Oak Valley Estate was founded in 1898 by Sir Antonie Viljoen, a medical doctor who graduated from Edinburgh University in Scotland. He was a farmer extraordinaire, and amongst his many farming achievements were the establishment of the first commercial deciduous fruit orchards in the Elgin valley. These orchards were the precursor to the development of the apple industry in Elgin, which remains the economic backbone of the valley to this day. Up until that time the Elgin valley was regarded as a low potential agricultural area, but Sir Antonie’s vision was to change this perception forever.
His love of trees led him to establish large forests of English oaks, and his will specifies that no future inheritor of the property be allowed to cut down any of these trees. Today there are over 4000 oak trees covering 30 hectares of the farm and the estate measures 1786 hectares in extent.
Returning to Historical Roots
For Oak Valley Estate, the piggery project symbolizes a return to their historic roots as the founder, Sir Antonie Viljoen, farmed in the 1900’s with pigs which were raised on the acorns from the oak forest on the farm.
The Oak Valley piggery unit was built in 2008/2009 using specialised Spanish equipment. It started with 17 sows on an experimental basis using different breeds to find out which performed best under their conditions –be it weather related, the quality of the natural grazing and ready access to alternative feedstock, in this case acorns, amongst others. The best suited proved to be Landrace, Large White sows and using Duroc boars to give the benefits of hybrid vigour. The Duroc breed is also known for improved marbling of the pork, whilst the other two breeds produce more offspring. The combined effect in the breeding programme gives a better result due to the hybrid vigour factor caused by mixing the breeds. Their goal and continued focus is in obtaining the best genetics for their own free range conditions. This is important in livestock farming as the better suited an animal is to the environment, the less stress it experiences and is less prone to disease. Animals kept in a feedlot or those, which are factory farmed, are routinely given antibiotics to manage the stress-induced illnesses due to the unnatural conditions they are kept in. Since they live in very close proximity to each other – if one animal develops a virus it can pass rapidly to the others and therefore this risk is reduced if the animals are on a permanent antibiotic regime. This regime is also beneficial for weight gain and weight gain equals money. Growth hormones are used in tandem with antibiotics in most cases. At the Oak Valley piggery, antibiotics are used only as a necessity for a short time period and only if they fall ill – the same as would apply to you and I. Several studies show that the restricted use of antibiotics in agriculture reduces the global problem of antibiotic resistance (Brandt et al., 2006) . Studies have also detected changes of microbial community structure upon addition of antibiotics from livestock farming in soil and water environment (Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, July 2010, Volume 87, Issue 3, pp 925-941 Chang Ding, Jianzhong). Human health and quality of life has also been shown to be compromised by large-scale pig farms.
One of the major unseen costs were the paddocks themselves. A series of 1 hectare fenced paddocks were built to allow the pigs to roam freely. The fences have to be anchored with concrete into the ground as a pig can easily lift any fence line due to the enormous strength of the neck muscles. Intelligence coupled with strength, is not easy to contain. They are obviously allowed to forage freely in the open paddocks but sunburn is a major problem with pigs, especially white pigs. It is for this reason that the paddocks have large trees growing in them, whilst 100 cork oaks, as one would find in the oak forests in Spain, called the Dehesa, have been planted to give additional protection for the future.
The Sows & Piglets
The sows are kept in farrowing pens for a maximum of 5 weeks. This has been proven to be necessary for Oak Valley Piggery as the mothers tend to lie on their young and the mortalities are both unacceptable and uneconomic. The farrowing pens are very modern with an excellent computerised heating system for the piglets, which is critical in the cold and wet Elgin winters. The sows are placed back into the paddocks after the 5-week confinement period is concluded which represents Oak Valley Piggery with a very acceptable compromise. When the piglets are weaned from their mothers they are fed on a special cereal diet, with the acorns only coming into play at a later stage. They have a plan to try to source GM free cereal feed but at present the product is hard to procure. They have asked their feed suppliers to work on this for the future as most livestock farmers, including chicken farmers feed their animals GM cereal and grains. South Africa has been growing GMOs since 1997 and now most of the grain and cereal is genetically modified. They slaughter when the pigs give a carcass weight of 50kg (approximately 150 days) for pork production and 90kg for charcuterie where more fat is required.
Antonie Viljoen planted over 4000 oak trees on the property at the turn of the last century and hence the name Oak Valley. During his time at Edinburgh University, where he studied medicine, he travelled across Europe and was intrigued with the system by which Iberico pigs were farmed in Spain. The pigs farmed by him on Oak Valley were free range Yorkshires, but also Berkshires, Tamworth, Long Black and Colbrook, in the oak forests. In addition special concrete reservoirs were constructed for storing the harvested acorns, these were filled with water so that beetles and other pests did not invade the acorns. One of these reservoirs still remains and is located on the edge of the oak forest. Now there is a preference for storage systems under roof, which allows for a good air movement. “There is an element of tradition in our business model as we are following in the footsteps of the founder of Oak Valley. As far as ethical farming is concerned, this is high on our agenda across everything that we produce”, says Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen. Oak Valley was also the first farm in South Africa to be audited under the internationally recognised Sedex Ethical Trade Audit, which aims to help improve the effectiveness of buying companies’ ethical trade strategies by offering a facility for supplier companies to share their audits with multiple customers. Audits are to assess how labor, health and safety, environmental and business ethics standards are being met. (See more at: http://www.sedexglobal.com/#sthash.JMrIFiN9.dpuf)
“The free range piggery is very much a pilot operation which we will be able to expand should the market respond well to the product and should the returns justify the investment,” says Anthony. The facility has been designed with expansion in mind. A new sow unit, again using Spanish equipment, has just been completed. The unit will come into production during the course of 2014 and will be producing an estimated 850 pigs a year. Anthony maintains that increased density is not a problem and if it were to become one, “we could simply extend the number of paddocks”. Once weaned the piglets have access on demand to an indoor shed with water nipples and feeding trays, whilst at the same time being allowed to forage outside.
Anthony says, “free range pig farming is extremely difficult to manage and the costs are roughly double that of factory farming. However, we believe that the modern consumer has a need to know where the food on the table is coming from, and above all that it is farmed in a manner that is safe and is not grown out using artificial growth hormones or antibiotics. We believe that there are consumers who will pay the higher price for their pork if it comes with these assurances. Incidentally we also farm our grass fed beef according to the same principles.”
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