Source: Getty Images 

The industry has faced soaring costs and a backlog of pigs but is now warning supply will tighten

The British pig herd has shrunk significantly as a result of the myriad crises faced by the sector over the past 12 months, new data shows.

Soaring feed costs plus a backlog of pigs (due in part to a shortage of butchers), which has led to the culling of animals on farms, has contributed to a big drop-off in year-on-year pig numbers, according to new research by pig industry software provider Agrovision – which was shared with the National Pig Association.

The company’s data – drawn from a sample representing about 60% of the UK herd – revealed weaner pig numbers in April were 23% down on the same point last year, at 373,000.

The three-month rolling average also showed a “steady, virtually uninterrupted decline from a monthly average of 479,000 in September 2021 to 406,000 in April”, the NPA said, in a trend mirroring the impact of the growing crisis that has developed across the sector since last summer. 

Sow numbers had also dropped significantly, falling 13% year on year to 181,000 in April. The number of sow services – when a sow is mated, normally via artificial insemination – were similarly down in April, by 21% year on year and by 32% since November.

The data highlighted what many in the pig sector had suspected and pointed to a significant tightening in the market over the coming months, suggested Agrovision spokesman James Nesling.

“We have been losing sow numbers and seeing a reduction in services for some time and this is now feeding through to pigs weaned, which in turn will influence the number of pigs reaching the market over the coming months,” he said.

Co-op invests £19m in pig pricing, and urges mults to do more on sourcing

And with the true supply and demand picture currently obscured by industry efforts to clear the pig backlog, the data pointed to an upcoming rapid shift from surplus to shortage, once the build-up of animals was finally tackled. The backlog is currently estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 animals after reaching a high of more than 200,000 earlier this year. 

“A 20%-plus fall in services and weaners produced could result in a drop of more than a million pigs a year going through our supply chains,” he said. “This is at a time when the EU price is also relatively high and EU herds are also contracting.”

The fall in numbers comes as producers are facing mounting input costs, with the NPA reporting last week that the average cost of production was 240p/kg in May, while AHDB’s standard pig price (SPP) was 180p/kg.

The NPA has repeatedly warned of producers being forced to pull back on production or pull out of the sector altogether due to the sector’s pressures.

The data “should send a message to our supply chain and government about the huge impact of this ongoing crisis on our production capacity, on top of the financial, emotional and animal welfare strain producers have been suffering”, said NPA CEO Zoe Davies.

“At a time when food security is under the spotlight, we do not want to see our production capacity eroded to the point where we are almost entirely reliant on imports,” she added, while calling for even more help from retailers – most of whom have made public financial commitments to the sector in recent weeks.

“That is why we continue to call for all parts of the supply chain to play their part in putting prices up and for the government to provide some proper support, so we can stem this decline in UK pork production.”