Suffolk-based Dingley Dell pork brand was founded out of frustration with the industry’s lack of control and customer loyalty. Clemmie Gleeson meets the company’s Mark Hayward.
Brothers Mark and Paul Hayward have grown their family outdoor pig unit, Dingley Dell, from 100 sows into an international pork brand with nearly 1,000 sows.
Along the way, they have moved from supplying supermarkets with commercial pigs to developing their own breed, cultivating relationships with top chefs and restaurants and developing their Dingley Dell brand. This is all while committing to environmental improvement on the farm near Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Mark joined their late father Tony in the family business 28 years ago with Paul arriving a year later. At that time the business consisted of a 162-hectare (400-acre) arable unit and an indoor herd of 200 sows based at the family’s farm in Campsea Ash, Suffolk.
Initially Paul took the lead with the arable unit while Mark took over the pigs. He added an outdoor herd with a further 100 sows, but a few years later a swine dysentery outbreak forced them to destock. When they were able to start again, they decided to keep all sows outside.
Mark says: “I really enjoyed the outdoor pigs. I just preferred keeping them outside. But soon after that the pig industry tanked in the UK. My brother and I were very involved in all the protesting in the late 1990s. There had been such optimism with changes in welfare legislation, but retailers continued to import from banned systems and half our industry went out of business.
“A lot of friends lost their farms during that time and we realised we needed to change where we were and the way we went about it. We knew we needed our own brand.”
This saw the beginning of the Dingley Dell brand which was initially launched in local supermarkets. Mark, who chose the name for his original outdoor herd, says: “It was inspired by a rather rude rhyme an old college friend used to say.”
By now, he and Paul were both focusing on the pig business and they spent a lot of time visiting local branches of Co-operative supermarkets doing cooking demonstrations and talking to customers. Using a third-party processor they soon launched into local Tesco and Asda branches, but at the same time were beginning to develop sales through a catering butcher. This proved to be pivotal for the Dingley Dell business as they started selling their products into many hotels and restaurants across East Anglia.
Mark says: “Over a few years we drifted away from supermarkets and started working with more caterers across the UK until we became food service-orientated.
"Then one day I had this eureka moment while out walking the farm when I realised we were food producers not pig producers.”
This prompted a shift in focus towards taste. They started getting more involved with their breeding company JSR and in particular its food scientist Caroline Mitchell. Mark says: “She taught us a lot about intra-muscular fat [IMF], or marbling, and how it influenced taste.”
The Haywards started purchasing Red Duroc boars from JSR and ran taste tests on those and some Iberican pigs imported from Spain.
Mark says: “They identified through technology imported from America the animals with the best IMF in their nucleus herd. When we wanted to push it further, they suggested we needed to set up our own breeding company to do so. This meant we were able to put even more emphasis on marbling than other more commercial traits.”
It led them to produce their ideal Dingley Dell pig based on Duroc and Landrace genetics. The Duroc brings consistent quality and IMF while the Landrace improves litter sizes, explains Mark. With the support of a sophisticated software system to monitor the programme and prevent inbreeding, pure Durocs are bred with Landrace to produce the F1 females, which are then put back to a Duroc boar to produce a 75 per cent Duroc pig for Dingley Dell Pork.
Mark says: “We have watched what has happened with the beef industry where IMF is widely recognised and rewarded. If you can produce pork with a higher level of marbling, people will pay for it. We are probably more likely to achieve that higher price in food service or in Asian countries.”
The Haywards welcome 350-500 visitors to the farm every year. Most are chefs or distributors and Mark also travels extensively to meet with potential distributors across the globe. Although these have been stalled in 2020 due to coronavirus, the events at home and abroad have paid off, as they now supply 19 different countries.
This growth has often been driven by existing relationships with high profile chefs, who go to work in top hotels or restaurants around the world, taking with them their preferred suppliers. Working with a few different processing partners over the years, the Haywards now have a successful relationship with Direct Meats in Essex, which has helped establish the export business.
The farm itself has grown too. Mark and Paul still have the 162ha (400-acre) arable unit, but the pigs are on a further 61ha (150 acres) of rented, lighter land nearer the coast. The sandy soils on the coastal site are better for pig production. Paul’s role is operational on the pig business and he designs any new equipment.
As well as a wide range of pork cuts, the brothers went into a partnership with Direct Meats to launch a charcuterie factory in Essex last year. Mark says: “We wanted to add value to what we were doing. We have a fantastic chef running the project and designing the products. We have named them after ancient gods connected with agriculture.”
Sows farrow in individual paddocks with fenders attached to the ark. The decision to nose ring sows is important for environmental reasons, says Mark. About 30 per cent of sows lose their rings and we are not allowed to replace them. It does not stop them rooting altogether, but does minimise it. If we allow pigs to trash the ground, it does not help wildlife, so it is a compromise.”
Typical litters are about 11 piglets with offspring staying with their mother for five weeks. They are then weaned into tents with hurdled pens in batches of 100, later moving into batches of 80 as they grow. The tents are moved onto fresh ground every eight weeks.
Ten per cent of piglets produced are pure-bred Duroc. These are kept to 90kg before being scanned to evaluate IMF so a decision can be made on whether to keep them for the breeding programme or not.
Some of the food used is produced specifically for the farm under direction of the farm’s nutritionist and some is an ‘off-the-shelf’ ration.
Mark says: “We are always looking for ways to feed which affect taste. There is anecdotal evidence about feed and taste, but it is difficult to find hard science to back it up.”
Weaners are reared in straw-bedded tents.
A major project on the farm has been its environmental effort. Mark says: “We have always been very keen on conservation and doing what we can for wildlife, but we wanted to come up with a concept for outdoor pigs. It needed to be something we could easily explain to our visitors and for it to be built around the whole farm, particularly the pigs.”
The result was the Million Bee Project launched in 2016, designed by Paul. Mark says: “It is all about creating a better environment for insects and particularly bees, the hero pollinator.”
It aims to provide food sources between June and the end of September, recognising the decline in foraging diversity for bees. The project includes 38ha (94 acres) of nectar-rich plant mixes in blocks around the farm. Species include phacelia, sainfoin, birds-foot trefoil, aslike clover and vetch.
Bee counts in the first year suggested the plots were already supporting about 400,000 bees and the aim is for this number to reach one million. Over summer, instead of being like a desert, the pig paddocks are buzzing with insect life, says Mark. Furthermore, implementing a controlled-traffic area around the perimeter of the pigs has seen ground-nesting bird numbers increase.
Once flowers die away, pig paddocks can be moved onto those areas and the area behind the pigs drilled with the next nectar mix.
He says: “My brother and I are passionate about wildlife and really enjoy doing this project.
“It makes me feel great and it is good for our brand, although we would still be doing it even if it wasn’t.”