Pigs with big personalities are lots of fun to work with
Cherie Ackroyd has had a soft spot for pigs since she was a girl, and even though she now runs one of New Zealand's most hi-tech pig farms, she is still very fond of them.
"I like them a lot. They're very intelligent creatures and they all have their different personalities.
"I've got some pets - I do know where they're going to end up inevitably, but while they're here, I can give them a scratch," she said.
Ackroyd, 28, leads an all-woman team at Ben and Julie Voice's Moorpork piggery at Aylesbury, a 700-sow farrow-to-finish operation.
The pigs spend all their lives indoors - and, having worked on outdoor farms in the past, Ackroyd believes this is the best way.
"It is nice to see pigs on the grass, but I think from a health perspective and a handling perspective, and just the general wellbeing of a pig, they're better indoors, to be honest.
"If you see them out there in the winter time, which is what nobody ever shows you, they're belly deep in mud, wallowing around - it's not pretty. Pigs in mud on a hot day are happy, but not if they're living in it."
When she left school, Ackroyd's first job was on a 200-sow outdoor farm producing weaners in Greendale.
Over the next 10 years she worked on another outdoor farm, in Rakaia Gorge, and as a laboratory technician on PIC's boar stud at Te Pirita and later at Canterbury Genetics in Geraldine.
She started work at Moorpork just after the 2010 Greendale earthquake.
"It's probably the tidiest pig farm I've ever seen in my life," she said. "I pulled into the driveway and thought, 'Is this even a pig farm?'. There's nothing lying around, it's very clean, very tidy, and everything is nice and easy."
Entry to the farm is strictly controlled. Very few people are allowed in, for fear that disease may come in with them.
"It's to keep any bugs out, particularly the disease that went round about 10 years ago, PMWS (post-weaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome)," Ackroyd said.
"It normally affects your grower herd, and your pigs just won't gain weight. They just waste away to nothing, and you end up having to euthanise them."
Staff have to shower and put on fresh clothes when they come to work, and they are not allowed to wear jewellery, in case it's carrying bugs. Visitors are turned away if they have been on another pig farm recently, and even the driver of the truck that brings in feed every week has to take special measures.
"He gets changed at the little shed out at the gate. We supply overalls and boots for him to change into."
The truck itself is washed on Fridays and has a two-day stand-down over the weekend. As it comes on to the farm, its wheels are disinfected.
The farm is run on a four-week batching system, so instead of weaning, mating and farrowing every week, as happens on most farms, the cycle is spread over four weeks.
After the piglets are weaned, the sows are moved out of the farrowing room, which is pressure washed and disinfected for the next lot of sows.
The sows that have just moved out are mated five days later and remain in gestation stalls, where they can move about but not turn around, for up to three weeks.
They then spend up to six weeks in pens that hold 20 pigs, where they can move about and socialise.
Three days before they are due to farrow, they go back into farrowing crates, where, as in the gestation stalls, they can't turn around. The main reason is to stop the sows lying on and crushing their piglets.
"The gestation stalls and farrowing crates are big areas of contention, particularly with greenies. They really don't like them - I'm not sure why," Ackroyd said.
"I guess they think a pig should be outside and running around, but in my opinion, I like them."
After weaning, the piglets go from their litters of 11 or 12 into large rooms together with 700 others.
"You open the door, and it's like a big sea of pigs - they'll run around for a bit, and if you wait for a minute or two, you'll see the front ones will gradually come up for a sniff and a look. They're very nosy. I can sit there and watch them for hours."
At 65 days, they are moved from the Aylesbury facility to Moorpork's indoor finishing farm near Oxford. The first ones are slaughtered at 126 days for a 70kg carcass.
When Ackroyd was a teenager, her mother told her that she couldn't leave school unless she found a job. That first position on a pig farm turned out to be the right move. "I enjoy what I do. The day I stop learning is the day I need a new job. I like pigs a lot. I quite often just sit and watch them."