The Sharp End: Down on the pig farm

The gruesome secrets of hog-breeding are revealed to a wide-eyed Dave Waller.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

This finger has been up thousands of pigs' arses. These are the words of my taxi driver, who's proudly showing off his pioneering digit. Turns out he used to work in Salisbury's abattoir, gutting pig carcasses. Now his porcine frame is squeezed into the front seat of a people-carrier, driving me to see the other end of the supply chain.

It's 8am when we arrive at the farm (which will remain nameless, over fears that publicity might attract nutters). I transfer to a Massey Ferguson driven by Duncan, the technical manager. He's a good advertisment for country living, with a sharp sense of humour and a warm grin. But talk about laid back - his overall could catch fire and it wouldn't faze him.

We bounce off on the tractor to feed the sows. There are more than 700 living outside, each with its own area marked by electrified tape, containing a private 'pigloo' and water trough. Feeding involves firing three-inch lumps of corn from a machine we're towing. I watch sows taking a hail of these bullets square in the face. And people will tell you pigs are intelligent.

Our feeding tour takes a plodding two hours, giving Duncan plenty of time to describe the set-up. The farm operates on a continuous three-phase cycle: serving, in which the sows are impregnated; farrow, when they give birth; and weaning, when the piglets are taken away and vaccinated. It's a delicate chain - if one stage hits a snag, the whole thing can go teats up.

The sows work hard. The ones here produced about a thousand piglets this week alone, to be sold under contract to a major supermarket. Each can produce up to 13 piglets in a litter, and two and a half litters a year. The 28 boars, meanwhile, sit around and, as Duncan puts it, 'get fed and have the odd shag'. The Spinal Tap song Sex Farm wedges itself in my head.

We visit the breeding unit. Artificial insemination is handled by Will and Phil - a young double-act that takes its lead from James Herriot, Ant & Dec and Ann Summers. Will describes Phil's approach as rough and ready. 'That's not my style,' Will says, 'I seduce my women.' I suggest playing some Barry White. They tell me they did that last week.

Today's eye-candy is George, a boar who stands on one side of the fence as the sows on heat grunt, squeal and thrash around on the other. Will and Phil serve them, inserting a long catheter to which is attached a chilled pouch of diluted pig semen, ordered in from suppliers. The catheter mimics a boar's penis, which, Duncan tells me, is shaped like a corkscrew. This I already know, having 20 years ago seen one in a disturbing piece of adult cinema. Thankfully, today's exercise doesn't involve nuns.

Aroused, the sow sucks the semen into her vagina. I watch the vessel drain. Duncan says it's far cheaper to do it this way: decent boars cost £2k-£3k each, and they'd need 30 on the farm to serve the sows. Plus, the best stock may struggle to live outdoors. George may look hot, but he's just not father material.

Justin, the farm manager, is sensitive to public perception. He highlights the shelter, regular feeding and plentiful water supply (essential for an animal that can't sweat). 'People may ask how we can kill pigs, but we just breed them and pass them on. As long as the pig goes up that tail-ramp happy, that's job done.'

Duncan feels people are misled about farming in general. 'It's easy to understand complaints about subsidies,' he says, 'if you're watching a guy in a big house get money for not doing anything. But pig farmers work hard and don't get any help.' Their operation wouldn't survive if it weren't part of a larger firm, and he's thankful to work with a chain that looks after its suppliers.

Will and I help Justin load a new delivery of sows onto a trailer. The odd one gets loose and careens, snorting, around the yard. My decision to cower proves wise: Will tells me his beloved beasts can lift half a ton on their nose.

Will actually runs a fledgling car dealership, but jokes that he leaves that to his wife so he can spend more time with the pigs. He had started out driving tractors part-time. It certainly draws people in. Justin loves his job, saying he could never work indoors; Duncan left suburbia at 15 to pursue his dream of being a farmer. He jokes that he's only just found out about Facebook.

I could get into that. But as I watch the new arrivals discover the electric-tape fence, I'd take the office job over the career of a sow. Ask Big George, though; he's probably got no complaints.

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