Bedding down pig pens – which used to be a laborious and unpleasant job that took two people a whole day – is now a simple ‘one-man and machine’ operation at Dingley Dell Pork in Suffolk.

Dingley Dell counts many of the country’s top chefs and restaurants among the customers for its 75% Duroc pork, which is prized for its flavour and regularly comes out top in blind tasting sessions. In addition to a healthy domestic market, it is in great demand in export markets.

Mark and Paul Hayward run the business from Ashmoor Hall Farm, Campsea Ashe, Suffolk, with many of the pigs being housed on neighbouring farms.

They market their produce as “Superbly flavoured, welfare friendly, Suffolk pork”, so the fact that mechanical straw spreading produces a better quality bed and improves the pig’s environment is also valuable. 

They have 720 breeding sows and 6,000 progeny which are reared to 75kgs deadweight. On their own 400 acre farm they grow wheat, barley, oilseeds and oats, with some of the produce going into their pigs’ rations.

Progeny are land rented from several neighbouring farmers, the pigs offering a useful break to their potatoes and vegetable rotations, and leaving behind a plentiful supply of muck.

That spread of production sites places some strain on logistics, so in addition to the Spread-a-Bale they now use to distribute bedding straw, they have adapted a trailer to move all the straw to the pens, which helps the operator achieve optimum output.

Progeny are housed in groups of 85 in pens made from plastic hurdles with a large tented area at one end. The pens can be extended by adding extra hurdles to each side as the animals grow.

They switched from manual to mechanical spreading a few years ago when they bought their first Spread-a-Bale, and replaced it with one of the new galvanised models last autumn.

The Spread-a-Bale is a hydraulically driven machine that teases entire straw out of the bale and throws it the full length of the pens. It produces a much more even bed than competitor machines and  - unlike those that chop or shred the straw – produces very little dust.

Bedding down by hand was laborious, says Paul: “Ours is a very simple system, but it was labour intensive. It took two people with loaders all day to bed down. They would use a loader to put one or two bales in each pen, then get out and unroll the bales by hand.

“The first bale isn’t hard work, and neither is the 10th. But by the time you are on the 50th bale of the day you can feel it. It was very tiring work, and we felt we might not be using the straw as efficiently as we could.

“They would have to do that twice a week, and maybe three times if the weather was bad. It was a hard, sweaty job. Now the only physical part left is cutting the twine on the bale. For everything else he sits in the loader cab and flicks switches.

“We feel it makes a better bed which provides a much healthier environment for the pigs. We also use it to bed down the dry pig arcs, which was probably the least popular job on the farm, so it helps with the staff’s morale and environment too!”, says Paul.

While he says the last two years have been far from typical, he suspects straw savings of about 20% are being achieved thanks to the evenness of spread and the flexibility of the system:

“When we distributed manually we could only use entire bales, no matter whether we needed that much straw or not. Now we can put in one and a half bales if needed, or just half a bale if we think we just need to top up the bed”.