Animal welfare is a key issue for pig producers in most parts of the world, especially if they want to continue exporting pork products without restriction. The increased demand for more “pig friendly” production methods from consumers and retailers is forcing governments to legislate and impose a plethora of regulations on EU livestock and pig producers.

 Raising healthy pigs 

While most pig farmers accept that they have to comply with the demands and good welfare often leads to healthier pigs, better performance and higher production. However, there are many different views on what actually should be done to provide “happy pigs.”

“Yes to welfare, but we can’t treat pigs as humans,” was the blunt assessment of French producer, Michel Bloc’h, president of the pig producers’ organization in Brittany, when asked about the EU’s new animal welfare regulations at the 2011 SPACE Livestock event in Rennes, France. When asked the same question, British National Pig Association, general manager, Dr Zoe Davies said, “Pigs are not house pets or cuddly toys, they are farm animals; high welfare is important, but we need to focus on what the pig needs, rather than what some humans think pigs want.”

“We also have to balance the desires of welfare lobby groups against the huge demand for cheap meat,” said Davies. “Animal welfare is good and the majority of British pig producers actively support moves to improve conditions for pigs where possible, but it all costs money and somebody has to pay for it.”

It also has been pointed out that some approaches to animal welfare, such as bedded solid floors, may increase zoonotic risks.

Pig welfare benchmarks

However, the British Pig Executive calculated that improved pig health and welfare could be worth as much as £25 million a year to the UK pig industry by increasing performance and it is rolling out a new health and welfare strategy, with support across the whole supply chain.

BPEX stated that by improving health and welfare producers can achieve better pig performance, reduce their impact on the environment and increase sustainability. The organization is actively training veterinarians and developing this project, which is based on welfare outcomes or indicators to measure treatment by looking at the pig, rather than its environment. These indicators include body marks, lesions, lameness, oral behaviors, hospital pigs and enrichment use.

The aim is to find practical measures, valid and repeatable over a range of systems that can be used by veterinarians for indicators of behavior, health, housing and feeding. This will provide a blueprint that could be used by the pig industry anywhere, commented Dr Nina Taylor, research assistant at BPEX.

“For example, the measurement of body marks gives an indicator of the effect of the pig’s surroundings and its relationship with pen mates. The marks also can highlight sharp edges in the pen’s fittings, or give insight into aggressive encounters, which may raise useful questions about pig comfort and available resources,” said Taylor.

“Enrichment use is being measured as an indicator of welfare because research has shown that pigs have an evolutionary need to perform exploratory behavior, even when their appetite for food is satisfied,” she added.

Balancing welfare, competitiveness

BPEX hopes that when put together all the measures will give a meaningful indication of overall welfare.

Emphasizing the critical importance of welfare these days, BPEX Chairman, Stewart Houston said, “Improving the health and welfare of pigs is of paramount importance to all those involved in the industry in England. It affects our cost of production and our ability to survive in a highly competitive EU market. While the pig industry aims to meet the overall costs, the supply chain needs to function more effectively to ensure that farmers receive a share of the welfare premium that makes these systems sustainable.”

Houston, who said he believes health and welfare go hand in hand, explained, “We have a reputation built on high welfare production. New techniques will enable us to assess the real welfare of the pigs in our care. We have already done a lot, but there is more to achieve, particularly if we can get the health side of things right, as well.”

He added, “Of equal importance is coordinating the activities of diverse organizations that have a common goal of improving pig welfare and the range of benefits that brings. These include, among others, the allied industry, welfare groups and the government.”

In the end, the English pig industry is promoting farm health and welfare planning as it should be part of environmental protection, sustainability and food security.

 Denmark ’s welfare strategy 

In Denmark, new measures aimed at increasing what pig producers claim are already high standards of welfare, were introduced earlier this year. Moreover, like England, there is a close link between welfare and the on-going health of the pigs.

“Society has presented us with a number of challenges and we are intent on meeting these by making further improvements to our animal welfare standards,” said Lindhart B Nielsen, chairman of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council’s Pig Knowledge Centre.

“Our aim is to maintain a thriving industry, based on high technical standards that will maintain Denmark’s strong position in the international pig meat trade.”

The five key areas of the country’s new welfare strategy are:

  1. A 20% reduction in mortality rates across all categories of pigs by 2020.
  2. Improved focus on animal health, alongside a 10% reduction in antibiotic consumption (per pig) by 2013.
  3. Loose housing systems for sows in all units (Danish producers are all expected to comply fully with the new EU regulations banning traditional stalls for pregnant sows by 2013. The industry will then work to phase out confinement in the first four weeks of pregnancy, which is permitted under the new EU rules. It will also work towards increasing the uptake of “freedom farrowing” systems in indoor production.)
  4. Measure to encourage better use of hospital pens.
  5. Action behind the words – greater focus on pig producers to enhance their standards of animal welfare through adoption of best practices.

“We have resolved to concentrate on these five areas and to commit further resources to research and development within new areas of animal welfare as they arise,” said Nielsen. “Our current research project into the use of straw, in cooperation with Aarhus University, is one such example.

“We are well aware that consumers have the choice of buying meat from a number of specially produced pigs – and this will undoubtedly continue – but, our new welfare policy is intended to ensure that animal welfare standards are improved for all pigs.”