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Farming with compassion

Eddie Sprigg and daughter Kit at Kusha Hill

The big, lumbering sows on Kusha Hill farm just south of Dallwallinu are grunting and snorting companionably in their pens; natural sunlight and breeze flowing freely through generously-sized eco sheds. As they roll and forage in the straw, they are blissfully unaware that they are amongst the highest welfare pigs in the country.

When Eddie Sprigg set out to custom build this modest family-owned piggery, he always planned to do things a little differently. Guided by acknowledgement of the five freedoms of animal welfare, he is committed to demonstrating both compassion and good provenance in his farming practice. Fortunately for local pork-lovers, happy pigs produce excellent pork – and we can indulge in good conscience.

Northern Valleys Quality Meats in Bindoon has stocked Kusha Hill pork since a week after they opened. Butcher Jason McLachlan has always been impressed with their quality and consistency.
“You can see the care Eddie takes in his product, and you can see the meat is not stressed,” he says. “I have customers driving from Perth just for it – they say it tastes like pork used to taste!”

People might love Kusha Hill pork, but Eddie says two thirds of his market don’t really care where it comes from – they just love the taste. “The sad thing is that it’s really hard to find a market for high welfare pigs. It’s butchers like Jason who have carried us through the hard times,” he says.

It was over 50 years ago that former dairy farmer Peter Roberts and his wife Anna founded Compassion in World Farming in the UK, after Peter became horrified by the development of modern, intensive factory farming. Now a global movement, Compassion aims to address the growing disconnect between modern agriculture and the wellbeing of both animals and the environment. It continues to set the parameters for high welfare farming today.

Eddie’s wife Dorothy explains how these values have shaped their practice. “We run a closed herd and keep total control from conception to final delivery to the abattoirs. Coupled with 100% local grain and straw means our produce is entirely local, and is the only way we feel we can keep control over welfare and continue to work toward the five freedoms for the pigs: freedom from hunger and thirst, from discomfort, from pain, injury and disease, from fear and distress and freedom to express natural behaviours,” she says.

“Eddie’s farming philosophy is pretty much ‘pride in a good product created through best practices’!”

Eddie travelled to piggeries all over the world to compare methods when designing his setup, which he runs with hands-on help from brother Tom, and support from Dorothy. He admits it’s a constant game of trial and error to get things right, and adapt methodology to our WA climate.

“Our sows are the best because they’re acclimatised to the heat – we can have weeks over 40 degrees here in Dally,” he says. “For us here, a free-range system wouldn’t work. The temperatures are too extreme – I can take better care of a pig in a shed. How can it be high welfare to leave little piglets outside in the weather?”

But Eddie also uses the dry heat to his advantage for his straw-based system, a shift from the traditional wet-slated floor system, which is a drain on water. He keeps his sows together in a large straw-based pens – an unconventional move which has paid off for Eddie two ways.

“People said it wouldn’t work when I put them together, but they’re happy,” he said. “They dig around in the hay and they eat quite a bit of it. It fills up their gut so they’re not hungry all the time.”

Pigs are of course pigs by nature, and while a high protein grain diet usually fed to farmed pigs meets their nutritional needs, it doesn’t satisfy their natural instinct to forage for food – a need fulfilled for Kusha Hill pigs by allowing digging and munching on straw.

In a neat circular system, straw or hay is supplied to the piggery by neighbouring farmers Rob and Joanne Harris, who collect the soiled product every few weeks and turn it into their organic compost, Jorobi Natural Fertiliser. The compost is sold to farmers and gardeners to improve soil naturally.

“In a dry year we may not have water to hose out pens, so the dry system works well. We also don’t have the amount of toxic waste to deal with — any waste water we can treat here on site,” explains Eddie.

The concrete floors also mean less parasites or disease-breeding slurry. “Our pigs are 100% antibiotic free and as our sows are wormed well before pregnancy, our pork contains no parasites or medication at all.”

Eddie and Dorothy are still researching the best approach to improve the farrowing conditions for their sows whilst keeping piglet mortality rates as low as possible. It’s a work in progress they both take pride in. In the meantime, there’s no doubt their pigs are happy as – just not in mud.