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.

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.”