If you told any livestock farmer they could reduce their feed bill by up to 75% and create a new market for their product at the same, they would no doubt jump at the opportunity. That’s exactly what NSW potato and pig producer Matt Simmons hopes will happen. As owner-manager of Swallow Rock Organics and Melanda Park Free Range Pork, he has been growing certified organic potatoes and running free-range sows for years. His customers include some of Sydneyʼs top restaurants and providores, and his pork is marketed through many of Sydneyʼs largest farmers markets. Matt used his 2012 Nuffield scholarship to focus on the relationship between the pig phase and cropping phase of a rotation system.
“We first got into pigs about 10 years ago, when we used them to clean up a paddock of potatoes. It was a big learning curve, as we had a lot of problems during the pig phase keeping our paddocks in a condition that would allow for planting afterwards. From an organic point of view, there are great benefits from using pigs as part of the rotation. They can dramatically reduce the weed burden in the paddock and help to control pests like curl grubs – plus the manure they leave behind is worth its weight in gold, high in NPK and great for stimulating soil biology,” he explained.
Matt says with the Australian outdoor pig industry not being significant, there is a lack of knowledge on using pigs in cropping rotations.
“In Australia we’ve never really had a history of outdoor pigs, but it is an emerging industry now. I really wanted to travel and see what the best management practices were around the world,” he explains.
“In England they don’t picture a farm without a pig really, they’ve still got this image of a farm with a pig – even dairy farms will have a couple of pigs, it’s just so traditional for them,” he says.
Matt was in the fortunate position of being able to access the widespread Nuffield network in England to learn about the industry, with plenty of UK Nuffield scholars operating pig farms. Focusing mostly on the East Anglia area, Matt visited some very big operations, all with outdoor sow units.
“I found that the UK pig farmers were managing their farms well from a production point of view, which is something we’ve really got to learn as well, because managing pigs outdoors is totally different to managing them indoors. Their breeds were also what made them successful – they’ve had pigs outdoors a lot longer than we have, so they actually breed specific pigs for the outdoor market. I also saw a lot of cropping rotations with pigs, but the key is setting rotations so they know what’s coming up and they’re not something that’s thought of at the last moment,” Matt says.
He believes many of the systems and principles he observed in England could work in Australia, and says some may even work better Down Under.
“Some of their ideas would work better here because we don’t have the rainfall and the problems they have, while some of them might not work as well – while the principles should work, it really is trial and error for us. If they’re grazing a quality pasture, we could see up to a 75 per cent saving on how much we feed our pigs – the potential’s massive, and the good thing is there’s already a market there for it. The market’s demanding free-range pigs, we’ve just got to build a model that fits that market and provides the pigs,” Matt concludes.