Q&A with Denmark's Mr Pig Production
Pig International poses a few questions for a big player in Danish pork.
No wonder a journal in Denmark has referred to Orla Grøn Pedersen as an institution in Danish pig production. The man has worked in the industry since 1973 and became director of the national organisation now named Dansk Svinproduktion (Danish Pig Production) in 1991. As he moves towards retirement at the end of this year, Pig International has been asking him to look back at events over the past three decades and to contemplate the outlook for Denmark's pig industry in the years ahead.
Pig International: What did the pig sector in Denmark look like when you joined as a field testing co-ordinator?
Orla Grøn Pedersen: It was 34 years ago, but I remember thinking that Danish production of pigs was a bit old-fashioned. The other day I found the statistic that sows in this country in 1970 were averaging only 11.5 pigs each per year. Production in 1973 reached the bottom with 11.2 million slaughter pigs, even though we had 1.17 million sows at the time according to our statistical service. Today our production has more than doubled, yet the number of sows in the national herd has not increased by much.
PIGI: Were the farms themselves old-fashioned?
OGP: That was the problem. When I started my first job in field tests, Denmark had recently entered the Common Market and was not ready to compete. There was no cross-breeding here at that time. Everything was done with purebred Landrace because no-one could agree whether other breeds might be needed. No producers were early weaning, nor were there farms with slatted floors or using a modern form of farrowing crate. Most sows were still being farrowed in big old pens so many piglets died from being crushed.
PIGI: Were producers making a profit under those conditions?
OGP: Their profitability was poor, but what seemed worse was that they did not always realise how far we were behind our neighbours in Europe, especially the UK, the Netherlands and France, in terms of our production systems. Fortunately there were some very active young Danish farmers who saw that we would have to move forward much faster and spoke to the politicians about making it happen.
PIGI: Was there a single big turning point?
OGP: For me, it came in 1974 when field testing of systems on farms started to be rolled out nationally. I was promoted to be responsible for that, which was a big challenge for me. It meant formulating the rules for the tests while working together with state organisations and universities to create a new way of evaluating production systems in a practical environment. Our first task was to compare the efficiency of weaning at 3-4 weeks and 7 weeks. We also investigated slats in comparison with solid floors and straw. These were vital changes that the industry afterwards adopted to make it far more efficient.
PIGI: So you would call the on-farm field tests of production systems a big success for Danish pig production?
OGP: Certainly I would. Over the last 30 years, we have been able to show very valuable progress in housing and management. In the beginning of the 1980's we added cross-breeding with 4 breeds to the list. People here could see how much better the crossbreds were, in controlled tests by the state authorities. So now we had early weaning and cross-breeding together with housing systems that were cheaper, more efficient and less labour-intensive. We were able to show the farmers how much more they could earn by using these methods.
PIGI: Has the finance and the land always been available to support farm projects that would adopt the new systems?
OGP: Finance has been there for most of the time, except for a setback in 1979/80 when the interest rates went up to 20%. The interesting thing even then was that production did not go down despite the more expensive bank loans. It is true that some producers went bankrupt, but many others stayed in business and a few of them even expanded. Herd size increased quite quickly and that gave cash-flow to people who previously had just a few sows. Land was not really a consideration until national legislation was introduced in 1987 to require pig units to have somewhere for slurry disposal. It is not really a limiting factor even today. We have land enough to meet the Danish industry's requirements now and in the future.
PIGI: Do you predict that the size of the industry will change significantly over the next 10 years?
OGP: Denmark has 1.1 million sows today and probably will have about the same number in 10 years from now. The difference is that while the average Danish sow in 2007 produces 24.5 pigs per year, in another 10 years that is likely to grow to 26-28 pigs per sow/year. When you think how much sow productivity has improved in this country it is unbelievable. The improvement will continue. Already the top 10% of herds achieve around 30 pigs per year. More and more will be doing it before long.
PIGI: Do you expect all of those pigs to be grown and finished in Denmark?
OGP: I would say the best strategy would be for the Danish pig industry in future to feed and slaughter every one of those 26-28 million pigs/year, but I do not think that will be the case. Weaner exports, particularly to Germany, have increased for some years now and they may expand even more. The people who export the pigs should realise that it carries a risk. Let us say a disease problem in Germany resulted in the border being closed, where would those pigs go then? It would be much better to slaughter everything in Denmark and so rid ourselves of export problems. But, in practice, there is a big attraction in the fact that the Danish sow herd is considerably more efficient than one in Germany. In this country they can produce a 25kg pig for about 8 less than the average cost in a German herd. The main reason for that is that the Danes obtain more pigs per sow.
PIGI: What does the future in Denmark hold for the number of pig producers?
OGP: There will be fewer than today, that much is sure. When I started in the early 1970's Denmark had about 80 000 units producing pigs. Now there are 7600, half of whom have sows. A Danish forecast for the year 2020 projects that there will be no more than 2000-2500 producers in the business. Critically, though, they are predicted to have the same total production between them as in 2007, maybe even a little higher.
PIGI: Will a consolidated industry still want an organisation such as Danish Pig Production to lead its research and development priorities?
OGP: The producers will still need support in research, when you consider the big changes that have happened so far in issues ranging from animal welfare and the environment to food safety. They will have to find answers to many important questions of production practice, not least how to clean houses effectively without using more labour. There are also many possibilities to explore regarding the application of IT systems or automation to jobs such as checking that sows are in oestrus. Most of all, the producer of tomorrow must be efficient at feeding. The winners will be those who feed the cheapest available version of the right mixture in the correct volumes to achieve output, good carcases and meat quality without negatively affecting the environment. The key to doing that lies in the control of the genetics. Just as they do it today, I am sure Danish producers in 10 years from now will be clever enough to say that they want to be the ones to control the breeding system.