Pigs have always been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride as far as ex-farm prices are concerned, however values have improved somewhat over the past year thanks to African Swine Fever in China and increased demand for processed meats during the Covid-19 lockdown.

While such tragic worldwide events might not appear to be the most logical of reasons behind the upsurge, they have nevertheless had a positive impact on Ingram’s Traditional Scottish Pork business, which has attracted numerous new buyers.

The enterprise which is owned by Aberdeenshire producers, Sandy Ingram and his wife Ann, from Newburgh, Ellon, relies upon 130 9T gilts bought in from JSR genetics, rearing on average 13 piglets per litter with 2.4 litters per year.

All pigs are sold finished through Scottish Pig Producers, but up to a fifth are bought back in carcase form, butchered and sold as various products to include home-cured bacon, sausages, burgers down to your more traditional, chops and roasts. The business has also ventured into hog roasts and barbecue packs for specialist events.

Up until the lockdown, much of this home-produced meat, which is also butchered at home, was sold through farmers’ markets, local shops, restaurants, cafes and garden centres. Now however, only local shops are able to buy.

“We virtually lost all our short-term business overnight when the lock-down was announced but we have since been able to get it back through shops doing home deliveries,” said Sandy who has only one full-time employee in butcher, Graham Davy.

“We’re selling more sausages and bacon than before, but there is also a good demand for gammon steaks and roasts so we’re able to utilise the whole carcase.

“If all these customers remain loyal and keep buying and my restaurant and garden centre customers come back after lock-down, I reckon I’ll have increased the direct selling business by about a third,” he added.

All meat is produced under the Scottish Quality Pork brand, thereby guaranteeing full traceability from conception to consumption. Carcases are hung for six to seven days on site at East Pitscaff and butchered, vacuum packed and labelled according to demand.

Bacon and gammons are produced using traditional dry curing techniques with a mixture of natural salts and sugars rubbed into the surface of the meat to allow natural absorption. This process can take up to four weeks, while sausages and burgers, which are hand made, using a minimum of 80% lean pork, can include apple, cranberry, tomatoes, red onion, cracked pepper, and leek, depending on the time of year and demand. Natural skins are used at all times.

While Sandy first ventured into pigs when he left school, the on-farm butchery was not set up until 1999, which has slowly grown to its present form, without advertising.

Where productivity and profit margins have improved at East Pitscaff is in the number of piglets reared and finished and automation. As a result, Sandy is able to work on his own for most of the time as Ann is a health visitor, while sons David, Gavin, Ross and Jamie, have all left home to work.

In contrast to most pig farms, the enterprise operates a five-week batch system. This is based on a fixed 21-week sow cycle with four sow groups at a five-week interval and one at six-weeks, thereby improving overall management and work loads for a one-man operation.

Similar to batch calving in dairy herds, Sandy is able to focus on certain management aspects, eg farrowing, serving, weaning, cleaning out etc, depending on which week. Add to that a new farrowing unit and a strict all-in all-out policy, and long-term housing costs have been reduced with the bio-security improved overall.

Admittedly, such a system does create labour peaks, but it is ideal at East Pitscaff, when sons David and Ross are keen to help on the farm, with the quieter periods allowing Sandy precious time off for paperwork, farm maintenance and of course, his golf !

Weaned at 28 days weighing 8kg from a diet of their mother’s milk and a home-grown mixed ration of barley, wheat, imported soya, fishmeal, soya and milk powder, from Norvite and East Coast Viners, piglets are then moved onto the rearing unit and finishing unit until they reach 115-120kg liveweight. From weaning to finishing, pigs are fed seven different rations.

Farm efficiency has also improved significantly with a new automated feed line, again similar to that used in dairy units. This enables animals to be fed more towards their nutritional needs depending on production cycle requirements.

Home-grown cereals will always remain key to overall profitability, and East Pitscaff which is made up for different units, totalling 365 acres, growing 285 acres of cereals for feed every year, with the remaining rough grazing set aside for a late lambing flock of Shetland cross Cheviot ewes.

FARM facts:

Business: Ingram’s Traditional Scottish Pork, owned by Sandy and Ann Ingram

Farm size: 365acres with 285 acres of cereals grown

Pig numbers: 130 9T gilts of which 60% replaced every year from JSR Genetics. Each gilt produces five-six litters in a lifetime, with cull sows sold through Scottish Pigs.

Average no piglets weaned per litter: 13 with potential to rise…

Piglets per sow per year: 31

ON THE spot

Best investment?: “Automated feed systems – I now don’t have to physically feed any animals.”

Where would you be if you were not pig farming?: “I’d be a joiner because I’ve always been hugely interested in woodwork and have a good workshop on the farm which enables me to do a lot of maintenance work.”

Fear or excitement for the next decade?: “I am confident for the pig industry and I do think Brexit would produce a positive result for the industry long-term. I would like to think the government will support home-produced food now more than ever, but I am also aware that the public has more of a say on government policy than farmers, therefore more food will be imported when it is cheaper. I have no problem with imports provided they have been produced to the same quality and welfare standards as food in the UK. What really annoys me is food coming in of a lower quality and standard and marketed as being of the same standard.”

Worst affect of Corona Virus: “Not being able to really see the grand-children, but I will also miss the Highland and Turriff Shows.”

Favourite restaurant – when they re-open – “Eat on The Green, Udny.”