Dutch farmer finds animal health and welfare go hand in hand

Gerbert Oosterlaken wants animal welfare advocates on his side instead of the opposition

When Gerbert Oosterlaken began designing a new 600-sow barn on his livestock and crop farm in this densely populated district, he wasn’t interested in state-of-the-art production systems.

He looked 20 years into the future — one he believes will be driven as much by how well he can get along with his non-farming neighbours as it is by economics.

“We thought in advance what can come to us, and where do we have to go?” he told a group of Canadian visitors.

So when Oosterlaken’s barn opened for business last year, it also opened to the public. Visitors can drop in any time during daylight hours, serve themselves a hot beverage from a push-button dispenser in the viewing room, and watch what goes on through windows overlooking the farrowing and sow barns.

The production facility was built with steeped pitched roofs to match the architecture of the area, and equipped with ammonia scrubbers that work so efficiently that it’s hard to tell from the outside that you’re standing beside a pig barn. Plans are also in place for a biking and hiking trail around the property.

While European law now requires Oosterlaken to implement group housing for his sows within 28 days of breeding, Netherlands law moves that up to after four days.

And he didn’t stop there. He has also eliminated farrowing crates, opting instead for a roomy farrowing pen that provides the sow with freedom of movement and her piglets access to a separate warming area through piglet-sized doors. And he no longer castrates the boars produced on his farm, a decision that puts him years ahead of the 2018 target for phasing out the practice in the Netherlands.

Licence to produce

Oosterlaken, 54, is among a growing number of livestock producers in the Netherlands who recognize that while productivity and profits are key to their business success, it will be public opinion that determines whether they are in business at all.

“That’s my licence to produce in the future,” he said. “If they are standing here and blocking my gates because they don’t agree with the way I produce, then we have a problem.

“We can tell them that we have the right to do it, but when you’re held back every day, then you can’t produce properly.”

He happily reported that animal welfare organizations have visited his property and liked what they saw. That opens the door to the next phase of his business plan.

“They are standing at our back and they look the same way we are and I am pleased with that. That’s why I am confident that I can get a new market system that will finally sell my pigs for a better price,” he said.

The costs of appeasing animal welfare advocates have been high. He spent about 2,800 euros (C$4,130) per sow to build his barn compared to the industry average of 2,000 to 2,200 euros, mainly because of increased space per hog.

Less stress

But there are also rewards.

The new farrowing-rearing system creates a healthier and less stressful environment for the piglets, who remain with the sow for 25 days instead of the usual 20. They learn to eat from their mother, who is fed on the floor and shares her food with her offspring from the time they are about five days old.

Oosterlaken said when he first implemented the system there were naysayers who said piglets couldn’t eat what sows eat. He said they can, and they do.

He said it is also common to see the sows allowing their piglets to eat first before they clean up what’s left of their ration. “It’s beautiful to see,” he said.

At weaning, the sow is removed from the pen. The weanlings remain there with their litter mates until they are 25 kg. Because they are already eating, they move directly on to grower rations, eliminating the more expensive starter feeds. That step alone saves about one euro (C$1.36) per weanling in feed costs, he said.

Leaving the litter intact in a familiar environment also reduces stress, which means less chance for illness or injury from fighting.

The only stress they face is losing their mother. “The only thing they can think about after they are weaned is they cry for the first two days; they want their mother back. That’s all. They know what their pen looks like, they know where to take in feed and they are drinking water,” he said.

Oosterlaken credits the system with reducing weanling death losses from four per cent to one per cent in his operation.

Starving disease

He farrows on four-week cycles, believing that diseases most apt to strike piglets in their first week of life are starved for new vectors for three weeks of every farrowing cycle.

His sows are housed according to their first, second and third parities and then divided into smaller groups according to their body condition and feed requirements.

He said ending boar castration on his farm was as much about production efficiency as it was to appease animal welfare groups.

“For me there was no discussion, whether we would not or would castrate, because I wanted to stop castration,” he said.

For starters, doing the job was one of the least favourite activities. “Second the pigs are suffering from castration. And third, for me as a farmer, we cut off the best part of the pig because boars are efficient with feed; they grow better than gilts, so for me as a farmer, producing boars is only better.”

His barn is divided into four colour-coded sections; he changes boots when moving from one section to the other. Visitors from the outside are restricted and must shower in and out.

Oosterlaken said by focusing on animal health and reducing herd stress, the combination of management changes has reduced his use of therapeutic antibiotics to 10 per cent of what he used before.

But having happy hogs and improved production efficiency is only part of the payoff from the changes he’s made.

“Part of it I get back from animals that produce better and part of it I have to get back by getting my meat sold for a better price,” he said.

“That’s my goal in the next two years — all the pigs that are born on my farm have to be in a new marketing system,” he said.

That just may happen thanks to an initiative by the country’s major animal welfare organizations, which have worked with grocery retailers to develop a three-star system for meat products produced according to humane and environmental standards.

But perhaps the biggest reward is reading the guest book comments left behind by his neighbours, who bring their grandchildren to the viewing room to see how pork is raised.

“That gives me a good feeling. I think in Holland some pig farmers don’t want it known in the city that they are pig farming because they’re actually a little ashamed,” he said. “I am happy and I am proud to be a pig farmer.”

Some have described the Netherlands as a living laboratory for sustainable intensive livestock production.

With 16.7 million people living with 11 million hogs, 80 million chickens and 400,000 cows in an area that is one-fifteenth the size of Alberta, it is impossible for the animal industry to operate below the public’s radar.

Growing public distaste over environmental and animal welfare issues came to a head a decade ago when a series of disease outbreaks caused catastrophic losses, leaving disturbing headlines and images in their wake.

Government and industry was pushed into action. Today, production protocols — both regulatory and self-imposed — in the Netherlands exceed European and global standards on several fronts.

The costs have been high. But so are the rewards.

Co-operator editor Laura Rance recently participated in a study tour sponsored by the Dutch consulate in Washington, D.C. of how the pork and poultry sectors have adapted. Here is one hog farmer’s story.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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