Pig production has always been a key part of animal husbandry and the curriculum at Plumpton College in East Sussex.
“It’s a great business for teaching because of the short production cycle,” says Ian Salmon, who manages Lambert Farm in Plumpton.
“Unlike other farm animals, students can see the entire cycle, from conception to consumption, over a 10-month period.”
The old pigsty had passed its expiry date, he explains. “We also wanted to improve the welfare and performance of our animals, as well as the learning experience of our students.”
See also: Key elements of good housing for grower and finisher pigs
The college had already launched a £10million investment program for various parts of the farm and campus.
This included the construction of a new agro-processing center, a new butchery and two milking robots.
But a new hog unit was high on the priority list, accounting for £1.5m of the available pot.
After two years of planning, contractors began last August and construction progressed rapidly, culminating in the transfer of sows and feeders from the old unit to the new in the first week of February this year.
Currently, there are 90 sows and 20 gilts, purchased from JSR as replacements, moving into the new facilities, plus nearly 1,000 weaners and feeders.
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- 800 ha (1,977 acres) of farmland, owned and leased
- Sand, clay and earthen chalk
- 10 full-time employees
- 280 dairy cows, 110 indoor sows, 50 Sussex suckler cows, 500 breeding ewes
- 152ha (376 acres) grains and oilseeds, 121ha (299 acres) grass and corn rotation
- £1.4m turnover
- Upper Level Stewardship, Red Tractor and Leaf Assured
- Learning center for over 300 students
“We’re just getting started and the data has just been put together,” says Stephen Page, swine unit manager.
“But from what I can see, it’s clear that the number of piglets per sow is already higher, with the first sows going through the new unit averaging 12 weaned pigs per litter.”
The feed intake of a sow and a piglet also increased, indicating stronger and better growing offspring, he adds.
But does combining agricultural practice and education compromise the economic performance of the unit? Mr. Salmon is adamant no.
“The headmaster of the college demands excellence in everything we do, so we are completely commercial,” he says. “It is the college’s vision to farm profitably, sustainably and demonstrate best practices.
Finished pigs are sold to Thames Valley Cambac and slaughtered by Cheales in Essex, usually weighing between 115 and 120kg live weight.
“We are aiming for Freedom Foods status, to generate a bounty, and the plan is that some whole carcasses will come back for use in our new school of butchery.”
Mr Salmon says the unit hasn’t been hit too hard by the current crisis affecting the pig sector – apart from low prices and rising input costs.
“We’re a relatively small player and our hogs have moved freely except for a few delayed Christmas loadouts,” he says.
“The new unit has spare capacity if needed, but luckily that hasn’t been the case so far.”
Being a mixed farm, the different businesses can also support others in times of economic hardship.
Pig production in Plumpton
The new site consists of three separate buildings and a covered manure store.
The new farrowing house can house 40 sows and their offspring and incorporates new, high-level welfare features.
The crates keep the sow confined for the first three to five days, then open to allow her to turn around, while maintaining escape areas for the piglets.
A computer-controlled feeder dispenses food to the sow four times a day, with a plunger that the animal must activate to drop the food.
Ceramic heating pads provide warmth for piglets, while transition feeders from GE Baker mix supplementary feed with lukewarm water to form a slurry, so young animals get used to solids before weaning .
The high feel-good environment throughout the unit means there’s no need to cut teeth or tie tails, and windows along one side of the building provide an opportunity for viewing at educational purposes.
Ventilation is provided by Novax axial fans, and there is a sprinkler system for misting in hot weather.
Dry sow house
The sows are housed in groups of 20 or 40, in spacious straw hutches, equipped with the same automatic nurses as in the farrowing house.
Sows have electronic ear tags with transponders to allow individual feed rations. They also generate useful data, for management and educational purposes.
A boar pen in the building helps with heat detection, and there are separate stalls for artificial insemination, using JSR genetics.
Having the animals in small groups makes management easier, as the sows can establish a hierarchy.
A viewing gantry along the building is useful for teaching and observing the pigs.
Able to accommodate up to 1,000 animals (including cull sows and replacement gilts), the finishing building is designed with welfare and efficiency in mind.
The piglets arrive weaned, having received an anti-pneumonic vaccine, and are sexed and grouped according to their size.
Groups of 50 move along the hangar as they age.
This allows the straw to be pushed from the “young end” to the “old end” and into the manure pile three times a week, which is good biosecurity practice.
The manure store is covered and surrounded by a dike, with a 2,000 liter tank below to collect liquid waste.
Data from a rooftop weather station is used to control the climate inside the house using Galebreaker curtains, which automatically react to outside temperature and wind levels.
They keep the house warmer in the young and less so in the older.
Pigs have ad libitum access to a Duffields ration, and when ready for market, finished animals travel the full length of the building to the waiting truck.
Butcher in Plumpton
As part of the college’s overhaul, a new butchery center was opened in February. This provides apprentice butchers with a bespoke facility to learn their trade before hopefully finding a job in the meat industry.
Funded by the Rural Payments Agency and the South East Enterprise Partnership, the unit can accommodate up to 12 students, each in their own butcher shop.
Cameras placed on the ceiling of a central teaching block allow trainees to watch the practical sessions in close-up on large screens, without having to crowd around the tutor.
The butcher center has cold storage facilities and freezer space to supply the college dining hall and the butcher counter at the college-run One Garden Brighton retail outlet.
As well as supplying meat, the college says it is contributing to the national food skills shortage, training butchers who have been in increasing demand since the post-Brexit crackdown on foreign labour.
“These facilities are going to provide a vital resource not only to students, but also to local butchers and businesses as a hub for butchery training and education in the South East,” said Jeremy Kerswell, director of the Plumpton College.