Going back a decade ago, the pig industry in Australia was largely a domestic industry — with some frozen pork being exported to New Zealand — producing just over five million pigs for sale each year.

Since then, the market has shifted to a domestic and export focus with chilled pork carcasses being exported to Singapore, while specific pork cuts are being exported to Japan. However, the increases in frozen pork being imported into Australia from Denmark, Canada, and more recently the US, has shaken the industry significantly. This exposure to the export markets, and the impact of record amounts of imported hams and middles, has highlighted the need for the pig industry to adapt to this new volatility.

Devastating droughts

The prolonged droughts on the eastern seaboard over the last 10 years has dramatically increased the cost of feed and severely affected the pork industry to the point where 20% of the industry went out of production during 2008. The outcome of this is that we may see the industry come back into balance with the demand for pork on the domestic and export market, thus coexisting with imports. The effects of the drought have also seen a decrease in the selection of raw materials, be it wheat or sorghum, and the industry is now under increasing pressure to have more flexibility on diets.

The main focus of the Australian pig producer is now fresh pork with some manufactured products such as bone-in hams. During these changing times, per capita pork consumption has risen from 18kg per year to 23kg per year. This increase has been predominately in the fresh pork sector and equates to a 40% increase in the consumption of fresh pork. This increase in fresh pork consumption has led to an increase in developing better fresh meat products for the consumer. To achieve this, the market has shifted to a lower weight carcass to control portion sizes for the retail cuts.

The production systems of the future will become more specialised as the demand for specific consumer products with extensive traceability systems increases. The demand from the retail chains for greater accountability in the production chain is especially evident in England and Japan but is rapidly expanding around the world. The end result is the consumer is defining the products that they require. This is leading to increasing diversity of markets that pigs can be sold into. The days of producing a pig and then selling to the highest bidder are rapidly disappearing.

Traceability becomes trend

Today, the market a pig is destined for is determined, in the case of the New South Wales-based QAF Meat Industries, at birth. The production system is chosen to maximise the cost efficiency for producing the pig for the pre-determined markets and the nutrition programme is then refined to maximise the performance to achieve the desired pig specification.

A major requirement of future production systems is traceability. The pigmeat sold in the retail store must be able to be traced back to the farm of origin and then back to the sow that produced that pig. Every procedure that animal was subjected to needs to be recorded and traced through the system. The diets that animal was fed and the treatments that animal received would be required as part of quality assurance procedures to guarantee that the animal was free of antibiotics or raw materials that are classified as "banned raw materials" or required to claim that the pigmeat is a function food.

These requirements are going to increase the cost of production significantly in the future and deliver to the consumer a product that they can have confidence in. Consumer confidence is vital for the pork industry; traceability is a key issue for producers, as consumers want to see consistency in a product, guarantee of food safety, a good meat quality and shelf life. These issues must be addressed for the industry to be sustainable.

Technologies and education

The Australian pig industry is moving forward with the latest technologies to make the industry more efficient and sustainable, while meeting requirements to guarantee consumer confidence.

Building the production systems of the future requires a sound investment in all aspects of pig production and the area that Australia is excelling in at this moment is the commitment to research and innovation. The development of the Co-operative Research Centre for Pork (Pork CRC) in Adelaide by the industry's largest players and the peak body, Australian Pork Limited (APL), has injected more than $80 million over seven years into the pig research community in Australia. This sizeable investment by the government and industry alike has jump-started the output of tangible outcomes for the producer from the best researchers in Australia and around the world. Together, the Pork CRC, APL and the large commercial enterprises are building the Australian pig industry into a highly competitive industry on a worldwide basis.

A vital area in the Australian pig industry is education and training, and is recognised through new technologies that are being developed by the research community, such as taking people from on-farm who are efficient and embody the passion and qualities required to drive this industry forward. The major pig enterprises have recognised that training of their people is a key area to ensure sustainability in the future and have dedicated departments within their organisations to deliver the education requirements of their people from the animal attendant to the senior management and technical people. The vertically integrated QAF is recognised as a global leader in this area, as their programmes cover a wide range of training options in genetics and R&D. It is now making these services accessible to key clients via the Primegro Technologies service division of the company.

Another example of support for education of the Australian pig industry is the Premier Pig Program (PPP), sponsored by Alltech. The PPP comprises a series of four interactive workshops covering all stages of the pig life-cycle, supported with technical information referenced in the Alltech Pig Manual. The programme was developed by Dr Bill Close and is supported by local consultants. This year, the interactive version of the manual, Alltech's Pig iSolutions, will become available and will work in conjunction with the PPP. The interactive version can be used by producers throughout the global pig industry. Such modern tools can help the producer identify solutions and use the programme to assist in decision-making with regards to the nutrition and diet supplements for their herd, to boost performance, thus lifting and sustaining the pig industry for the future.

Building the production systems and research institutions of the future in the pork industry would be pointless unless human capital was built at the same time. The development of a National Centre for Pork Industry Training and Education by APL utilising outputs from the Pork CRC begins the process by developing courses for primary and secondary schools. This is followed up at a tertiary level with involvement in the CRC research programmes at undergraduate levels and exposure to commercial piggery systems around the country. Post-graduate degrees are a key element of the development of tomorrow's researchers and the unique collaborative approach of the Pork CRC ensures that the end result is a researcher with excellent understanding of the limitations of commercial practice. The three programmes are focusing on securing reliable and consistent supplies of protein and energy for pig diets (Programme 1), improving herd-feed conversion efficiency (Programme 2), and enhancing capacity to deliver nutrients that promote health and well-being through pork (Programme 3).

Delivery of technical information to the pig farmer is a coordinated approach utilising the skills within APL, Pork CRC and key suppliers to the pig industry.

Range of tools utilised

APL and the Pork CRC have utilised key researchers to deliver the outcome of their research through short knowledge-development courses to support life-long learning (LLL) initiatives for managers to provide a structured "ladder of learning" for industry participants, integrated with the secondary and tertiary education modules and capable of providing formal qualifications. Alternative delivery methods, including web-based learning and weekend block release packages.

QAF has developed the Primegro technologies service division, referenced earlier in this article, to deliver specialised training on all aspects of pig production through to delivery of courses in concert with Melbourne University for post-graduate masters qualifications.

QAF Meat Industires is a key player that typifies the development of piggeries to be sustainable in the Australian pig industry. Its piggery operations were established by Bunge in 1971, as a user of stockfeed and flour milling by-product. Bunge was purchased by QAF in 2002. QAF has now become Australia's leading piggery group (with 20% of the industry), mainly export-oriented with 60,000 sows and processing one million carcasses per year.

QAF employs 700 people across expertise in all facets of pork production grain genetics and production, raw material utilisation, feed milling, pig production, environmental management and marketing of the end product. QAF has a large R&D commitment, and has established one of the largest research units globally, and is unique in its approach to collaborative research with government and industry (150 trials per year).

The Australian pig industry is approaching the short-term future with great optimism, with the consumption of pork rising to 23kg per head a year. The confidence in the development of strategies, such as moisture-infused pork, has led to an increase in brand loyalty, which has shown an increase in sales.

With the spread of pork sales going to supermarkets (40%), restaurants and food services (25%), and butchers and other retailers (35%), the industry is showing positive signs of increased consumer confidence due to the eating quality and experience from pork.