Raising happy pigs at Pleasant Point
“A happy pig is one that is given the ability to enjoy every day with all their needs met, plenty of space and the opportunity to express all their funny habits,” says pig farmer Helen Andrews. “That’s the way we raise our pigs and they really thrive.”
Helen and husband Mark’s pig farm is nestled beneath the Southern Alps, near Pleasant Point in South Canterbury, providing the perfect moderate climate, free draining soil and low rainfall for outdoor pig farming.
Their sows farrow in paddocks, each with their own hut and are fed a specially-formulated diet, including barley, wheat and maize. Their piglets scamper and play in the field together before being moved to open-sided covered enclosures with deep straw bedding as weaners.
“We love working with pigs,” says Helen. “They are so rewarding for a stock person. Every one of our sows gets individual care. We know exactly how each pig is doing, how they are eating and performing and that everything is as it should be – that’s the skill of raising contented pigs and high quality New Zealand pork.”
Continuing a proud family tradition of producing fine pork
When Karl Stanley’s grandfather and great uncle returned from World War Two, they were proud to purchase one of the farmland blocks set aside for returning soldiers. Today, Karl is proudly upholding those values, farming high quality pork on the land, nestled on the famous Surf highway near Opunake in Taranaki.
Karl’s grandfather – former All Blacks manager Noel Stanley – and his brother Ron originally set up a small piggery to feed pigs the whey from their dairy herd – but eventually the piggery took over entirely.
“We love working with our pigs, they are just such interesting and rewarding animals to be around,” says Karl. “We believe happy pigs with high standards of health and welfare and very good nutrition are the key to producing outstanding pork. Our pigs are fed entirely on wheat, barley and corn and the result is a consistently high quality product.”
Karl’s personal favourite cut is a rack of pork, closely followed by belly of pork.
“I do love a really good pork roast with a bit of crackling on the side. That really is pretty hard to beat.”
Patoa Farms may not be a familiar name to many Kiwis, but many will have enjoyed the pork from this family-owned farm in North Canterbury.
More than 20 years ago, Steve Sterne, Jens Ravn and their families joined forces with a vision to farm pigs outdoors. The farm on the south bank of the stunning Hurunui River is now run by Steve and his daughter Holly.
The focus at Patoa Farms, now New Zealand’s largest pig farm, is to create a circular economy of inputs and outputs, in terms of the cycle of nutrients through its eco-system – all supported by the latest technology.
The farm has its own weather station and centre pivot irrigation and moisture probes are used for planning irrigation.
The free-farming system, which sees the farm produce about 100,000 pigs a year, allows for all the manure and used straw to be recycled and reused in the most effective ways.
Soiled straw for composting goes back to the company that provides the straw -- in the same trucks the fresh load has been delivered in. Composted manure is also sold to other farmers or used on cropping land.
Holly firmly believes that while 80 per cent of pork quality can be attributed to genetics, high quality feed, care and good stockmanship is critical.
“Good stockmanship and good welfare all through the life of the pigs is a significant factor in the quality of the product. Calm happy pigs in a good environment cared for by understanding staff is so important to us at Patoa Farms.
The farm employs 55 people – contributing around $2 million in wages to the local economy and is an approved provider of the Primary ITO New Zealand Certificate in Pork Production qualification for levels 3 and 4.
“We can offer that on farm due to our economy of scale,” says Holly. “It means staff don’t have to go off site to do block courses and it makes it much easier for them to work around families, children and other commitments."
“Our pride is not just in our product but in our organisation as a whole. What we do is so much about bringing a whole variety of people together who produce something very special."
The ‘pig hotel’ where midnight snacks are on the menu
“I like to think of our farm as ‘hotel-style’ accommodation for pigs,” says farmer Sean Molloy.
The views around the Molloy’s Offaly Farms would be very well suited to a hotel. The piggery in the rural town of Sheffield has been in the family for over 40 years.
“Pigs are just very enjoyable animals to work with,” says Sean. “Our facilities here enable the pigs to do what they naturally do in the best possible conditions for their health and wellbeing.
“I really enjoy the technology side because it helps you to look after the pigs so much better. Our buildings are very well insulated, which works to keep the pigs cool in summer and warm in winter. They live in a temperature-controlled environment with ventilation to keep the air fresh, in the same way we live in our own homes.
“Pigs are also quite dusty so we have installed a misting system that releases a fine spray for 30 seconds every 10 minutes. That grabs all the dust in the air and drops it to the floor to drain away and can be used for further cooling in summer."
Sean says a major advance has been electronic feeding systems.
“When a sow feels like eating, she will go to a feeding box, she walks in and the door closes behind her, so she can feed alone without competition. The system reads her tag and knows exactly how much feed she needs. It then opens the trough and drops feed in until she has had her daily amount."
“We monitor it very closely, and if we notice a sow isn’t eating all their food, then we check them right away. Often it might be because they are feeling under the weather."
“It’s also very natural because it means each pig can feed when they feel like it. They are very much creatures of habit and you find they tend to eat around the same times each day – and some even like to feed in the middle of the night.”
Sean is partial to a nice pork ribeye and says the happier the pigs the better the flavour and texture.
“What is good for the animals is good for the farm. The better you look after your animals, the more profitable you will be. Keeping piglets safe and getting them off to the best possible start is so important. That comes down to good feeding and good facilities that allow the pigs to do what they naturally do.”
“I think every pig farmer would say the best part of it is working with the pigs, because they are such enjoyable animals to be around,” says Jason Palmer, who looks after 500 sows at Dunsandel, Canterbury.
“I’ve worked with pigs for a long time. My father had a 100-sow outdoor herd and my uncle kept pigs too. The technology has advanced significantly since then, providing better efficiencies and improved individual care of each pig.”
For Jason, that technology includes a computerised feeding system.
“That provides a means of communication with the sow and we can manage the feed precisely to each animal’s requirement and change it as their dietary needs change.
“We mill all our own feed here too, using local wheat and barley, which is supplemented with soya meal, vitamins and minerals. We have eight different diets, which are distributed automatically to different locations around the piggery.”
A range of heating and ventilation systems are also used to meet the needs of different ages of pigs.
All effluent from the piggery is pumped to a holding pond and then spread on to the surrounding dairy farm to utilise the nutrients for growing high quality pasture.
“Genetics and feed are a big part of producing quality pork,” says Jason.
“The rest of it is diet, providing optimal conditions and minimising stress – contented pigs produce better quality meat and are more productive. We choose to house our pigs indoors because it suits the land we are on but it also allows us to provide the best care for them, with automated temperature control and protection from the weather.”
There is a four-strong stockperson team in the piggery and all have been trained to work with pigs in ways that minimise stress on the stockperson and the animal.
Jason’s very proud of the end product – “I’m pretty partial to sweet and sour pork”.
Nicky grew up in urban Christchurch and worked in the food service sector for a number of years – but today, she’s a junior stockperson working with up to 4,000 pigs – and she loves every minute of it.
“Pigs are so intelligent,” says Nicky, who is 23. “I enjoy everything about the job.”
Nicky had always liked the idea of working with animals or on a farm and considered a career in vet nursing. However, having completed a six month course, gaining a National Certificate in Animal Husbandry, she decided to go in a different direction.
Her first job in the farming sector was with Mapua stud at Southbridge, which includes a sheep stud, dairy grazing, cropping and a 120 sow outdoor piggery. She enjoyed all of the work, but particularly working with the pigs.
In July, she moved to Offaly Farms at Annat, near Sheffield.
“All my learning in farming has been on the job although I’m now pursuing Primary ITO Level 3 qualifications around pigs,” says Nicky. “It’s been a steep learning curve but I have really enjoyed it. I’ve learned about health and safety, driving the vehicles, how to do artificial insemination (AI), use the feed mill, give pigs vaccines and carry out health checks.”
“There is a lot of automation at Offaly Farms. Rather than adding all the components of a diet recipe manually into the mixer, I’ll make a small bucket of minerals first, than the grains, oils, and other necessary things are added automatically into the mixer. A big focus for me is the health of the pigs.”
A big part of her enjoyment of the role is the personalities of pigs and being part of ensuring they are happy and well cared for.
“Most people never get to talk to a pig farmer because there aren’t that many of them and they are off the beaten track. But you should see how happy and chilled the pigs are in their big temperature-controlled rooms. A lot of the time they are just lying around relaxing. Sometimes I’ll go in to check if one hasn’t been to feed and it’s because she is so relaxed. They don’t mind a belly rub or a scratch now and then. I love playing with the piglets too.”
Nicky also really enjoys the environmental aspects of working on farm.
“We have an amazing covered effluent pond and all the effluent is used elsewhere on the farm – we spread it on the paddocks. We also have a very efficient composting system. The system is all natural and only uses saw dust to compost the pigs."
Nicky says getting involved with Young Farmers helped her to make the move from city work to a rural career. Joining her local Waimakariri Young Farmers, she has become the Treasurer and even won member of the year.
“I didn’t want to keep working in the city, so I looked for jobs I could apply for in farming. I’d definitely like to stay working with pigs. It would be good to move into management eventually.”
Bryan Tucker’s Ngarara farm in the Wairarapa epitomises the New Zealand pork sector’s strong commitment to the environment.
Minimising livestock and feed transport, using pig effluent as a fertiliser source and extensive native planting are just some of Bryan’s approaches to good environmental management on the farm near Greytown.
Almost half the 1,300 tonnes of barley used to feed the pigs each year is grown on the farm. The pigs are raised on bedding, which is composted as an additional source of nutrients that is applied to surrounding paddocks. Pig effluent goes into a slurry pond to be turned into fertiliser – mixed with urea - for the farm’s dairy operation with 1,000 Friesian, Jersey and Kiwi-cross cows.
Bryan, who is the third generation of his family to farm the land, says good environmental management combined with good genetics, high quality feed and excellent stock management is the key to successful pig farming.
“That leads to contented pigs and quality pork for New Zealanders.”
The New Zealand pork sector has a low environmental impact compared to other forms of livestock production. The sector currently contributes just 0.2 per cent of New Zealand’s total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and pigs produce much less methane than ruminant animals like cattle or sheep.
The fertiliser spreading system was devised by Bryan, with pig effluent making up about half of the fertiliser used on farm. He believes it provides a more balanced fertiliser than straight urea.
“We give the effluent pond a real good stir in autumn and spread that using irrigators with pivots. Mixed with urea, it’s brilliant fertiliser. Sludge from the pond is also removed every year and spread using a slurry tanker.”
The planting programme on the farm began in the early 2000s, and in 2003 Ngarara won the Dairy Farm Award in the Greater Wellington/Wairarapa Farm Environment Awards. The extensive native planting has included, among others, manuka and kanuka, olearia and totara. Space is also leased out to beekeepers, so there are a lot of hives on the land.
Bryan’s son-in-law Gary Healy has managed the piggery, a farrow to finish operation, for many years. It is home to around 2,500 pigs at any one time, comprising 245 sows and the rest being growing pigs.
The growers live in eco shelters and sows are kept in social groups of six until a week before farrowing, when they go into the modern maternity unit to give birth and until their piglets are weaned. The sows give birth twice a year and stay in the maternity unit for up to four weeks after farrowing. They live in groups when not in the maternity unit.
“There is currently no better system available than the farrowing crates,” says Bryan.
“We waterblast and disinfect their ‘rooms’ for them and when we open up the gates, they literally run along the races to get to the crates because they know they are going to have their piglets there and they’re warm and happy and well fed. The system also protects the piglets. Everyone comments how contented and healthy they are.”
The piglets are weaned from the sows at between 3-4 weeks of age and placed into straw based eco shelters for 6-7 weeks. They are then shifted into purpose-built buildings and fed a liquid feed barley-based diet until ready for market.
“We have a nutritionist who comes in to advise us. Our focus is on caring for them in way that is best for them.”