A lifetime's passion
Steve Loveless mixes a genuine and deep-seated enthusiasm for pedigree pigs, with a successful business supplying pork to commercial buyers all over the UK.
Pig breeders with staying power are always worth celebrating, as are those who fight to operate successful businesses centred on our engendered, native breeds. Steve Loveless is just such a character. He took over the management of the family herds of British Landrace and Large White pigs nearly 40 years ago. Since then, he has developed, refined, and moulded them into a commercial pig-producing operation that's given him a career and supported his family.
But Steve's story doesn't begin in the early 1980s, because he got involved with his father's pigs just as soon as he was physically able. As a willing helper in the early mornings, after school and at weekends, much of Steve's childhood was spent happily involved with the pigs. That's obviously when the seeds of his interest were sewn, and it didn't take long for them to germinate into a full-blown passion for pigs.
"My father started with Large Whites in 1959 (the Portbredy herd) and then, in 1962, added some Landrace to create the Sunrise Princess herd. His pigs from both breeds started appearing in the pedigree herd book from those dates, and have been included in every one of the 60 or so years since," Steve explained. "To begin with, the pigs were kept more out of interest than anything else and, in fact, he started with a few British Saddlebacks in the very early days. The farm also had cattle and sheep, and they were where the income came from.
"I think it was natural that I'd become interested in the livestock, and I remember pigs being my main focus right from the start. My mother used to say that pigs were an incurable disease and that, once you've had some, you could never get them out of your system. Well, that's certainly proved to be the case with me!"
However, despite his early involvement with pigs, when Steve finished school, he went out to learn a trade. "I trained as a bricklayer simply because there wasn't enough income from the farm to support me as well, so that was important. Nevertheless, my passion for the pigs didn't diminish, and I continued helping dad with the stock before and after work.
"I took on full responsibility for the herds in 1984, when I was 24 years old, and there were about 20 sows. But, in those days, I had to continue with bricklaying as well, so did the pigs before I went in the mornings, then saw to them again when I got home in the afternoon. I carried on doing both jobs for about 20 years until I'd built up the herds sufficiently that they would provide me with enough income to support my family."
Vital shop window
The show scene has also been a big part of Steve's life, right from his childhood. "I've been going to shows with the pigs since I was a boy," he told me, "so it was natural to continue with that once I took over the herd. In fact, having a presence at those events became a more and more important shop window for the quality of the pigs I was producing. My father and I used to do a good number of the local, one-day shows together but, once I was older, I began attending the larger, more commercial events, like the Smithfield Show, which was a five-day event.
"We entered both carcasses and live pigs, and, of course, the standard of competition was much higher than it had been at the local shows. So, I was delighted when one of my Landrace cross carcasses won first prize at Smithfield, being up against 30 or so of the main producers of the time. To win was a real achievement. It happened on only the second or third time that I'd been there, so it was a major achievement for me.
"The early successes like that one, and the many that have come since – both with carcasses and live pigs – have been instrumental in building both my reputation and, as a consequence, the business. All of my commercial customers have found me as a result of my show exploits or by word-of-mouth recommendation. I always sell all my show pigs – the live ones never come back into the herd. I do sell a few pedigree pigs to enthusiast owners, as well, but not very many.
"There just isn't sufficient interest in my breeds in the domestic scene anymore to make things viable in that market. I reckon I could count on one hand the number of keepers who are breeding properly with the Large White and Landrace, which is a real shame because they are such fantastic pigs."
However, one of Steve's major achievements – and something that he should remain extremely proud of – relates to the conservation work he's done. He's single-handedly been responsible for saving several rare bloodlines from extinction, for which he should be congratulated. "As soon as I became responsible for the herds, I became much more interested in the plight of pedigree bloodlines. I worked hard to source and buy examples of those lines in most need of help, and now have 19 Large White female and nine boar lines (the most of any keeper in the country).
"I also manage 10 Landrace sow lines and, for four of those, I'm the only one left with them in the UK. Altogether I've managed to track down, buy and save five Landrace sow bloodlines – Aina, Anne, Asella, Cynthia and Dora. Among the rarest boar lines, I have Dromus, Rally and Royal Eros, which have now been accepted by Deerpark AI Centre in Ireland, which is great news."
Steve's determination to work with – and earn a living from – the British Landrace and Large White breeds makes him something of a rarity. He's a commercial breeder operating a closed herd to the strictest and most exacting standards, and selling the majority of the pigs he produces to commercial operators. But, at the same time, he's a passionate enthusiast for his two native breeds and has worked harder than most to help ensure their continued survival. However, after chatting with him, it's clear he has concerns about the future, both for his herd and pedigree pigs more generally.
"My herds currently consists of 70 sows, of which about 50 are Large White, and 20 are Landrace. Nevertheless, I have my concerns about the long-term survival of these two breeds, and am pretty sure that many of the lines I keep will die out when I stop. As things stand, I don't know of anyone who is prepared to take them on, so it'll be a very sad day when I finally give up, and the lorry comes in to take them all away.
"To be honest, I'm not sure that there's the money or the inclination out there among keepers to continue the work I've been doing – certainly not among breeders and keepers at the enthusiast end of the scale. It's workable for me because I'm running the herd on strict, commercial lines. But trying to do the same as an enthusiast, selling weaners to other back-garden keepers, simply wouldn't work. There just isn't the necessary demand for these two breeds nowadays.
"My other concern is that we're losing so many of the most experienced breeders, and with them, of course, goes their knowledge. The days of the big breeders who employed their own stockmen are long gone. What's more, I don't think their expertise is being replaced by a new generation of serious breeders, and that's where the problem lies for breeds like mine.
"So many being attracted to small-scale pig keeping nowadays are only attracted to the pretty, coloured pigs – those that will look nice in the paddock. The trouble is that, from a commercial point of view, the market is much more limited for those breeds. Neither abattoirs nor butchers like the dark-haired types; the former will charge more/pay less too because there's more work involved, while the latter says that customers are put off buying joints if they can see any dark hair left on them."
Business as usual
For the time being, though, Steve continues, and remains as passionate as ever about what he's doing. However, for health reasons, he hasn't been so active on the show scene for the past few years, and has limited himself to fatstock events. Now though, with his batteries fully recharged, he's hoping to start getting out and about to some of the big events, once they're up and running again.
"I've enjoyed a good deal of show success over the years, so am looking forward to getting back to that, he said. "Some of the wins I'm most proud of include doing the double at the Great Yorkshire Show (winning the Interbreed and Pig of the Year) in 2006, then Pig of the Year in 2007, Supreme at Yorkshire in 2008 and then judging that competition in 2009. I've also won the top Interbreed prize at the Royal Show and the same at the Royal Cornwall and the Bath & West a number of times."
But the bread and butter of Steve's business remains the sale of pigs to commercial operators. "I remember a wonderful, old-school breeder, Sandy Micklejohn, saying to me once: "Always breed for today's trade," and that advice has stuck in my mind ever since. It emphasised the importance of breeding stock that buyers will always want to buy, and I've taken great care to do that ever since. As a result, even when the trade takes a bit of a downturn, my pigs will still sell. They might not fetch as much as usual, but a decent sale is always better than no sale at all!"
"One thing that has changed for me in more recent times, is that I've got much more into the production of cross-breeds," Steve added. "Back in the day, I'd never have dreamt of doing such a thing; everything had to be totally pure. Now though, my attitude has softened, perhaps as I'm getting older. I've experimented with various crosses and had some excellent results, which have proved very popular with buyers.
"I put the Large White on the Landrace to produce an F1 gilt for my trade customers and also use Duroc on Landrace to supply extra-hardy gilts for those operating with outdoor pig units. The degree of 'hybrid vigour' that results from these crosses introduces a noticeable improvement in growth rates compared to the pure-bred equivalents. The savings that result from slaughter weight being reached appreciably quicker, are very worthwhile when calculated on a commercial scale."
But the fundamentals of Steve's approach to breeding remain unchanged, regardless of the pig types being paired. "The key is to remain efficient, and always to be uncompromising when selecting breeding stock. A sow that produces two or three piglets fewer than she should has no place in my breeding programme; it's as simple as that. Growth rates must never be allowed to slip, either, because the pigs have to be out of the door on time to maintain profit levels.
"When pigs are providing your main income, it really puts these aspects into sharp focus. While the typical, small-scale keeper simply won't be concerned about piglet numbers or growth rates because their process isn't costed, to me, these factors are vital."
"Nowadays, when selecting breeding stock, I think a lot of people fixate on factors like the straightness and spacing of the teats. For me, I regard the most important requirement in a breeding pig to be good legs. This is closely followed by the need for an excellent growth rate and, after that, good confirmation. These factors are what determine whether or not a pig will be able to perform to its full potential over the required timespan."
When asked about the relative performance of his two chosen breeds, Steve had the following to say. "The Landrace is the 'milkier' of the two, and the litter sizes from the sows are bigger, too. On average, I'll get an extra two or three piglets in every Landrace litter, compared to the 10 I routinely get from a Large White sow. Despite all that, though, my favourite of the two remains the Large White. Obviously, I'm very attached to the Landrace, especially given that it was the breed my father got started properly with, some 62 years ago. But I prefer the look of the Large White, with its pricked ears, and the slightly meatier carcass it produces."
As our chat drew to a close, Steve happened to mention that, while speaking to the Deerpark AI Centre recently, he'd had some encouraging news about the breed. "Apparently, demand for Large White semen has increased noticeably recently, which I'm very pleased about.
"Hopefully, this is a sign that more people are starting the appreciate the desirable, commercial qualities of this productive breed, and it bodes well for the future. "To be perfectly honest, I don't know any pure breed that's better than the Large White in terms of growth rate and carcass quality."
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Steve's work and achievements over the years deserve high praise. The relentless effort and dedication he's put into his two breeds, and the vital work he's done behind the scenes to save and then conserve the rarest of Landrace and Large White bloodlines, should be recognised by all.
Steve is a member of a sadly dwindling group of pig breeders, who consistently do things by the book and set the quality and integrity of their stock above all else. Corners aren't cut, his herd management skills are finely honed, and his breeding expertise leaves nothing to chance. Steve Loveless, we applaud you!