from our regulators.
“On the regulation side, as a pig farmer, I – like many others – feel left out of the decision-making process with regards to the introduction of new regulations and how they will work on the ground. Pig farmers feel like we should be more involved in that process rather than merely being paid lip service to. Having spent 30 years as a professional pig farmer, I feel that our views are valid and should be taken on board instead of treated suspiciously.
“Good welfare and good performance precede profit so obviously it’s in our interest to do things properly and follow these regulations. But our voice needs to be heard on certain issues. For example, the aspiration that pigs can be reared with intact tails is seen as an impossibility all over Europe. Antibiotic reduction is fully supported but with a workable allowance to protect animal welfare while we learn more about how it is going to be achieved.”
At the time of writing, Paul had submitted planning permission for 2,400 additional finishing spaces – potentially an investment of €1m. “Guidance on building design is unclear because of ammonia emissions on one side and animal welfare requirements on the other. The cost to the business to comply with the above will not be recoverable,” the Laois-based pig farmer notes.
“The investment will make me more efficient and reduce stocking rates with the aim of achieving antibiotic reduction / elimination and better pig welfare.”
Paul Tully’s pig farms are professional and precise. He uses the services of a Dutch company called Swinco for all nutrition advice and support. “In practice, this means precision nutrition where nutrients supplied are totally based on the daily feeding intakes of the pigs,” he continues. “This ensures that no nutrients are overfed, underfed or wasted. This is achieved through wet chemistry analysis of all feed ingredients used in the diets reconciled with similar tests on the finished feeds. The diet is formulated and tested and we know the requirements of each pig.”
Mineral vitamin supplements are also supplied by Swinco. “Diet accounts for 70% of my cost of production and grain prices have gone up – an increased cost that cannot be passed on. So you are always looking to find more and more efficiencies,” adds Paul, whose feed is manufactured at Connolly’s RED MILLS, Southern Milling and Kiernan Milling.
Is pig farming the poor relation of the Irish agri-food sector? It feels sometimes like pig farmers are taken for granted and not afforded the same esteem and respect as their dairy and beef counterparts? “There is probably an element of truth to this. Ironically, in my planning application for the additional finishing spaces, the Environmental Impact Statement reads like an apology to the authorities for wanting to build this. It’s essentially a 28-page apology and I found myself excusing myself for wanting to make a €1m investment into a local business.”
That said, Paul – who served on An Bord Bia’s Technical Advisory Committee – is a proud and enthusiastic pig farmer who enjoys every minute of his work: “I have done well out of it and hope to continue to do so, even though we are always on the back foot each time new legislation is introduced,” he states. “I’m happy and passionate and it’s great to be creating work for eight people – all locals apart from one Lithuanian and one Ethiopian.”
Paul’s wife is also from Ethiopia and they have three children, aged eleven, seven and four. He continues: “The Ethiopian worker is here on a work permit and has been a great success because they love to work with stock. Labour is going to potentially prove problematic for the pig sector down the line as the new breed of educated young Irish people feel above menial work. As an industry, we need to be allowed to legitimately employ suitable people who want to work on our farms.”
Looking to the future, Paul is optimistic that this vital sector in Ireland can move with the times and prosper: “Ireland is very well positioned to grow its pig industry,” he concludes. “We have the lowest density of pigs per hectare of any country in Europe and the technical proficiency of Irish pig farmers is up there with the very best.”
First published in Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 9 No 4, July/August 2021