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A vision of pig production in the UK

by 5m Editor
30 October 2001, at 12:00am

By Dr John Carr, College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University - If European consumers, through their governments, adopt measures to provide wholesome pig meat products from good welfare systems which are well audited, there is a good future for the European pig industry. The UK has a significant advantage in this European industry, as the majority of the foundation stones are already in place and paid for. However, if European consumers are allowed to purchase pig products based on price alone, the cost of the enhanced well being of the pig will reduce the competitiveness of the European family pig farmer to a point of no viable returns, particularly for the next generation of UK pig farmers.

While preparing to write A vision of pig production in the UK, the fragility of crystal ball gazing became apparent, when in February 2001, the nightmare scenario of Foot and Mouth disease broke, and all this in the year following East Anglia’s savaging with Classical Swine Fever. The Foot and Mouth epidemic in the UK is likely to have a long term impact on the country’s export capabilities; already there are threats of five year bans from countries like the United States of America. Much will depend on whether natural wildlife, such as deer, have become infected and how effective we are at finding carrier animals.

Specific sectors of the UK pig industry

Swill producers
Pig farmers utilising food by-products, including uneaten meat products, which are required to be cooked, will be banned. Personally I think this is a mistake as a major advantage of the pig is to convert inedible protein into edible pork. But the events of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, Foot and Mouth Disease and the prospects of another Classical Swine Fever outbreak, through poorly processed meat by-products mean that the UK Government will not risk the livelihood of so many non-agricultural people by allowing its continued use. Instead the inedible protein will have to be disposed of in landfill or by rendering, which may still prove to be a risk in the long term.

One possible cause of the 2000 East Anglian Classical Swine Fever outbreak is through movement of infected meat products from a landfill to pigs by seagulls!

Breeding companies
The UK has been pre-eminent in the world as a source of genetic material for the global pig industry and the majority of the major breeding suppliers originate or have significant bases in the UK. The advent of Classical Swine Fever in 2000 resulted in a temporary loss of sales, which thankfully became localised, although one company was based in the affected area. The impact on customer confidence was more difficult to measure.

The outbreak of Foot and Mouth has shattered customer confidence, and many now consider the UK as one of the most disease-ridden countries in the world, a far cry from the early 80’s when the island nation of ‘high health’ was widely used to sell pig genetics. The Foot and Mouth outbreak has lost oversea markets which will be very difficult to re-establish and in July 2001, with no obvious end in sight, the future of the breeding companies based in the UK is not looking good. However, if the companies relocate their efforts into their global enterprises, they will survive, but the drive from the UK will be lost.

In the short term, there will be a demand from the industry once normal supplies of gilts and boars are restored. However, Post Weaning Wasting Syndrome (PMWS), with an as yet unidentified causal agent, will make farmers more selective over the source of breeding animals. The advent of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome and Swine Influenza in the 1990’s had already prompted discussion into a move away from purchasing gilts at the point of breeding.

New techniques for the use of weaner gilts or old techniques of grandparent stock on farms are being suggested. Unfortunately the average British family farm is too small to contemplate progressive breeding programmes on the farm that will allow them to compete globally.

As the veterinary profession improves its diagnostic abilities, health certification will become more accurate and precise. However, this can result in previously ‘healthy’ pyramids failing with potential disastrous consequences, as befell one of the major breeding companies in 2000 with the discovery of Brachyspira hyodysenteriae (the cause of Swine Dysentery) by laboratory DNA tests though no clinical signs had been revealed.

The general pig farming community
The successful production of pig meat is based primarily on one aspect – making a profit. Pig production is not a hobby but a business with sizable costs, but on average very small profit margins. The major depression in the global pig cycle of 1998- 2000 resulted in massive losses and increased borrowings. In 2001-2003 the price should rise to profitable levels. This has happened in other parts of the world i.e. Australasia, Americas and most of Europe (pre-Foot and Mouth).

However, the price rise started later in the UK and the advent of Foot and Mouth has resulted in a very depressed marginal profit which will be insufficient to significantly reduce the losses previously sustained. The long-term impact will be determined by the timing of the next down part of the global pig cycle, which if it occurs in 2003-2004, could prove ruinous for the UK pig industry.

Feed is » 60% of total costs and recently its cost has reduced significantly; without this saving many pig farmers would have already been made bankrupt considering the low return on meat sales. Pig farmers have very little (if any) control of either feed cost or meat price. However, pig farms must take advantage of the disaster of 1998-2000 and learn how to control their non-feed costs.

Welfare legislation
The adoption of the directive EU 91/630 (enforced by the UK Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994), with the additional UK unilateral clauses banning dry sow stalls and tethers in 1999, has placed an enormous burden on the pig industry. The UK pig industry rose to the challenge and has demonstrated that loose housing of pregnant sows can be successful with minimal loss (if any) in production, but with increased costs.

The advent of a variety of farm audit schemes, e.g. the Malton code, Farm Assured British pigs and Assured British Meat, resulted in massive changes on the farm, enabled most producers to comply with the 1994 legislation. Albeit there was some re-interpretation by Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) over the growing-finishing stocking rate requirements, which I personally do not think will stand up to legal challenge. The UK producer does need to be aware of proposed changes to the European Union directive.

The major additional requirements, of which many were implemented in June 2001, are:
  1. At least 1 /3 of the minimal space requirement shall be solid together with specifications on slat size.
  2. Sows and gilts must not be confined individually from 4 weeks after breeding until 7 days prior to the expected time of farrowing. The shortest side of any pen must not be less than 2.8 m.
  3. Sows should have access to a manipulable material suitable for rooting.
  4. Sows should have access to a high fibre food at other times during the day, outside the one feed time.
  5. Training should be provided for staff and should focus on welfare aspects.
  6. A ban on teeth clipping which is only allowed for teeth grinding.
  7. An alteration in tail docking whereby a maximum of half the tail can be removed.

What are the likely impact of these changes on the UK pig industry?

These proposals will be implemented in all new buildings on 1 st January 2003 and existing buildings by January 2012 and will ban totally-slatted accommodation. The legislation also lays down specifications for slat size, with which most of the UK farms already comply. However, when buildings are changed, for instance from a finishing house into a dry sow house, the added complication of ensuring that the slats are the right size will have to be addressed.

The ban on total slatted buildings will emphasise the need to better understand building ventilation and environmental control. It will become essential that the micro-environment is correct. Draughts, for example, must be eliminated from designated solid sleeping areas.

Currently many buildings (particularly those with production losses and vice problems) fail to provide adequate sleeping accommodation. In the last decade, the move towards large groups in the growing phase has allowed pigs to expressed their natural tendency for organisation of their environment, whereby specific zones are kept for ablutions, play, eating and sleeping.

In traditional farming systems, the pens are too small and all these areas are cramped together. In a totally slatted system, the need for clearly defined zones is not absolutely necessary as defecation and urination can have minimal impact on the sleeping/lying area.

However, once solid areas are used in the expectation that pigs will sleep on this solid area, it is essential that these sleeping areas are positioned in parts of the pen where draughts are not experienced. Unfortunately the industry does not know how to adequately ventilate pig houses. When most buildings are built, the building engineers rarely check that they actually work.

The adoption of a loose housing system for dry sows will help to ‘level the playing field’ but the advantages in reproductive stockmanship being allowed to other European competitors will allow them to capitalise on reproductive technology, particularly though the use of artificial insemination. However, increasing the length of the shortest side in dry sow accommodation to 2.8 m could force many farmers out of business. The modifications in 1999 may have satisfied the rules at 2.4 m, but adding an additional 0.4 m could mean that the dry sow accommodation is now unsuitable.

The majority of loose-housed systems in the UK already provide sows with high fibre manipulable materials. Other areas of Europe may struggle to find suitable materials, for example Ireland, where straw supply is limited.

The training of stockpeople is a vital part of any modern business, but is general poorly taken up by the pig industry. One reason is associated with the reduction in staffing numbers, making time management for training more difficult. In 2000, the pig industry formed the Pig Enterprise Initiative which, using a grant from the Meat and Livestock Commission and MAFF, developed a multimedia-training package.

This training compact disc (CD) provides a unique opportunity for information transfer for new members of the pig industry. The CD is designed to allow for individual achievement as well as group training. It was also envisioned that the CD could be used to help promote an interest in a career within the pig industry via presentations at schools and colleges.

In 2001 a new grant was awarded which will allow the group to produce a multimedia-training programme for managers and senior members of the farm team. The training initiative demonstrates what the pig industry can achieve when it works together. The new CD will explore and utilise the Internet as a resource to provide both novel sources of information as well as keeping the information provided ‘live’ through updates on a mirror web site.

Interestingly the Classical Swine Fever and Foot and Mouth outbreaks have demonstrated how the Internet and on-farm training can help to revitalise interest in pig farming. The industry must change to make the job of being a stockperson more rewarding, otherwise the industry will stall and finish due to lack of interest from young people.

In general, as a veterinarian, the various directives in pig welfare have helped to encourage and cajole changes in pig production, which has benefited the well being of the pig. Unfortunately 1999 demonstrated the total lack of commitment by the processing and marketing end of the pig chain to their own audit systems, buying on global price only.

While Directive EU 91/630 has been adopted by all the members of the European Union, it is my personal experience that in several countries the rules are not applied and are actively ignored. A personal embarrassment is that veterinarians in these countries - in whom the consumer entrusts animal welfare - have a lack of knowledge of the existence of the directive. Even in the UK Veterinary Schools, the directive has not been part of the training of a future veterinary surgeon.

The ban on teeth clipping, only allowing for teeth grinding, is part of the annex suggestions (to the changes in 91/630) and as yet has not been ratified. The UK industry generally teeth clip and many of the farmers who tried teeth grinding have gone back to teeth clipping. If the milk supply from the mother sow is adequate there should be no requirement to teeth clip or grind.

Altering tail docking rules such that only a maximum of half the tail can be removed will lead to an increase in tail biting, in my opinion. I see no advantage in only half tail docking pigs. The removal of effective tail docking will again throw responsibility onto the designers of buildings and stress the need to eliminate the causes of vice on farms. Understanding the causes of vice in the long term will be very beneficial.

Given the very small profit margins enjoyed by pig producers, it will be essential that existing European legislation is imposed throughout Europe. The European community needs to make a fundamental decision that, if it wants enhanced animal welfare and family farms, it must impose restrictions on external imports to at least meet the same welfare requirements. Otherwise, the additional costs of meeting welfare requirements will not be offset by a rise in the market value of the meat produced. However, whether these restrictions will be legal within the global trading network remains to be seen when agriculture is only another commodity along with steel, fuel etc.

Enlarging existing farms to match the trends on a global scale is not a realistic viable option for UK producers, who are limited by cash, environmental and social issues. Nowhere in the UK could a modern, efficient, computerised, small 2000 sow operation be constructed. Change can only come about by consolidation of existing old units.

Environmental issues

The pollution control directives (Integrated Pollution, Prevention and Control Regulation 2000 – IPPC) are long overdue in their implementation and, when they are, new legislative requirements will be placed on the pig farmer, many of whom are ignorant of their potential impact.

As already discussed, one major impact will be to prevent the establishment of new units and significantly restrict the growth of existing units. The setting of pollution targets can interfere with meat output if production is poor, due to poor management or disease, as changes in animal numbers will be limited, further reducing the flexibility of the system.

It is likely that the major restriction on pig output will be phosphorous or nitrate pollution, rather than facility size or the bank manager, and pig flow models must be adjusted to take into account these restrictions. Current computer farm production programmes do not take into account facility size, let alone environmental issues and only consider animal issues. The development of new recording systems will be an integral part of survival of the future of the UK pig industry. However, the UK must be aware that while environmental concerns have not been high on our list of problems, other countries are far ahead of the UK in developing systems to control environmental impact.

In the USA, new environmental laws are likely to be adopted throughout the States. Laws have already stopped major expansion in states such as North Carolina. The financial aspect of environmental regulations is largely felt by the family farm. The smaller hobby farms are generally unaffected; whereas the larger corperate farms can rely on environmental technology to cope with the regulations. Unfortunately the vast majority of British pig farms are the non-hobby family farm.

Endemic diseases

There are many diseases ‘normal’ to pig production and it is only through good health maintenance on the unit that the clinical, negative profit, effects of these diseases be minimised. In addition to the normal repertoire of pig diseases, the new disease Post Weaning Wasting Syndrome, is already having widespread effects on UK and global pig farming, with many farmers reporting 15%+ post-weaning losses through this disease.

Unfortunately the research into this disease within the UK will be very limited; it is highly likely that we will have to rely on others to come up with the cause and likely treatments.

Outside ‘extensive’ systems

The outdoor industry has matured and is unlikely to grow any further. Over the last 20 years it has revealed numerous areas of lack of knowledge of pig biology. For example, the ability to produce 10 kg weaners at 21 days outdoors revealed traditional deficiencies in water, feed and exercise requirements for the lactating sow. When these factors were more understood by the indoor industry, weaning weights have nearly doubled.

However, a major downside with outdoor pig production is a very variable reproductive performance. On indoor farms typical variation in the farrowing rate may be 75-85% whereas outdoors the range could be 50-90% week on week. Summer infertility is a significant problem as is the degree of stockmanship. Many outdoor producers revert to an ‘indoor’ breeding area to ensure their pig flow will occur with some degree of certainty. Outdoor pig farming has also revealed many problems of welfare primarily associated with poor ground selection.

Niche marketing

Personally, I think that niche markets are not a viable future for the UK pig industry. Pork and bacon are utility meats rather than luxury items and therefore are inherently cheap. There are some high quality high priced pig products, but to achieve ‘industry’ status a major shift is required. Individual family farms cannot achieve farm gate sales to the local market only and what do they do with the unwanted pieces of meat?

In the UK as the general public only eats 24.5kg pork per year (MLC 1996), a typical family farm of only 250 sows (10 sows a week) produces enough food to feed 16,250 people – that’s a lot of people walking up to the farm. I make no comment regarding the biosecurity risk! Products such as Parma ham could be developed but require regional and local cooperation, enthusiasm and money.

In the USA a ballpark figure for the costs of a new brand typically is $50 million. The British used to have a whole range of hams and cures such as Wiltshire Ham. Can these be reintroduced, as many today would be classed as unhealthy with heavy salt contents? In 1998 we saw what British Bacon meant, from Dutch halves being cured in the UK.

For niche marketing to have a small chance, proper labelling has to occur. The organic industry is one potential niche market which some producers will move into, however, the high costs involved does not make this small market appealing to anyone but the enthusiast. It is very unlikely that organic pork will ever feed the working classes of the UK or the planet as a whole.

What can pig farmers control?

Pig farmers do have control over their business in terms of optimising output and minimising cost wastage. Growth is primarily driven by profit.

There are 10 major areas I believe pig farmers need to address to try and make a profit.
  1. Minimise new disease introduction through better biosecurity systems
  2. Moving to a kg meat output target system rather than a traditional per sow output target system
  3. Reducing variability in the production system thorough better understanding of pig flow to adopt all-in/all-out systems of production
  4. Continued adoption of artificial insemination and reproductive techniques to enhance breeding performance
  5. Adoption of liquid feeding and by-product feeding where appropriate
  6. Enhanced environmental provision, particularly concentrating on the micro-environment requirements of the pig
  7. Reduce feed wastage by better feeder/feeding management
  8. Increase the scale of the operation through batching
  9. Training of stockpeople to utilise the knowledge base already in existence and be willing to rise to the challenges of the global economy
  10. Minimise medicine costs thorough better understanding and treatment routines
Co-operation between farmers is an ideal, but unlikely to occur in reality. The purchase of empty farm premises and enlargement of company farms will continue but not on the scale enjoyed elsewhere in the world. Cooperation can be achieved by the advisors to the pig industry and such links need to be actively fostered.

While there are a decreasing number of pig farmers, the advisors to the industry also are reducing and the demand on their expertise increasing. It is also likely that the industry will have to look abroad for advice, which to date has been largely unnecessary.

However, current near market agricultural research within the UK is very limited. The Internet may provide the average farmer with an awareness of the global information resources (see www.thePigSite.com). The development of the Pig Enterprise Initiative has proven that when the industry meets unselfishly, as a family, quality products can be delivered.

The current disease disasters are temporary and will fade with time. The issue is whether the UK industry has time on its side.