Pig farmers in the Czech Republic are trying to stop a dramatic decline in domestic production, which has seen the country’s total pig numbers drop from 5 million in 1989 to 1.4 million in 2012.
It’s a decline that has left the home industry clinging to just 50 percent of its own market in the face of pork imports from Germany, Spain, Denmark and Poland, according to Jan Stibal, managing director of the Pig Breeders Association of the Czech Republic. 

Pig survey findings

“The latest pig industry survey, completed at the end of 2011, revealed 1.4 million pigs in total and less than 100,000 breeding sows,” he told Pig International. “These are the lowest pig production figures we’ve seen in the Czech Republic, since industry records began in 1921.”
There were several reasons for the 13-year decline said Stibal, whose association represents 150 members who produce 60 to 70 percent of the country’s pork. 

The main factor for the decline was a lack of easy access to European Union subsidies. Because a substantial percentage of the Czech Republic’s pig farming businesses were company-based industrial-type operations, with little or no owned land. 

“EU subsidies are largely linked to the land,” said Stibal. “Our pig farming structure is a problem. We did receive an increase in support when the country joined the EU in 2004, but our structure remains a difficulty in subsidy terms.” 

There also was no national Czech program for subsidizing pig meat production and little evidence of government interest in solving the issues that existed at present, he commented. “Attitudes towards agriculture in general in our country aren’t high, simply because the industry doesn’t play a very big part in our gross domestic product, GDP.

“At 1.5 percent of the national GDP, it’s not a very important sector – and that shows in the attitude of our politicians. Although our agricultural ministry is interested in what we have to say and does work closely with us on many issues, it’s not a very strong ministry and it does not have that much influence on government in terms of policy making.” 

Czech consumers are also partly to blame for the decline in the domestic pig industry, often seeming to prefer foreign supplies to genuine homegrown produce, Stibal claimed. The demand for pig meat in the Czech Republic is currently hovering around 41 kg per person per year – and it has been at that level for at least the last 10 years. 

“There is a big gap to be filled in improving the marketing of pork to consumers who are generally not that interested in buying domestic products, pork or anything else,” said Stibal.

Promoting Czech pork

“To begin with, Czech nationalism isn’t very strong. On top of that, during the Communist period, everything that came into the country from Western Europe was better than our domestic products. As a result, the people here still often choose the foreign option when buying things,” he said. “The beneficiaries of this consumer habit, tended to be the foreign suppliers of low-cost pork for processing, which had led to an increase of frozen pig meat imports.”

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“We’re working to establish a Czech brand and are talking to two major integrated pig meat production and processing companies to get their support,” said Stibal. “They see it both ways, of course, arguing that while promoting pork produced in the Czech Republic might open some new domestic doors for them but it could also close other import doors that they are already using.

“Another challenge we face is the fact that our pork supply chain is divided into six parts, with little or no connection between the various different sectors. The main supply chain power is in the hands of the retailers, processors and slaughters, with pig farmers definitely being on the weak side of the divide.”

Getting all six parts of the supply chain – farmers who produce grain, the feed mills, and pig producers/finishers, as well as slaughterers, processors and retailers to combine their marketing efforts, and money, is proving very difficult to achieve so far. 

But, Stibal insists that the work to create a Czech pig meat brand would continue, although the farmer-funded initiative was receiving little help from processors, retailers, or other members of the supply chain.

“We’re hopeful that the current size of our pig herd is the bottom of the production curve and that we can now start to get some stability into the market. Not many countries, after all, have self-sufficiency levels for pork below 50 percent. 

Pig subsidies needed

“While pig meat low-cost imports come into the Czech Republic for processing, the fresh meat demand really requires higher quality domestic supplies. That’s our main encouragement for the future – and where most of our effort to increase production needs to go.”
With the country’s pig farming businesses having operated “in the red” during the past three years, however, the association also is looking for subsidies from the EU.

“We have to find ways to convince the EU that it should approve a new subsidy route for our pig production structure,” said Stibal, who regularly takes part in COPA COGECA (the umbrella federation of farm unions in Europe) meetings in Brussels, arguing the case for the Czech pig industry.

At least his members were among the “good guys” in terms the EU’s new 2013 sow housing rules, with the majority already having converted their systems to meet the new animal welfare regulations - and Stibal hopes that might earn them a point or two extra in Brussels over the next few months.

“Because of to pre-entrance requirements placed on our industry when we joined the EU in 2004, at least 85 percent of our pig producers are already prepared for the new sow housing system,” he said, adding: “It would just be nice to start making some money out of pigs for a change.”