'Swine fever is every pig farmer's biggest fear and there's a high risk it is coming this way'
My Week: Siobhán English talks to Jonathan Marry
African Swine Fever (ASF) is every pig farmer's worst nightmare and Co Meath-based Jonathan Marry can only hope that it does not make its way here anytime soon.
Having decimated almost two million pigs already in China - which has the biggest population of pigs in the world - the highly-contagious virus has now reached Europe and in July alone there were 300 cases reported in Romania.
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As a result of the high mortality rate in China, prices here have never been better, but the threat of the virus hitting Europe has never been more real. "It is every farmer's biggest fear as there is no way of stopping it," says Jonathan. "There's a high risk that it will keep coming this way."
There is no vaccination, or cure, and has a high mortality rate in domestic pigs. In some cases they may die suddenly, but death usually occurs within 10 days.
Now, more than ever, biosecurity on every pig farm in Ireland - there are 270 pig farmers here - must be maintained at the highest level, and Jonathan for one is always trying to make improvements to his 540-sow unit.
"Every unit has their own issues but we are inspected regularly by Bord Bia and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)," he says.
In the past few months he completed a full refurbishment on the farm. It took just over 10 years, but included the overhaul of the initial unit set up by his late father Jack Marry over 30 years ago.
"My father was very well known and at one stage had up to 2,500 breeding sows."
Jonathan says that pig farmers do not receive grants or subsidies from the Government, but he did receive a small grant for the rebuild.
It is no surprise that the 31-year-old, who in 2015 became the first pig farmer to win Macra's na Feirme's FBD Young Farmer of the Year competition, is not the only member of the family to carry on the tradition.
His brothers Colin and Gareth also operate as successful pig farmers in the area. Jonathan's unit is close to Collon, Co Meath, where he also has 70 acres of grassland leased out for silage.
"My brothers and I worked together up to 2015 and have since gone our separate ways, but with regards to selling we still sell as a group."
As part of the refurbishment Jonathan invested in a digital feeding system whereby pigs can now be fed specific diets according to age.
"We have about 25 farrowing a week and these are weaned at about four weeks, which is about 300 a week. There are three stages and various diets over that time."
Stage two is from around five to six weeks and stage three, for slaughter , is from 23 weeks, which means the entire process is completed on the same site.
"My brothers and I then sell as a group every Friday which continues to work for us," he said.
Some years ago Jonathan decided to diversify in order to generate more income and set up the catering business, Pigspit.ie.
"We wanted to add value to the product we were producing and to get to the end consumer."
"I bought my first unit in 2012 and now we are catering for up to 180 events a year."
With this work comes added pressures, but Jonathan says it is a business that is thriving.
"I have three full-time staff on the farm and can have anything up to 30 staff working over a weekend at parties etc."
The busy season runs from April to October and they cater for a lot of weddings and corporate events, but also facilitate clients over the winter months.
Pigs for the spit are slaughtered at 75kg and can feed up to 120 guests, and the package includes a full barbecue for the day.
Jonathan says that the outlook for pig farming is good.
"Sadly the numbers of pig farmers in Ireland is dropping all the time. Prices in the past 18 months have been poor but due to the outbreak in China they are steady at the moment and the outlook is positive."
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