Producers take direct approach

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

When eroding profit margins caused Dinninup producers Peter and Cathy Bradford to reconsider running pigs, the couple came up with a solution that literally saved their bacon.

For nearly 40 years, the family — first Peter’s father and then Peter and Cathy themselves — used pigs as an alternative income stream for their sheep-based business.

Like many farmers of the era, the Bradfords simply ran pigs free-range in a paddock and then sold them off to an abattoir when ready.

But, as Peter explained, the industry began to change, meaning they had some hard decisions to make.

“For a while, we were selling the pigs to abattoirs around the South West, but then they shut,” he said.

“We got into a situation where we had to take our pigs to Linley Valley. Over a period of about nine months, we lost a considerable amount of money, mainly through transport costs. We were carting our own stock; we didn’t have the numbers.”

Inputs were rising but pork prices weren’t following suit. Smaller pig producers were being squeezed out of the market.

Something had to give, and Peter and Cathy were faced with the decision of either getting out of pigs or making their own way.

The couple’s agronomist, strangely enough, helped them to decide which path to take. He remarked to the Bradfords that they had a unique product that might have traction with quality-conscious consumers.

“He suggested a couple of suburbs in Perth,” Peter said. “So we got the online Yellow Pages and it came up with three gourmet butchers around this particular area and I just picked one at random.”

That butcher, Ian Johnson from Melville Heights Meat Supply, was interested and Killara Open Range Pork was born.

The Bradfords only supply five butchers, but it is the exclusivity and quality of the product that ensures the brand’s success.

For some consumers, the idea of buying pork produced in a large-scale, intensive piggery is on the nose.

Peter and Cathy did not initially set out to run their pigs differently but, nevertheless, their open-range pigs are run across a 20-hectare area.

They have shade, wallows, ad-lib food and are as happy as the proverbial pig in mud.

And, according to Peter, it shows in the meat produced.

“An animal under stress doesn’t grow well,” he said.

“We’ve had countless people comment on the moisture that’s in the meat, butchers in particular.

“The more exercise a pig gets, the higher the red blood cell count, which, in turn, is directly responsible for muscle development.

“The higher the red blood cell count, the higher the ability of the meat to retain moisture — and that’s what it’s all about.”

The couple run between 40 and 50 sows and their progeny are sold off as porkers at between 75kg and 85kg live weight.

The operation may be small scale, but remarkably those 40 to 50 sows well and truly pay their own way.

Although they still run about 3000 sheep in a good season, Peter and Cathy said they would have left the industry if it was not for the Killara Open Range Pork brand.

“Pigs make up about 60 per cent of the income and sheep 40 per cent,” Peter said.

“But, when you think about it, you’re taking 60 per cent of the income off 20ha and the remainder from the other 410ha. You wouldn’t even come close to that if those 20ha were a sheep feedlot.

“I can take one pig to Bunbury and make a profit because that is how the price is set, all we’ve done is prune off a few other people in the line and we’ve changed the way the system works in the middle.”

It’s a system that has worked for the Bradfords, but Peter said there were a few keys to success.

“Quality is an absolute and the other one is continuity of supply,” he said. “Butchers like to be able to order pigs every week and get what they want. With quality, every pig that goes out of here is weighed and back fat tested and that’s held us in good stead.”

But while establishing their own brand might have worked for Killara, Peter said it was important to remember that it was not for everyone.

“It’s niche marketing but not every grower can do it,” he said.

“It’s impossible to do with lots of sows and, secondly, the industry needs big, commercial-scale operations. Without them, a set up like ours could not even hope to supply demand for pork.”

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