Pig producers around the world have suffered from poor returns over the last couple of years, leading to industry rationalization and a focus on efficiency and cost reduction. Nowhere is this more true than in Denmark, which has one of the highest production costs of the major pig-producing nations. The Danish Agriculture and Food Council (DAFC) says the number of farms with pigs has dropped from 16,880 in 1998 to 5,513 in 2008, adding that in 2008, 62 per cent of sows were in herds of 500 or more.
Rationalization has not only been accelerated by unprofitability, but by increasingly strict legislation on the environment and animal welfare. Also, in 2013, producers in the EU have to use group housing for sows after the first 28 days of pregnancy and many older producers are quitting rather than make the large investment required to replace sow stalls.
Another trend over the past few years is the move towards specialist weaner-producing units exporting live pigs to Germany for finishing. Part of the reason for this is related to the legal requirements for manure spreading. Danish producers must own sufficient land to dispose of manure or have a long-term spreading arrangement with another farm. Because finishers produce so much manure and land is extremely expensive, many producers have chosen to expand their sow herd and stop finishing. The second reason is that producers have become increasingly disgruntled with the price for market hogs paid by their co-operative processing company, Danish Crown. The company has suffered from stiff competition from the U. S. in export markets, just as Canada has, resulting in downwards pressure on the hog price. Meanwhile, demand from Germany for weaner pigs has been strong and prices much more attractive. The increase in exports has been quite dramatic over the last few years and in 2009 was close to seven million, or around 25 per cent of total production.
As ever, the Danes have responded to challenging times by focusing on efficiency. In breeding herds, the average number of pigs weaned per sow is now over 27 and the top 25 per cent of herds achieve 30. Litter size averages 14 born alive per litter and farrowing rate 87 per cent. In the finishing herd, average growth rate has reached 900 g/day for pigs growing from 30 to 105 kg, with the top 25 per cent of herds just short of 1,000 g/day. A good deal of this progress is due to genetic improvement and the industry’s breeding program has delivered huge gains for producers. Now it is embracing biotechnology such as genomic selection using genetic markers, which promises to increase the rate of genetic progress quite dramatically.
The Danish industry prides itself on the quality and consistency of its pork and the fact that the vast majority of producers use breeding stock from the industry breeding system is a big factor in achieving carcasses that look like peas in a pod when hanging in the plant. Nevertheless, a current project being carried out by the Pig Research Centre, part of DAFC, is looking at the use of alternative breeds for niche markets. Initial evaluation of eight breeds for eating quality led to the selection of the Mangalitza, a Hungarian pig with wool like a sheep and the Ibérico pig, which is used for the production of the highly expensive Jamn Ibérico, thought by many to be the best ham in the world. The Danish report says “The evaluation revealed that, in particular, meat from the Mangalitza and Ibérico pigs was distinctly and positively different from that of the Danish breeds as the meat was more tender and had a more attractive taste.” Now these breeds are being used as boar lines and crossed with the conventional breeds used in Denmark in the current part of the trial.
One of the biggest debates in the EU currently is whether castration should be phased out and, if so, how boar taint will be avoided. Denmark’s position as a major exporter would be badly damaged if castration was not allowed as many of its export markets outside the EU demand that male pigs are castrated. In some countries, such as Denmark, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, pigs must be anesthetized prior to castration, but this is considered a short-term measure and its benefit to pig welfare is questioned. Although a vaccine that eliminates boar taint in entire males is licensed in the EU, the Danish industry has held back from its use pending evaluation of its efficacy and discussions on acceptability in its export markets.
The Pig Research Centre is looking at a range of measures to avoid boar taint, including the vaccine. In conjunction with Welsh company Ovasort, it has developed an immunological method for sorting “male sperm” and “female sperm,” which is patented. The aim of the project is for semen doses to have a sufficiently high concentration of female sperm that a minimum of 70 per cent of pigs in a litter will be female and whether this can be applied practically will be determined by 2014.
The work of the Pig Research Centre is focused on the challenges and opportunities faced by the Danish industry. It is quick to respond to changing circumstances and allocates resources in proportion to the potential impact for producers. Just as important, the information generated is very effectively communicated to the industry, allowing producers to apply new knowledge rapidly and continue on their quest to remain the most efficient producers in the world.
“Theevaluation revealedthat…meat fromtheMangalitza andIbéricopigs wasdistinctlyand positivelydifferent fromthatoftheDanish breedsasthemeatwas moretenderandhada moreattractivetaste.”