Conference Looks Back to the Future

BPEX hosted a successful conference recently entitled 'Back to the Future'. In this article, Jackie Linden, editor of ThePigSite, selects the highlights of two presentations on the Danish pig industry, focussing on the product and on current areas of pig research.
calendar icon 23 April 2010
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Future of the Final Product

John Howard

"The key is to exploit past experiences to make a better future," said John Howard, marketing director of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council in the introduction to his presentation.

He started by profiling the pig industries in Denmark and the UK. He highlighted the huge changes that have taken place in the Danish pig industry over the last 20 years: the number of pig producers has fallen from more than 46,000 in 1984 to 7,500 in 2009 while the average number of piglets per sow per year has risen from 18.4 to 27.2. Over the same period, the cost of pig production (in Danish kroner per kg) has fallen from DKK14.86 to DKK9.20 but so too has the average pig price (from DKK15.11 to DKK9.89).

Danish exports have increased only marginally from 281,000 tonnes per year in 1984 to 290,000 tonnes last year. Volumes exported to Germany, Russia and Japan have risen withing this total, and pig meat is now exported to 140 countries.

There have been changes in the UK industry as well over the last 25 years. Mr Howard showed that the top three processors accounted for 56 per cent of the total pig kill in 1984 but that they accounted for 68 per cent in 2009. Over the same time, the UK has seen the share of the grocery spend in the top three retailers just from 40 per cent to more than 60 per cent of total grocer spend in the UK, with the top two supermarkets (Tesco and Asda) showing particular increases. While total meat consumption has risen over th period, pork uptake has been flat, at 21.1kg per head annually in 2009.

These changes, Mr Howard said, can be boiled down to consolidation and specialisation in the food chain, improvements in efficiency and advance in knowledge and technology.

He continued that the main characteristics of the Danish pig industry today are the growing impact of environmental legislation, a concentration on weaner production and exports (especially to Germany), higher costs of finishing pigs and higher slaughter and processing costs compared to its neighbour, Germany. Finished pigs now account for 70 per cent of Danish pig production, while exported piglets account for 25 per cent of all pig production. The levy paid in 1984 was DKK8.00 per pig (on 14.5 million pigs annually); now it is DKK3.80 per pig on each of the 28 million pigs slaughtered each year, including DKK0.60 to 1.30 per piglet exported.

Despite the problems in the pig industry, Mr Howard is confident about the future, not least because current consumer trends brought about by the economic downturn tend to favour pig products. Cheaper cuts of pork, bacon and sausages offer good value for money to consumers for both meals and snacks.

"We have a tasty and versatile product for the modern-day consumer," said Mr Howard.

He went on to highlight the growing importance of animal welfare in the UK, with 32 per cent of consumers saying in a recent survey that this is something they consider when making purchasing decisions. The country's supermarket chains are now targeting different sections of the general public to meet their various demands for more or less animal-friendly production methods. Mr Howard showed how this leads to considerable variations in price of a product but then he demonstrated that only six per cent of sales are of the premium brand and 84 per cent in the standard and value categories.

Per capita pig meat consumption in the UK is around half that of Denmark, which may be attributed to cultural differences, so there seems to be some room for improvement here. Many factors affect the eating quality of pork, but Mr Howard called for greater consistency here, as well as encouragement of local professional chefs to include more pig meat products on restaurant menus.

Mr Howard concluded that producers should continually seek new knowledge, embrace technology, seek improvements without compromising quality, anticipate market changes and respond to consumer demands. Closing with remark that last year, Denmark invested five times more in primary production research than it did in 1984, Mr Howard suggested that the Danes have an advantage over the UK industry.

Danish Research Priorities

Dr Vivi Moustsen

Dr Vivi Moustsen is the senior project manager at the Pig Research Centre of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council. Responsible for conducting research on commercial farms, she explained that environmental impact and welfare are equally high priorities for Danish pig research today.

The industry has a long-term commitment to research and development, it has clear objectives and strategies and most important, there is a real passion for pigs. The goals until 2020 are to focus on piglet production, new technology and high-value production and breeding animals.

Inspiration for these goals came from differences between farms in physical performance. For example, while the average number of piglets per sow per year is a very good 27.3, the top five per cent of herds are achieving 31.2 piglets, and they also have an average 14.7 born alive per litter compared to the average of 14.0. Similarly, there are differences in daily gain and feed conversion between the average and top 25 per cent in weaner and finisher performance.

So the key areas of research, explained Dt Moustsen, are reducing environmental impact, improving welfare and raising productivity.

Work on environmental impacts started with a Life Cycle Assessment, which calculated that one kilo of Danish pork delivered to th port of Harwich produced 3.2kg carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to a 10-kilometre car journey.

For welfare research, Dr Moustsen explained, the budget is the equivalent of £s;3 million based on information exchange and the publication of manuals (in the Danish, English and Russian languages so that they can be used by all the pig work force in Denmark.

The main focus of research for this year is on sow management. With the EU ban on sow stalls due to come into effect at the end of 2012, and a reluctance in Denmark for outdoor sows, most farmers have chosen loose-housing indoors, and three-quarters of sows are now kept in that type of system. This compares with around 60 per cent of pregnant sows loose-housed in the Netherlands, 10 to 15 per cent in Spain, Italy and Austria and fewer than five per cent in Portugal.

Research is also being conducted into the best use of straw and its effects on pig behaviour, and into more welfare-friendly farrowing systems. The advantages of the latter include better sow welfare, increased milk production, more uniform weights at weaning and a better motivated work force as well as an improved public image. On the other hand, the challenges are piglet mortality, pens must be bigger, staff safety and larger herd sizes. On this last aspect, Dr Moustsen made the point that the average herd size in Denmark is more than 3,000 sows, much larger than Norway and Switzerland where the systems have been in place some time already.

Finally, Dr Moustsen answered a question from the audience about tail docking in Denmark. She explained that those pigs that will be exported to Germany for finishing are docked. However, the provision of manipulable material, like straw, and keeping the litter together as a group means pigs destined for home-rearing are no longer docked in Denmark.

April 2010

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