It’s a 35 degree day in Wannamal and pig-farmer Brenden Howard has been up since before dawn, herding pigs in the cool of the early morning. As the heat of the day sets in, along with it the dust and the flies, Brenden’s work continues — monitoring the welfare of up to 18000 pigs under his care, from newly-weaned piglets to fully-grown ‘bacons’. His day won’t end until the trucks are loaded, sheds are washed clean, the pigs fed, watered and checked, and the sheds closed down for the night. Although he has staff to help, the work of a pig-farmer — like most intensive farming enterprises — is both rigorous and demanding, not to mention somewhat unglamorous. It’s a 365-day-a-year job, and if there is once year when we must be truly thankful to our hard-working pork producers, ‘tis surely at Christmas.
The tradition of a beautifully-glazed ham as part of the Christmas feast was given to us by the English, but harks back to medieval times, when a boar head on the table, complete with an apple in it’s mouth, was an offering to the pagan god Freyr to show favour for the new year. Whilst pork consumption in Australia has risen in recent years to nearly rival beef, our annual partake of the ‘other’ white meat doesn’t compare to that of our Chinese neighbours; who as a nation are expected to consume 55 kilos per person annually by 2026 to our 22 kilograms.
Six months ago prices as low as fifty-cents per kilo threatened to leave pig farmers stuck in the mud, but Neil Ferguson from Western Australian company Westpork predicts the market will soon reach equilibrium. “Demand for pork has remained strong and we can see the supply and demand starting to level,” he said. “The low prices were primarily due to over supply and exponential local growth.” However the glut has seen the company put plans for a massive 2800 sow facility near the Moora-Dandaragan border on ice for now.
As contractors for Westpork, Brenden and his family are somewhat buffered from the price fluctuations. Their agreement to supply ‘pig places’ growing the weanling piglets from their start weight of approximately seven kilos to their finished weight of 105-115 kilos means they are guaranteed a certain price per animal. However after a massive investment in infrastructure in the past decade they hope to see demand continue to grow.
It was Brenden’s parents Errol and Annette who got the family into pigs, starting with just six sows back in 1985. Not long after they had bought the 3500 acre Wannamal property with the intent to run sheep. They built the herd slowly, running a complete ‘farrow to finish’ operation. By the late eighties Errol’s weekly trip to the Midland sale yards was pushing capacity in the old ute as the family business continued to grow. In the mid- nineties they were approached to grow for contract and built 8 conventional sheds. After Brenden returned from boarding school in 2000 they were taking 1000 weaners every 4 weeks for Wandalup Farms, and later from the Craig Mostyn Group, and doubled pig places to 8,000. In 2012 they switched to Westpork and continued to expand – last year adding an additional twenty-four eco shelters and three large auto sort sheds, bumping capacity to a massive 22,200 potential pig places.
Despite the rising temperature, conditions are pleasant in the massive sheds due to strategic east/west orientation for optimal shade, and huge openings inviting a gentle breeze. Roof ventilation reduces heat and regular water sprays are used to keep the pigs cool. “Some piggeries these days are even air-conditioned” says Brenden, “But without 3-phase power here on the property we went for the passive systems.”
While the young are bedded in straw grown on the property, once the pigs reach 45-50 kilos the robust animals are shifted to the larger finishing sheds with grated concrete floors which are easily hosed clean. Effluent is put back into the ground as fertiliser, and exchanged with nearby farms as part of an efficient waste management system.
This week Brenden and his hard-working staff will load three trucks of 330 pigs each, ultimately headed for local processors, butchers and supermarkets, contributing to WA’s $114 million pork industry. The message from producers like Brenden is loud and clear – make sure you buy Australian pork this festive season! The Nationals WA are behind the push with their #Hamstand campaign fronted by Mia Davies. “Whether it’s the traditional Christmas Day leg of ham, roast pork dinner with the rellies or bacon for your Boxing Day fry-up, make sure the pork on your fork comes from WA producers.” she said.
Don’t be afraid to ask your butcher where your ham hails from – or if you’re shopping in the supermarket, check for the new country of origin labelling with the green kangaroo – and of course, enjoy your festive feast this Christmas.