December 18, 2012
After looking at the options for their relatively small property at Temora, the Roberts family have turned a barely profitable cropping enterprise into a well-marketed and popular free-range pork and saltbush lamb company. Bundawarrah Pork was established by Stephen and Kim Roberts in 1994, after they had consulted numerous sources on what production type would best suit their limited space. “A livestock officer from the then Department of Agriculture was incredibly helpful and convinced us we could support pork production on the property and it suited our young family pretty well,” Mrs Roberts said. In 1994 free-range pork production was still quite new in Australia so Mrs Roberts said they had to make up a lot of how their production worked as they went along, and though they consulted resources from the UK on how outdoor pig production worked there, she said it didn’t really work in an Australian setting. “In 1995 we had grower pigs, which wasn’t really working well in the climate – they didn’t handle the heat very well and you had to have well-managed land to be able to raise them sustainably,” she said. The saving grace for the Roberts’ production came when Mr Roberts saw a shelter design on The New Inventors television show, and the family became one of the first productions to use ecoshelters in NSW. “The ecoshelters really helped us raise better quality pigs – they weren’t out in the sun anymore so they weren’t stressed by the heat and getting sunstroke,” she said. With the improved carcase quality, the Roberts’ began marketing their product themselves, developing the Bundawarrah branding with the help of Australian Pork Limited. At the moment, they have about 140 sows on the property, which produce about 2800 piglets each year for butchers in the Riverina region, Canberra, Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Southern Highlands, the South Coast and through the Canberra farmers’ markets each weekend. “We wouldn’t want to do this any other way – having this sort of relationship with our customers is great,” Mrs Roberts said. “The beauty of marketing our own product is we can tailor it to the butchers’ needs, depending on what they’re after at any one time. “Usually the industry norm for back fat in pork is between eight and 10 millimetres, but we like to have about 13mm and we’ve found the fat on our pigs has a nice taste. “We recently had a tasting night in Sydney where about 50 chefs were served our pork and one of the things they loved was the fat because it’s something they can do a lot with, as far as flavour goes.” Bundawarrah pigs are a cross between the Large White and American Duroc breeds – the Duroc is a red pig with a smaller carcase but good marbling and other meat qualities, while the Large White gives the pigs a longer body and produces better bacon and also makes the sows better mothers. “We don’t want too big a sow because when they’re outside we can’t have the sow rolling onto her piglets – it’s harder to keep an eye on them,” Mrs Roberts said. “We select our replacement breeders when they’re gilts – or teenagers – and the biggest thing we select for is personality, as well as watching them to see how they lie down to make sure they’re less likely to squash their babies. “We need the sow to play nicely with us because if you’ve got to try to handle a grumpy pig, weighing between 300 and 400 kilograms, it’s not fun.” For similar reasons, the Roberts’ have used artificial insemination (AI) since 2002 because the safety risks for Mrs Roberts – as the head joiner for the production – were just too high when she was having to deal with large boars. “We used to use one boar per 30 sows and these sows would have to be mated three times each, but there were always major issues – the fertility of pigs begins to drop once you hit about 29 degrees Celsius and you can imagine on 40-degree days in summer the pigs aren’t really in the mood, and if they are you might not get the results. “Artificial insemination is fairly easy by comparison – it’s all about timing and knowing your stock.” The females are fed a specialised vegetarian diet, prepared by a nutritionist, in pellet form rather than as a mash because the pellets suit the outdoor production system better. The piglets are transferred to the ecoshelters when they’re roughly 21 days old and weigh about seven kilograms, with no teeth, tail or ear clipping done. The piglets are fed a “creep” diet when in the paddock with their mothers and switch to a weaner feed after spending about two weeks in the ecoshelters.