Thirty years ago there was talk of there being little place in the future for the small scale farmer and that survival could best be achieved by getting bigger or leaving the industry. While this has proved true with the average size of arable farms having increased and the likes of the dairy and pig sector either building on herd numbers or departing completely, it is still heartening to see that the man with just a few acres can find a way to prosper.
James Osborne runs a pig herd at the two-and-a-half acre Cross Heights Farm in the hill village of Scholes that looks down on Holmfirth where he has 12 sows producing pigs for a hog roast company called The Greedy Little Pig. The company is run by two local men Anthony Hegney and Glen Timmins who also operate the Asparagus Green Catering Company which is responsible for catering and events at the National Coal Mining Museum.
Business appears to be thriving as Glen and his team have seen incredible demand for their hog roasts at Castle Howard since mid-November. Glen is full of admiration for James and his pigs.
“We love what James does on his farm. His animal husbandry and ethical approach adds to our offering, makes his pigs stress-free and creates a truly amazing and succulent product that helps us both in our respective businesses.”
Achieving the balance between producing a pig that combines flavour with the appropriate mix of lean meat and fat content has been a conundrum for pig producers since the headlong rush towards leanness in the 1980s. James constantly looks at what works best.
“I’m always experimenting with crossbreeding and hybrid vigour. My sows are currently Gloucester Old Spot X Pietrain X Duroc put to a hybrid boar. This combination appears to be getting the right amounts of leanness, fat ratio, muscle and growth. I also have Saddlebacks but don’t breed them as pure. I use a Gloucester Old Spot X Pietrain X Duroc boar on them because if I use a hybrid boar they tend to get fat bellies.
“All of my pigs are loose housed on straw in the shed. The sows throw litters of between nine and 12 and average two litters a year. Everything born here stays right through to finishing. I also far prefer straw bedding to them being on slats. Keeping pigs free from stress is how animals should be reared. Everyone deserves a decent quality of life and that’s what I try to give them here.”
When James first started with pigs he used artificial insemination but he moved away from it, preferring natural ways. His boars are his buddies and he has names for them all.
“I have Dave the Boar at the moment. He really is my buddy of the lot but I’m just a bit concerned he’s getting a bit too big, then there’s Basil. You don’t have your same boars forever but while they are around you do become attached.
“The hybrid boar is usually at least half Large White with a mix of Duroc, Pietrain, Welsh Black and others. It is the Large White that puts on the length.
“I started with pigs about seven years ago, the year my dad died in 2009. It was September and a local contractor had six gilts he’d fattened and had one that he’d not sold so I took it on. She became known as Mary Pig, a Gloucester Old Spot, and she had two litters with me.”
This first dip into pig rearing, after having had sheep and cattle previously, was the start of James’ learning curve.
“Loose housing is all very well but when it comes to farrowing it can be disastrous. Very few from the first litter survived as unfortunately Mary laid on them. I’d always had weaners and fattened pigs previously so farrowing was a new experience. I soon realised that farrowing crates were a must-have.”
James is pleased with the relationship he has with Glen and Anthony and this has buoyed his enthusiasm for rearing even more. It’s also pretty much the only way he can see things working on a small farm. He won’t be investing in more land due to the price.
“All my stock is going to Greedy Little Pig at the moment and I’d like to increase the herd to perhaps 20 sows and more. Pigs don’t require much land which is a good job at £15,000 an acre around here.”