DENMARK - A first-of-its-kind research trial looking at pigs raised without any antibiotics whatsoever gives farmers some grounds for concern over the labour involved.
The number of pigs arriving at the slaughterhouse without having been treated with antibiotics is growing all the time, yet this achievement has by no means been painless for the producers.
Karsten Westh produces about 22,000 slaughter pigs a year on his farm in Østermarie on Bornholm.
Every week, a certain number of pigs in his herd of 22,000 are put to one side to play a very specific role in his production. They are all marked with a green earmark to signal that the animals have been selected for being antibiotic-free from birth to slaughter.
Karsten Westh is one of two weaner producers and five slaughter pig producers who are rearing pigs without the use of antibiotics. However, while he thinks there is a lot of interesting potential in this, it is presenting challenges on several fronts.
"There have been some incredibly exciting challenges during the process, and there have been lots of ups and downs which have seen us having to remove the earmarks because the pigs needed treating, but we certainly haven’t had any regrets about participating.
"As a pig producer, we must confront the issue of antibiotics, and try to find out what we should do," said Mr Westh.
The pigs with the green earmarks are placed in separate pens, the aim being that they should make it to the slaughterhouse with the green earmark intact.
However, it’s not always a straight path for them through the housing unit. To avoid the antibiotics, a number of vaccines are used in the herd, and this can also cause problems.
The employees on Mr Westh’s farm have to continually check the pigs to make sure everything is all right, and he therefore makes a point of praising his team for their committed efforts.
It takes more time and flexibility, and there has to be a strong and constant focus on hygiene in the herd. Tools have to be washed more thoroughly, boots changed more often, and there is generally more washing and drying than ever before.
"It’s an illusion to think that it doesn’t cost extra to produce pigs like this. We have to spend many more hours in the housing units, which obviously costs money.
"One thing we have noticed is that there is a much bigger difference in growth rates among the pigs in a single litter. This means that production is far less regular, which suggests there will be a lower through-put," said Mr Westh.
An instructive process
Right now, approximately 20 per cent of the full production makes it to the slaughterhouse without being treated with antibiotics.
The weaners are particularly prone to disease in the climate pens, and the decision to use antibiotics is always a difficult one for Mr Westh. However, his responsibility for the health of his pigs inevitably comes first, and diseases must be treated, but despite everything he is confident.
"We have a long way to go yet, but it is all part of the process. We don’t have a manual with all the answers – we’re writing it as we go along, and it’s hard to predict how it will work out. However, we don’t see problems, we see challenges, and that is why it’s also an interesting process," said Mr Westh.
One focal point of the project is exactly how costly it is going to be. The challenge is often that any measures which might benefit the antibiotics-free pigs must be introduced in the whole herd, and therefore costs are actually extremely high.
However, we hope that the experience being gained will mean that more pigs will make it through production without antibiotics, resulting in falling costs.
Danish Crown’s export department is keeping a close eye on Mr Westh and the other pig producers on Bornholm. So far, the greatest challenge has been to ensure a constant and sufficient supply of pigs to the slaughterhouse, but customers are definitely interested.
The export department has already received positive feedback from the market.
"We have sent some sample deliveries to the most interested customers, and we are clearly seeing the keenest interest from the United States," said Søren Tinggaard, Associate Vice President, Exports, Danish Crown.
"Levels of antibiotics use are generally so high in the USA that this product really stands out, unlike the situation in Denmark where the use of antibiotics in production is already very low.
"All pigs slaughtered in Denmark are free from antibiotics, and the market for this type of meat is therefore expected to be found mainly outside Denmark."
On Bornholm, Mr Westh continues his struggle to dispatch as many pigs as possible with their green earmarks intact. Despite all the problems, and despite the fact that he has had to feel his way forward a lot of the time, he is pleased that he was allowed to be part of the trial.
"At no point have I regretted my decision. My employees have been very supportive, and we have gained a lot of valuable experience along the way.
"We are able to measure our performance on a number of new parameters, and this is something which we can definitely build on," he said.
ThePigSite News Desk
Top image via Shutterstock