Pig farmer: no deal Brexit case study

Georgina has a 500 sow indoor farrow-to-finish operation in Norfolk. She is an independent producer, selling the finished pigs through a marketing group. Georgina has three full-time members of staff, alongside herself.

What will happen to Georgina’s business on Day 1 of a “no deal” Brexit?

It is unlikely that there will be an immediate and drastic change for Georgina’s business, however, significant change will be afoot for the industry as a whole. The UK will be considered as a third country by the EU and so will be subject to the EU’s common external tariff.

Pig meat exports to the EU would be disrupted under a “no-deal” scenario. Currently, around 20% of UK pig meat production is exported to the EU. Export tariffs would lower the competitiveness of these exports, which could have a dampening effect on prices as trade can play a role in maximising value across the carcase. This effect could be somewhat mitigated by a devaluation of the pound. Cull sow prices in particular would be expected to decline, as these carcases are typically exported to Europe at present.

The UK also needs to secure Export Health Certificates to export products of animal origin to the EU, a process that is currently ongoing. If the UK is unable to export pork to Europe, there may be no market for cull sows over this period, meaning Georgina would have to delay culling unproductive animals or consider on-farm disposal. An inability to export also risks some processors reducing their weekly kill rate until alternative outlets are sorted, which could mean pigs are held up on farm.

The implications for Georgina’s business depend greatly on whether or not the UK government decides to impose tariffs on pork imports (and the level of these tariffs). High tariffs would quickly lead to a shortage of pork in the UK, which currently imports 60% of its pig meat consumption from the EU, driving up finished pig prices. Any devaluation of the pound would also make imports more expensive.

Could there be issues for Georgina in the next 6 months or so?

High tariffs on pork imports are likely to continue to support income levels, as production would not be able to expand to meet demand over this timeframe.

On the other hand, reduced or no tariffs could become an increasing risk to farm incomes. A universal lowering of tariffs would expose British pork to competition from the US and Brazil, where pork is more cheaply produced. While buyers are unlikely to switch overnight, this product could increasingly undermine British production and put downward pressure on pig prices. This could be particularly apparent if the UK is struggling to maintain value in all parts of the carcase due to a lack of competitiveness on the EU market.

Georgina will also be influenced by tariffs on UK grain imports. If there are low tariffs on imports of these products, and poor competitiveness on the European market, this could start to lower feed costs and support her margins.

Looking further ahead

Although the UK will be free to negotiate trade deals with other countries once it has left the EU (and the customs union) – this will take time (for example the EU-Canada CETA trade agreement took seven years to complete). While new trade deals could offer export opportunities, a deal with the US, for example, risks increasing exposure to low-priced pig meat that could further undermine British producers.

Georgina’s staff are also primarily from Eastern Europe. Her current staff will need to apply to the EU Settlement scheme to remain in the UK after 30 June 2021. In the future, or if her staff choose to leave the UK, she might find recruitment more difficult. This could lead to staff shortages or increased labour costs.

What help is available?

Due to the range of possible outcomes, it is important that Georgina gets appropriate advice and support from her bank manager, marketing group and feed merchant. She also needs to make sure she has the appropriate contingency plans in place in case pigs back up on her farm. Speaking to her vet would also be sensible, in case of concerns surrounding continuity of veterinary supplies post-Brexit.

Aside from this, Georgina can focus on her business performance. Brexit could lead to a situation where there is increased demand for British pig meat, in which case there is the potential for expansion. Alternatively, there is the risk of competition from lower cost producers. However, both these scenarios require a focus on maximising productivity – two important factors are pigs weaned per sow per year and feed conversion rations.

Average performance statistics can be found on the AHDB pork site, along with cost of production calculators. The Horizon report, “Preparing for change: The characteristics of top performing farms” can also show where small changes on farm can add up to a big business improvement.