“I like to think of our farm as ‘hotel-style’ accommodation for pigs,” says farmer Sean Molloy.
The views around the Molloy’s Offaly Farms would be very well suited to a hotel. The piggery in the rural town of Sheffield approximately 60 kilometers from Christchurch is set against the spectacular backdrop of the Southern Alps and has been in the family for over 40 years.
“Pigs have been farmed here for longer than that though, ”says Sean. “The first piggery here was started by the MacDonald family and my father Peter bought it from them.
“We also have 130 Ha of irrigated land, where we grow barley for the pigs and graze dairy stock. My brother Colin looks after that, Dad helps out a bit there still and I’m the pig guy.”
The indoor piggery is home to 400 breeding sows and the farm fattens 7,500 grower pigs each year, as well as selling a further 5,500 weaners to another local farmer.
“Pigs are just very enjoyable animals to work with,” says Sean. “People talk about indoor piggeries as ‘factory farming’ but the reality is our facilities here enable the pigs to do what they naturally do in the best possible conditions for their health and wellbeing.
“I also really enjoy the technology side because it helps you to look after the pigs so much better. Our buildings are very well insulated, which works to keep the pigs cool in summer and warm in winter. They live in a temperature-controlled environment with ventilation to keep the air fresh, in the same way we live in our own homes.
“Pigs are also quite dusty so we have installed a misting system that releases a fine spray for 30 seconds every 10 minutes. That grabs all the dust in the air and drops it to the floor to drain away and can be used for further cooling in summer. That makes for the best living atmosphere for the pigs, as well as a better environment for us to work in.”
Sean says a major advance has been electronic feeding systems.
“The sows live in large social groups of 120 sows and each one has an EID electronic tag in its ear.
“There are seven feeding stations, and when a sow feels like eating, she will go to a feeding box, she walks in and the door closes behind her, so she can feed alone without competition. The system reads their tags and knows exactly how much feed that particular pig needs. It then opens the trough and drops feed in 100g lots every 15-20 seconds until they have had their daily amount and then the feed box closes.
“The great thing about that is it ensures we can keep all our girls in perfect body condition. If we notice one is a bit skinny, we tweak the system so she gets a larger food allowance. If one is too fat, we trim it back a bit.
“It really takes the aggression out of keeping pigs in social groups – because if you have a more dominant sow, she might otherwise chase others away from the food. The pigs are very content, they know once the box closes, they’ve had their food allowance and they go off to play or sleep.”
The system also provides a daily report on how and when pigs are eating.
“We monitor that very closely, and if we notice a sow isn’t eating all their food, then we check them right away. Often it might be because they are feeling under the weather. It alerts us to any problems very quickly and we can treat them, so that’s very good for their welfare.
“It’s also very natural because it means each pig can feed when they feel like it. They are very much creatures of habit and you find they tend to eat around the same times each day – and some even like to feed in the middle of the night.”
Weaner pigs are also kept in social groups of 120, from 21 days to 70 days of age on a wheat-based diet, before being moved into grower barns to live in groups of 60 through to 150 days old. Growers are fed four times a day, in shared troughs, with dairy by-products added to the mix.
“We don’t use deep litter,” says Sean. “We think animals should be as clean as possible so they have soft, self-cleaning floors. It’s good for the pigs and good for food production.”
Effluent is collected and put through an anaerobic digester, with methane burned off, before going into a covered storage pond. Ultimately it is used on the irrigated land, applied using a cultivator that opens the soil to root level and trickles the treated effluent in.
“That way it goes directly to where it’s needed, then the gap closes up so you don’t lose nitrogen into the atmosphere,” says Sean.
The ‘maternity unit’ where pigs farrow is totally cleaned and disinfected before a sow moves into it.
The farm uses farrowing crates and Sean says they are the best option currently available to balance the wellbeing of both the sow and piglets.
“Sows weigh 250-300 kg and a piglet weighs only about 0.5per cent of that at birth – so they’re still only two to three per cent of mum’s body weight when they are weaned.
“When there are 13-14 piglets running around and mum decides to lie down suddenly, she can easily trap one. With all that going on, a sow often won’t even realise she’s crushing a piglet. If that happens, you are basically sprinting to coax the mother up and pull the piglet out in time.”
The sow’s area is kept at the optimum temperature for her comfort – around 16-18 degrees, while the piglets have ‘little hotplates heated to the mid-30s.’
“That way, the pigs can go in to see mum and suckle and then are attracted back to their nice warm safe pads,” says Sean. “It also means that if the sow or piglets need attention, our staff can do that safely – because you really don’t want to get between a 300kg sow and her piglets.”
Away from the piggery, a lot of Sean’s time is spent “following the kids around their different sports and activities.”
The family play tennis, support the local school’s skiing program, enjoy getting out on the water when they can and Sean coaches a junior team at Darfield rugby club.
He’s also very partial to a nice pork ribeye and says the happier the pigs the better the flavour and texture.
“What is good for the animals is good for the farm. The better you look after your animals, the more profitable you will be. Keeping piglets safe and getting them off to the best possible start is so important. That comes down to good feeding and good facilities that allow the pigs to do what they naturally do.”