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Examples of some alternative sow housing systems. Photo courtesy of Big Dutchman.
Pig producers across Europe are facing stark choices as they approach the 2013 deadline for EU curbs on the use of gestation sow stalls, as well as a raft of new welfare regulations and environmental constraints due to be enforced in several European countries over the next few years.
For many, the cost of converting to a new pig production system will force produces to decide whether to push on in the hope that profits will return, cut back on production, or get out, especially if the feed prices and other input costs continue to rise.
While some countries, including the UK, Finland and Sweden, have already made the change and lived through the pain caused by the costs of new housing and changing management systems, it is understood that a large percentage of pig producers in other EU countries have not even started planning. Some industry leaders fear this could lead to severe challenges in the markets, especially if aggravated by the continuing slump in pig prices and rise in feed costs.
France not prepared
Adding to concerns, a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report says EU meat exports “are expected to decline due to reduced domestic output following policy reforms and growing domestic consumption brought about by EU enlargement.”
Seasoned EU observer Wojciech Wójcikiewicz, who has been closely involved with the European pig industry for the past 27 years and is currently PIC’s European marketing coordinator, believes the region is facing “incredibly difficult conditions.”
Wójcikiewicz is particularly concerned about France, where he believes pig producers are far behind in converting to group housing and just won’t be ready in time for 2013. He also questions whether EU authorities will be able to police the new rules effectively.
Group housing system conversion
Geneticist Grant Walling points out that pig producers could struggle to maintain high production levels for four to five years after conversion, as both sows and staff adapt to the new group housing systems.
“When we converted about a decade ago, we were very concerned about the affect it had on high-performance sows, particularly the Landrace, which did not acclimate well to group housing for several years,” said Dr Walling, who is managing director of UK-based JSR Genetics.
“It was also quite a challenge for our stockmen, who found that they had to deal with a visibly higher incidence of bullying in the new systems at first and they had to discover new ways to manage animals individually, especially at feeding times,” he said.
“Judging from our experience, it would be a very good idea for pig producers in other countries to start getting their animals used to the new systems now to reduce any potential losses. I honestly think they need to start doing this at least two years before they finally convert to ensure both animals and staff adapt to the changes without any major hitches.”
Sow numbers may drop
Looking ahead to prospects for the EU industry up to and after 2013, Dr Walling is pessimistic about sow numbers and the long-term future for medium to smaller-sized enterprises.
“I think we will see sows decrease in Western Europe and a number of smaller pig producers will drop out altogether, because they will be either reluctant to invest any more capital into the industry now, or they just won’t have enough money to go forward,” he said.
This was particularly likely to happen in countries like Spain, Holland and Germany, which were reliant on export markets in Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, where countries were becoming more self-sufficient and reducing demand for imports.
Russia and South America, for example, were using smart genetics to help them develop at a faster rate than the EU at present to meet local demand, as well as boost production to allow them to compete for export markets, he claimed.
“It is not looking very bright at the moment.”-- Dutch Pig Farmers’ Union chairman, Wyno van Zwanenburg
Efficient production systems needed
However, Dr Walling has not lost hope for the EU, where he believes pig producers need to concentrate on production efficiency, rather than producing more pigs.
“We need to look at total life-time production and get cleverer with our breeding programmes and develop new targets, like reducing sow mortality instead of increasing litter numbers,” he said.
The EU pig industry also needs to change its attitude and exploit opportunities to export its efficient production systems, genetics and other production skills to emerging markets rather than product, which it should retain to supply local markets.
More changes ahead
Stewart Houston, executive director of the UK’s National Pig Association, predicts “it’s going to be a crazy, mixed up market in the EU after 2013.”
Mr Houston said he was concerned that a substantial number of units would not convert in time, resulting in “an awful lot of illegal pigs swishing around the EU” – and nobody was quite sure what the authorities were going to do about that yet.
“I can’t see the EC granting any new derogations and I am sure the major retailers will not want to be seen selling ‘illegal’ pork, or using ‘illegal’ manufacturing meat.”
While pig producers who had already moved away from gestation stalls would be in a better place, they still face new animal welfare standards, tougher anti-pollution and emission regulations, new moves on castration and a depressed economy.
“The whole supply chain needs to work together to target production to meet domestic needs, as well as the growing demand for exports to non-EU markets in Asia and Eastern Europe,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dutch Pig Farmers Union chairman, Wyno Zwanenburg points out that issues such as animal welfare and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are even bigger challenges than the ban on gestation stalls for the majority of the EU’s pig producers.
“Here in The Netherlands, 80% of our pig producers have already moved away form gestation stalls and keep their pigs in group housing and of the 20% who still had to convert, at least one-third were expected to leave the industry before the end of 2012.
“I really don’t believe that our pig producers will face many problems when the ban is enforced across the EU from 2013. Most of us already are used to the new system.
“National regulations forcing us to reduce emissions and the current state of the economy pose much bigger challenges for us in the future. Pig prices will have to go up to provide producers with the necessary funds to invest in improvements to their unit.
“I am afraid it is not looking very bright at the moment: Costs are rising and the message from across Europe is still that a large number of pig producers are going to go out and the number of pigs is going to decrease.”
Asked what the remaining pig producers could do to save the situation, Mr Zwanenburg said, “We have to all work together to reconnect the market to our costs. One of the big problems now is everybody is talking about animal husbandry and welfare, but nobody is prepared to pay for it.”
“We are already talking to pig producers in Germany, Denmark and Belgium and I am hoping all producers will stick together so that we can make the retailers and the processors seen sense and be paid properly for the products we produce.”
Finland pig producers growing with the industry
Although Finland only has a population of 5 million people and is not known as a major pig producing country, it boasts 120,000 to 150,000 sows and is starting to make its mark in the EU pig market.
Based mostly on family farms between 100ha and 150ha, pig producers are supplying a growing domestic market, as well as maintaining a healthy export trade with neighboring Russia.
“It appears to be a very stable industry, with opportunities for growth,” says Tony Suckling, the international director for the British-based animal feed company, BOCM PAULS International, which just appointed two Finnish companies to sell and distribute its range of pig feeds.
“We had been selling game feed in Finland for about five years, before we realized there was a vibrant pig market,” said Suckling.
“So, we went there to investigate and came back with a positive report about the pig industry, which is split between farrow-to-finish units and weaner producers. Although many are home mixers, the report revealed opportunities for pre-starter and starter piglet feeds up to 12kg, with concentrates to produce grower feeds to take the pigs up to 30kg, as well as concentrates to provide nutrition for lactating and gestating sows.”
Praising Finnish pig producers for their stockmanship and “eye for a pig,” Suckling said they were also concerned about the pending EU curbs on gestation stalls. I don’t think there is an EU pig producing country where you don’t spend a lot of time talking about the forthcoming difficulties,” he said.
“However, I believe the Finnish industry has good opportunities for the future, especially because it is so close to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as Russia.”
Asked how he saw the market after 2013, Suckling said he expected Europe to find a way through the challenges, although there would probably be a lot of “hot air” from all sides. “It will happen, but only after the 2013 deadline,” he predicted.
The European Commission claims that its Directive on gestation stalls does not call for a complete ban on farrowing stalls from 2013; rather, it foresees group housing of all pregnant sows from that date.
“These provisions were introduced in 2001 (Dir. 2001/88), which means producers have had 11 years to adjust the housing systems,” a spokesperson told Pig International.
She said the Directive says: “Member States shall ensure that sows and gilts are kept in groups during a period starting from four weeks after the service to one week before the expected time of farrowing.
“The pen where the group is kept must have sides greater than 2.8 meters in length. When fewer than six individuals are kept in a group the pen where the group is kept must have sides greater than 2.4 meters in length.
“By way of derogation, sows and gilts raised on holdings with fewer than 10 sows may be kept individually during the period mentioned, provided that they can turn around easily in their boxes.”
Asked how the EC was planning to police the new regulations, the spokesperson explained that any infringements will be handled on a case- by-case basis and, “the Commission will work with member states to help them meet the necessary requirements as soon as they can. It has the authority to impose fines as a last resort, if states refuse to take any action.”
The EC has pointed out that there is already EU legislation banning the permanent keeping of sows and gilts into individual stalls. This ban started for newly built or rebuilt holdings in 2003 and will apply to all holdings on January 1, 2013.
Danish Agriculture and Food Council senior market analyst Karsten Flemin commented that the forthcoming 2013 curbs on gestation stalls will lead to lower production, which he says could benefit the industry in the long term.
“We are currently going through the longest downturn I can remember and we need to see production fall by about 3% to force prices back up,” said Flemin.
“This ban provides an opportunity for this to happen. It is what the sector needs, because we need a better structure and higher prices for the pig producers who stay in the industry.”
“I am not talking about a big drop. It should just mean that producers going out because of the new EU regulations production would not be replaced.
This should help keep prices at the right level through to 2013. It will also provide stable production in the long-term, because it is never easy to increase production.”
In Denmark, pig producer leaders claim 70% of producers have already converted to loose housing, but they warn it could be difficult for the remaining 30% to change in time, because of problems with local laws.
Danish pig producers need a special permit from the environmental authorities before they change housing systems and the red tape is holding many people back, they explained.
Producers, who do not meet the new rules in time, will be excluded from the Danish pig producers' quality program and will not be able to sell their products.
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Many EU producers are far behind in their plans to convert their units to accommodate group housing. –PIC’s European marketing coordinator, Wojciech Wójcikiewicz
“Sows take time to get used to group housing.” –Dr Grant Walling, managing director of UK-based JSR Genetics.
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