THERE were several factors that played a role in Colin Ford and his family establishing a free-range piggery in the Cranbrook region.
Colin and his wife Beau, moved to WA 11 years ago, with Colin finding employment in the pig industry.
“I was sponsored to come to WA and started out managing a piggery in Cranbrook,” he said.
“I then ended up as production manager for a company producing large numbers of pigs and was responsible for setting up 11 new piggeries across the Great Southern.”
Two years ago, the Fords made the decision to go out on their own and establish a free-range breeding farm.
Through Colin’s experience in establishing those new piggeries he identified Cranbrook as a good fit for a free-range operation and set about finding a property they could purchase.
“I knew the Cranbrook Shire was proactive and keen to keep and attract families to the area,” Colin said.
“We were living in the Cranbrook townsite, and while we did look at other areas this shire ticks a lot of boxes for what we wanted when choosing somewhere to live.
“Cranbrook is not a regional city like Albany, but the shire is proactive and it has worked hard to establish good facilities that suit a broad range of community needs.
“It has good childcare facilities, good sporting clubs and works with the school on various initiatives.”
While this suited the Fords, who have four young children, it also made attracting and keeping workers easier.
“We have employed a Filipino worker, just because it is hard these days to find local workers who want to work with pigs, or have experience with pigs,” Colin said.
“It is crucial to our operation to have knowledgeable, skilled people and be able to keep them.
“We are not like broadacre operations where you can get backpackers in and give them a few lessons on the tractor at seeding or harvest time and then let them go for it.
“People make a big difference to our productivity and just having that experience with working with pigs is critical.
“So having a good community for them to work in is important as well.
“Our worker’s husband has moved to Cranbrook and their two young children are also coming over soon.
“If as a family, they are happy with where they are living it helps to keep them working for us and they bring benefit to businesses in town and the school and so on.”
Having other businesses set up in town is also helpful in running a farming operation.
“There is a good fabricator in town that we use to build shelters, good mechanics and farm supplies businesses,” Colin said.
The Fords run their 800-sow operation on a 110 hectare property west of Cranbrook.
“Each sow will produce 2.2 litters a year, and on average they will have 9-10 piglets each litter,” Colin said.
“We turn off between 300 and 320 pigs a week.
“They are sent off to a free range grow out facility at four weeks of age and from there are supplied to a major supermarket chain as free-range pork.”
Colin said there was a constant cycle in running the piggery and the routine rarely changed from week to week.
“We bring the gilts (young sows that haven’t farrowed) in and get them used to the system and then they are naturally mated,” he said.
“Then three months, three weeks and three days later they will farrow – so 114 days later.
“We then wean the piglets at four weeks and this happens every Thursday.
“Five days later the sows are back on heat and we artificially inseminate them and run them with boars as a back-up and they farrow 16 weeks after that.
“So it is a constant cycle, seven days a week every year.
“Every day you know exactly what you have to do.”
Working as a contract breeding operation also has its benefits.
“A large amount of risk is taken out of the production,” Colin said.
“You know what you are going to produce and it is not as dependant on the weather like most forms of agriculture.
“It is not like cropping where you roll the dice every season.
“With this scheme you are never going to make a million dollars, but you are not going to lose either – as long as you wean good numbers.”
There is an accreditation process that has to be adhered to and the operation is also RSPCA approved.
“We have to move the piggery every two years as part of the accreditation,” Colin said.
“We must test the soil and make sure that there are no surprises, and if we move back to a site we have already used we test again to make sure the nutrients deposited by the pigs have been removed.”
The biggest challenge in running a free-range piggery is water supply.
“Water is critical to the operation,” Colin said.
“I have invested a lot of money on water infrastructure on this property, because if you haven’t got water you are in trouble.”
Colin sees a good future in producing free-range pork
“There is a lot of demand for the product,” he said.
“We do have the option to expand in the future and it is something we will look at down the track but at the moment we are pretty happy with the size of the operation and what we are producing.”