From family farm to international traders Farmers Guardian reports on how one family business quietly stole a march on its big, corporate rivals.
There can be few families who have taken business control into their own hands to the same degree as the Overends.
They started life as everyday pig farmers in Co Londonderry, sought to bring the management of breeding, technology and health under their own control, and now operate a business whose genetics are in such keen demand they are regular exporters to the biggest and fastest-growing pig producing nations of the world.
Markets which have eluded many of their bigger, corporate competitors are queueing up to improve their stock with genetics from Deerpark Pedigree Pigs and to benefit from the high conception rates which are being achieved around the world with Deerpark boar semen.
This includes, most recently, the UK’s largest ever shipment of frozen boar semen to China (and Ireland’s only ever shipment), which has been achieved with industry support from the British Embassy in Beijing, and is scheduled to be repeated on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, the British Pig Association and Rare Breeds Survival Trust have designated this family’s AI stud as the centre for their pig conservation programmes and they now store semen from rare and minority UK native breeds such as the British Lop, Middle White and Oxford Sandy and Black alongside the commercially important Large White and British Landrace.
Furthermore, the semen freezing process – which has been far more difficult to perfect in pigs than in cattle – is claimed to be among the most advanced in the industry, allowing its top performing customers’ herds to achieve conception rates as high as 100 per cent.
It is no surprise the freezing technology used at the Deerpark stud is a closely guarded secret and the fact only family members have ever been involved in its development accounts, in part, for its competitive edge.
Exclusive family involvement has been the Overends’ trump card in many other respects, including in building continuity and trust across the company’s customer base.
Nigel Overend, who now runs the business in partnership with his brother, Robert, says: “Our customers have seen the succession in the business and that we are in this for the long term.
“They prefer to work with one or two people and build up a relationship. The Chinese in particular like working with family businesses and appreciate seeing the succession of the family line.”
With Robert’s two sons, Andrew and William, each running a pig unit within the business and Nigel’s son, Joshua, still only 14, setting his sights on becoming a vet, the family involvement is on course to continue.
But reaching the point at which the Deerpark Stud is exporting to China and other Asian nations has not come easily, and has involved many years of hard work, tenacity and keen commercial foresight.
The foundations of the business were laid for the family back in the 1950s, when the brothers’ late father – also called Robert – set up the Deerpark herd.
Nigel says: “He started with just breeding pigs but soon found he was selling a lot of bloodlines to AI stations. So, he decided to set up an AI station himself, so he could sell direct to the farmers.”
By the 1980s, the family was widening its search for high health genetics to use in the stud and looked towards Scandinavia.
“I remember travelling to Norway and Finland when I was about 14 – it was the first time I had been on another AI station and the first time I had seen the freezing process,” he says.
“Father thought this was the way to go so he started freezing semen, more or less as a way to preserve our own genetics.”
The family team used a combination of training and trial-and-error to fine-tune the freezing process, eventually taking conception rates for frozen semen to new heights.
“Historically, 40-50 per cent would be considered to be a good conception rate for frozen semen or about 88-90 per cent for fresh,” says Nigel. “For us, it has been very rewarding as some of our customers now achieve conception rates as high as 100 per cent.”
However, he explains not every boar will freeze or thaw perfectly but those which do not can increasingly be identified. And because there is an element of heredity in this trait, the brothers are now able to keep a stud from which all bloodlines freeze well.
Although there are no national records across the pig industry, the firm’s repeat customer base is ample corroboration of the good performance.
Robert says: “The only evidence we have is through feedback from customers and the fact they keep coming back. The past two years have seen our sales of frozen semen increase by 300 per cent.”
He cites the Indian government as one which has recently sent a delegation to the stud as part of an inward mission supported by the British High Commission and placed its first semen order – said to be the first ever successful consignment sent from the UK.
“Nigel went to India and trained the technicians and the conception rates they are now achieving are far beyond anything they have had from any other country before,” says Robert.
“He trains in a lot of countries now, and teaches the handling and insemination processes,” he says. “We have also been approached by numerous countries about how to freeze but we have spent 35 years perfecting the process so that is something we have kept to ourselves.”
Today, the brothers still aspire to open up more markets and are pleased Japan, in particular, has recently signed an export certificate with the UK.
“The Japanese particularly like the Berkshire breed and are also keen on the Middle White – a breed which is rarer than the panda – so this is a market we hope to crack,” says Nigel.
The fact the brothers have already exported genetics to Denmark – considered by many to be the epicentre of pig production – suggests they have not only achieved the proverbial success of sending coals to Newcastle, but they also have every chance of spreading the influence of Deerpark genes wherever they aim to reach.
This month Deepark Pedigree Pigs will ship the UK’s largest ever export of frozen boar semen to China.
The deal, which also involves training Chinese staff in artificial insemination and semen handling, will see further consignments head to China over the months and years ahead.
The most recent Chinese order for 2,000 straws will follow smaller shipments, in a sequence of events which is typical for the company when new customers come on-board.
Nigel Overend says: “This customer started with a small order of 100 straws to test the water. When they were confident they would achieve high conception rates, they moved on to much larger orders.”
Semen from these shipments will be largely destined for Chinese multiplication units which produce high genetic merit breeding stock for commercial herds.
The most recent order to China is the third the brothers will have shipped to the same company and one of many orders which have recently been destined for the Far East. Others include a significant order which left the UK for Thailand last month.