When Hamish Cottle returned to his parents’ South Island farm in 2007, they wanted to find a way to generate additional income to support two families - and the solution proved to be free range pigs.
Starting out sending 12 pigs a week for processing, the Cottles’ 370ha Highgrounds farm near Timaru now has 280 breeding sows, alongside its longstanding sheep and beef operation, with 120 pigs going to market each week. The farm is the sole pork supplier to the Harmony brand, which also provides pork for My Food Bag.
Integrating free range pigs into their farming system has also paid off in other ways. The farm has lifted productivity across the wider operation because the fertility provided by pigs using pastures rotationally means they can grow more grass and winter crops.
“We moved here from Levin in 1989 when I was nine,” says Hamish, who farms together with his parents John and Cheryl and his wife Angela.
“Mum and Dad were early adopters of organic farming and farmed organically through the 90s which served them well until we wanted to make the farm more profitable. However some of these organic principals are still implemented today.
“We wanted something practical that would complement the rest of the farm while generating a regular income. Dad had previously developed an indoor piggery in the North Island and had ideas for farming them outdoors. So we put our heads together and developed a system.”
That system sees the Cottle family move the pigs around the farm over a five to six year rotation.
“The pigs go into a paddock onto pasture for four to five months and they leave their fertility, behind through their manure and urine and what they are fed, improving the fertility of the soil,” says Hamish.
“That will generally be on older pasture that needs a boost in fertility. They display their natural behaviour and root around and once they vacate it, we put in a catch crop such as green feed oats and then rape for finishing lambs or kale for wintering stock. Then the paddock goes back to pasture, to be used for sheep and beef cattle.
“We don’t put pigs back onto the same paddocks for five or six years and the beauty of that is they come back to ‘clean ground’ with no pig build up, minimising the risk of pig diseases.
“It’s a long rotation but it is important. The pigs fit in really well with the farm system. There is a great improvement in the soil, we are finishing more lambs than we used to because we have better crops and better grass.”
The Cottle family also enjoy working with pigs. Their sows are run in small social groups before being moved into their own smaller paddocks to farrow. These have individual roundhouses, carefully designed with sow and piglet welfare in mind, with the sows free to come and go as they please. This is done by creating two environments within the hut. A small enclosed ‘hot box’ for the piglets and the huts are designed so the sow can lay in a position which does not compromise the piglets‘ safety.
Piglets are weaned at four weeks and split into male and female groups. These then go into 1.5hapaddocks, with shelter provided, with each pig ensured about 100sqm of space to ramble about.
“They stay in the paddock until it’s time for them to go to market,” says Hamish. “We feed them a concentrated feed diet with the ability to graze the pasture in the paddock. The males go to market at over 80kg, so from 16-20 weeks, and the females at over 100kg so a bit later, from 19 weeks.”
Starting out with no market for pigs, the Cottle family initially began by supplying a few pigs a week to Freshpork.
“But then Freshpork put us in touch with Neat Meats which were looking to source free range pigs for Harmony. The relationship grew and now we are their sole supplier, providing120 pigs a week. At any one time, we will have 1,800 to 1,900 pigs on the farm. Harmony does all our marketing.”
Alongside Hamish’s parents’ long farming history, Hamish and Angela have brought additional experience to the farming operation.
Hamish did a butchery apprenticeship before working in Australia on cattle stations including horseback and helicopter mustering. He then spent several years in the UK where he played for the Newton Stewart Rugby Club in South West Scotland. He still maintains close connections there.
Angela is a South Island Technical Specialist - Soil, for PGG Wrightson. A “fan of everything soil”, she grew up in a farming family in New South Wales and has a farm management degree from The University of Sydney and 18 years’ fertiliser industry experience in New Zealand. She previously worked for Ballance, is a certified nutrient management advisor, greenhouse gas advisor and an Agri-Women’s Development Trust Escalator graduate.
“My job means I bring home skills you might not normally be exposed to while working behind the farmgate,” she says. “I also help with things like health and safety training and farm policy documents. In my PGG Wrightson role, I do a lot of facilitation so I’m exposed to a range of skills and bring that knowledge back to Highgrounds.”
Despite the success of their farm model, the Cottle family say they are also impacted by many of the challenges facing other pig farmers.
“The cost of feed has gone up a lot of the last couple of years and every farm business is feeling the squeeze,” says Hamish. “Finding the right staff has also been a challenge but we have a great team. We have two people working full time on the pigs and one who helps me with the sheep and beef. Every week, we all pitch in together to weigh the pigs and we also all work together for weaning.”
NZPork has been lobbying strongly for the Government for clearer labelling on imported pork products.
“I think that would be the biggest opportunity for New Zealand pork producers,” says Angela. “New Zealand pig farmers are required to operate to much higher welfare standards than farmers in most of the countries which send their pork here. Even if it is labelled as imported, it is usually in tiny letters. We’d like to see big labels on all imported pork, to make that clear to consumers in New Zealand .”