Tight trading conditions often get in the way of investment but the Listers got their timing right. Ben Barnett reports.
When you have lived and breathed pig farming like the Listers have done, walking away is rarely an option.
The national sow herd has halved since the 2001 Foot and Mouth crisis and plenty of pork producers have turned their backs on their livelihoods and quit the sector as a result of tough times since.
It has taken JC Lister Farms, run by brothers Richard and David Lister from Ellenthorpe Lodge Farm in Boroughbridge, until the last three or four years to return to the kind of performance that set them apart in their field.
Their family name has been associated with leading the sector in the fields of pig feed and breeding since their late father John took on the tenancy at the Sovereign-owned Crown Estate farm in the late 1950s.
Tragically, John was involved in an accident and passed away in 1962, leaving the boys’ mother, Marjorie, to keep the business going until Richard, now aged 50, and David, 55, returned from agricultural studies to take over the reins.
Thirty years later and Marjorie still pops into the office every morning to make sure everything is ticking along nicely and the brothers have taken great strides.
They now breed and finish pigs for slaughter across 5,000 acres, mostly spread throughout North Yorkshire – including at their 500-acre Boroughbridge base which doubles up as an arable plot comprising of wheat, barley, potato and oilseed rape crops. They also run a flock of sheep and Aberdeen Angus cattle.
The Listers employ more than 50 staff and sell their pork to major supermarket chains Tesco, the Co-operative and Aldi through Malton-based pork producers Karro Food Group. They also deal with West Midlands-based Tulip Ltd, another supplier of pork to major retailers, and Woodheads, the livestock division of Morrisons supermarkets.
The biggest decision they have faced on the farm, and one that has helped to make them the success they are today, was opting to spend big to upgrade their infrastructure in the years of recovery following Foot and Mouth.
In 2007, at a time when few farmers considered it wise to plough money into upgrading their sites, the Listers replaced a pig finishing unit at one of their other farms, Richmond Farm in Topcliffe, with a modern facility which increased capacity and enhanced temperature control. The improved efficiency it has delivered gave them confidence to invest in three other new finishing units and there’s been no looking back since.
Richard, who is an elected member on the producer group of the National Pig Association, says: “Efficiency is absolutely vital in the pig job because if you look back to Foot and Mouth the export market suffered and the performance of the national herd went downhill because it got older. It’s only these last three or four years where the performance has come back.
“One of the key things for us has been the reinvestment in new buildings. Over the last seven years we have done in excess of 7,000 finishing places that have been new builds or refurbishments so that’s been a big investment for us – about £1.5m.
“Once we did the first one it gave us the confidence to invest in more new buildings because we saw the increase in performance that it delivered.”
Timing investment is tricky for farmers to get right and Richard admits the decision required a measure of courage.
“There’s always the risk attached in that the market we sell into might become very difficult. Our first new finishing building was in 2007 for 2,000 additional places at Richmond Farm. At that time not many people were doing much building.
“We were able to do it because we were achieving a better performance which started to bring profitability back into the business and there was a need to do it. We took a leap of faith really. We had these old buildings and so we knew at some point we were going to just keep putting up with them or take the business forward.
“Having done it and having seen the improvements to our performance we know we have made the right decision.
“The pig industry has been an incredibly tough industry to be in. A lot of pig farmers have left the industry in the last 15 years and have not returned, so whatever efficiencies we can create in our system helps.
“We are now selling in excess of 25 pigs per sow a year which is an increase of 20 per cent over the last ten years.”
New finishing units have gone a long way towards improving efficiencies on the farm. The modern structures replaced buildings that were 40 years old.
They have stainless steel and plastic surfaces making them easier to clean, and modern ventilation systems to tightly control temperatures, creating an even healthier and more productive environment for the pigs.
The investment may have required a leap of faith but the Listers have made some very calculated decisions to limit their exposure to the financial risks associated with a volatile marketplace.
At present, they run about 3,000 sows across four sites and it would be easy for feed costs to stack up and eat into their profits. To counter such a hefty bill, they grow their own crops for conversion into feed in a mill located 800 yards from the farmhouse.
“We try to grow as much wheat and barley as we can to put it through the mill to feed to the pigs and I’d say this is the key to our business. The fact that we can grow our own crops for feed protects us against the volatility in the cereals market.”
Another huge factor that Richard attributes to their success is the people. “We have a lot of long-term employees.
“A year ago four of our staff turned 65 and between them they have something like 130 years’ service. It’s satisfying to have that consistency and loyalty. We have people who enjoy being part of the business.”