Focus on Denmark

Ahead of the game

By Melodie Michel

- Last updated on GMT

Ahead of the game

Related tags Animal welfare European union Denmark Livestock Pork

As the EU sow stall ban draws nearer, Denmark’s pig industry faces a fresh set of challenges, but believes its policies on welfare, the environment and the quality of its products will carry it through.

Based on a unique co-operative system that involves producers far beyond the farm gates, the Danish pig sector tends to be ahead of the game when it comes to food safety, animal welfare and environmental legislation. But with the ban on sow stalls due to be implemented across the EU in January 2013, the industry is facing unprecedented challenges.

Although experts agree that the new regulations will have a significant impact on European pork production, prices and exports, no-one knows exactly to what extent it will affect the industry. Recent reports revealed that three member states are already fully compliant with the legislation – Luxembourg, Sweden and the UK, where sow stalls have been illegal since 1999 – while nine others, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, are expected to have made the transition by January. But with more than half of the EU deemed unable to fully comply before the deadline, many countries fear they might suffer from an imbalance in competitiveness, as the ban will result in higher costs and reduced productivity. Calling for a zero-tolerance policy, they hope that the European Commission will take quick action against breaches, after its leniency on the battery cage ban caused enormous disruption in the egg industry.

UK market director for the Danish Agriculture and Food Council (DAFC) John Howard says: “The issue has attracted a lot of profile in Europe. We had a similar scenario in the egg industry and the authorities in Brussels came rather late into that and, as a result, we do have non-compliance. We hope Brussels will press member states very hard to ultimately have responsibility for enforcement, but the honest answer is that there is a long way to go and we won’t know the answer to that until we actually get there. There will be a lot of quite justified anger if the legislation is not enforced, given that we’ve had 10 years to adjust now.”

Hard line approach

According to Bpex chairman Stewart Houston, the Commission has demonstrated a desire to enforce the new law very strictly. “Recent events have shown that the Commission is adopting a hard line with member states on compliance, taking the view that the very integrity of the EU itself is at stake over this. The Commission has made it crystal clear that it intends to use every means available to ensure that member states comply with the new Directive,”​ he adds.

Denmark banned sow stalls in new or refurbished buildings in 1998, five years before the EU voted the legislation. The country is currently 75%-compliant, with the rest of producers expected to either make the transition towards the end of the deadline, delaying the drop in productivity as long as possible, or go out of business when the ban comes into force. At the beginning of 2012, the Danish authorities made it clear that no breaches would be tolerated, sending a letter to all producers and veterinarians warning that any non-compliance found after January 2013 would be “reported to the police”​.

“There has been a lot of information – not just from the authorities but also from DAFC – to remind producers of their obligation to comply, given the length of time they’ve had,”​ Howard says.

As Bpex expects pig production to fall by 5% to 10% once the ban comes into place, Danish experts are optimistic that the effect on production will be compensated by the fact that a lot of farmers decided to expand at the same time as they upgraded their facilities.

Trine Vig, quality assurance manager at the Danish Pig Research Centre (DPRC), explains: “We assume that half of the farms that have not made the changes yet will go out of business, but the other half will have to adjust their systems within the current building. That will of course imply that they will have to cut down on the number of sows, due to space requirements, so they will lose out on productivity.

“On the other hand, those farmers who have decided to build a completely new unit from scratch will expand and increase the number of sows, so I think we’ll end up with the name number of pigs, but maybe at a higher cost in the end, and hopefully we’ll get that cost back after 1 January 2013.”

Danish pig processor Tican has come to the same conclusion after conducting a survey among its suppliers. Livestock procurement manager Henrik Lauritsen tells GlobalMeatNews​: “We did the same investigation as the industry has done with our own farmers, and it shows the same amount that are ready for 2013. Around 94% will be ready and the rest (around 6%) will retire, go out of business or just shut down.

“If that’s the trend throughout the industry, 6% lower production is huge, but hopefully some of the farms will expand during the process, meaning that we won’t lose too much production.”

Major investment

Ole Skårhøj is one of the farmers who decided to expand his production at the same time as he installed group housing for sows. He started the process seven years ago, and invested a total of DKK19m (£2m) for a production of about 1,900 sows. About DKK10m (£1.1m) of that went into the replacement of sow stalls with group pens, while the rest was put towards expanding the farm and making it more environmentally sustainable.

“I’m actually very happy with the system now,”​ he says. “It’s just part of the development. When you’re part of a society where people care about animal welfare, it’s important that we follow that trend.”

He notes that the new housing system requires a different type of management, more focused on the animal. “We have to be much more alert to her behaviour, asking is she is alright, getting enough feed etc. It’s much more necessary to have good management with a system like this than if they were in stalls, and we constantly need to have to have a very good overview.”

However, Skårhøj is concerned that, despite bringing positive changes to the farm’s managing practices, the ban will negatively affect his competitiveness compared to non-compliant producers in and out of the EU. “We see that as a potential threat to the Danish industry. In Denmark we have fairly high costs, so that will affect our competitiveness, and maybe even bring the Danish pig industry out of business,”​ he says.

The Danish legislation tends to be more stringent than in other countries, especially when it comes to protecting the environment. In order to obtain a building permit, Skårhøj was required to install a manure cooling system, meant to limit ammonia emissions into the atmosphere. Reluctant at first, he now sees the benefit of such a system, as the heat from the manure can be recycled, considerably reducing his need for petrol.

But between animal welfare and environmental legislation, it is becoming more and more difficult for Danish pig producers to be profitable. “It has become very difficult to be a pig producer in Denmark; there is a lot of bureaucracy and every time we think we’re there, the legislation changes. It’s very frustrating. With everything you have to go through just to have a new building, it’s more or less impossible for a practical farmer to do all these things, so we need a huge number of people just to do the paperwork,”​ Skårhøj explains.

Dutch compliance

In the Netherlands, the tough environmental laws might even become an obstacle in implementing the sow stall ban. Frans Van Dongen of Dutch meat association PVE recently told Farmers Weekly that, contrary to recent reports that put his country in the list of member states expected to reach full compliance by 2013, one in 10 Dutch farms would not be in line with the new legislation by January, as some farmers were more preoccupied with the new requirement to improve air quality by installing air scrubbers than with the sow stall ban. To avoid that kind of problem, in 2011 the Danish authorities adopted a more flexible approach in granting environmental approvals to producers making changes to comply with the new welfare rules, a move that was warmly welcomed in the industry.
Still, the ever-growing number of environmental and welfare laws has resulted in a drop in pig producers, from over 45,000 in 1985 to about 4,000 now, and this is likely to shrink further after 2013. “You need a certain scale to adapt to the legislation, but at the same time those who do adapt do the job properly, with modern farms,”​ says Vig. About 65% of sows are now kept in larger herds (over 500 sows), and 65% of finishers are produced in herds of over 4,000 pig places.

But for Lauritsen, a reduction in supply might bring positive consequences to the industry. “If production goes down in Denmark, it will probably also go down in other countries, and having less meat and still the same demand will probably affect prices in the right direction. We’ve been waiting for many years for production to come down,”​ he says.

Danish producers are also hoping to put forward the quality of their pork in order to maintain demand against cheaper, lower-welfare products. “There are undoubtedly consumers who are prepared to pay for higher welfare. The majority of pork and bacon eaten in Europe is produced within Europe and, certainly, our major concern would be distortion of trade that might occur if EU countries haven’t complied and the legislation is not being enforced properly,”​ says Howard.

At Tican, Lauritsen adds: “We hope that consumers will focus on this and say they want to buy from countries and companies that are already in line with the legislation.”

For Skårhøj, focusing on quality is the only way the Danish industry is going to stay afloat. He says: “If we’re going to survive, we have to survive on quality, producing the right quality for the right customers. We are very sensitive to competitors, a lot of our business is bulk production, which is accessible to a lot of other countries, so we need to concentrate on all the quality measures that we do in Denmark. That also requires more from the slaughterhouse, which needs to improve marketing to tell the world that our product is better.”

Keeping in the quality mindset, Denmark is always looking at the next step to improve pig welfare. Its legislation already exceeds EU requirements on tail docking, tooth grinding and castration, which can only be done after administering pain relief. Sprinkling systems are mandatory to keep pigs relaxed, and flooring must be solid or drained, as opposed to fully slatted. Flooring, rooting and manipulable material must be of natural origin, and piglets must have a creep area to rest.

Sow welfare

The levy-funded DPRC spends £11m a year on research, £3m of which goes to animal welfare projects, and performs trials on 200 commercial farms that change every year, providing the technology and equipment in exchange for the farmers’ feedback. The organisation is now working on several research projects, with £1.2m dedicated to sow welfare, £500,000 to freedom farrowing, £300,000 to alternatives to castration and £100,000 to tail docking. Vig explains: “A year ago, we had a huge welfare seminar with hundreds of the largest pig producers in Denmark, where they all set new targets for having loose-housed sows for the service and farrowing units. These are areas that have not been discussed in the EU yet and have just started to be discussed in Denmark.

“We have set a target to ban service and farrowing crates from new facilities by 2021, and to have 10% of our sows in ‘freedom farrowing’ pens by 2020. It doesn’t sound like much, but we have one million sows, so 10% equals around 30,000 pens​ [as sows would alternate after four weeks in the pen]. Currently we have around 1,000 or 1,500 in trials and farmers are collecting data, so it’s still a long road to 30,000 pens, but we will have to reach that in the next eight years.”

Freedom farrowing poses the risk of increased piglet mortality, as free-moving sows sometimes crush their litters when lying down, so the DPRC is currently researching the best combination between pen design and genetics to limit that happening. Collaborating with other countries on research, it has put a focus on management and daily routines, sow selection and climatic conditions.

Denmark is also one of the countries that signed the ‘European declaration on alternatives to surgical castration of pigs’, aiming to voluntarily phase out castration by 2018. Other countries in the consortium include Germany and the Netherlands.

The processing industry is also one step ahead of legislation when it comes to animal welfare. At Tican’s abattoir in Thisted, pigs are stunned in groups with CO2, which reduces stress levels. “We want to make sure we do things correctly and are in line with animal welfare. We didn’t have to install a group stunner, according to legislation, but we put it in there because it was good for the pigs to move as much as possible of their own free will,”​ says Lauritsen, adding that more relaxed pigs at slaughter also improves meat quality.

The plant also recently installed an automatic system that verifies that pigs have been stuck properly before moving further on the processing chain. “It’s fairly simple: it’s like a white plate with a light on and a camera that measures the stream of blood. If the pig has not been stuck correctly, it stops the line. It’s automatic and ensures we are in line with animal welfare,”​ Lauritsen adds.

When it comes to the environment, Denmark already achieved a 47% reduction in nitrate pollution, a 51% reduction in phosphorous, and 50% reduction in use of artificial fertiliser between 1985 and 2010. Once again, it is ahead of other member states, aiming to use half of its waste to produce biogas by 2020. Tican is already recycling 100% of its waste into biogas, and purchases electricity from the windmills surrounding Thisted. “Today we can produce two pigs with the same environmental impact as a single pig in 1985,​” says Howard.

Environmental conflict

The DPRC is currently focusing on solving possible conflicts of interest between welfare and environmental legislation. For example, outdoor rearing in Denmark has gone down from 5% to 1% of production in recent years, due to restrictive rules on the use of slurry. Similarly, using deep litter straw might present welfare benefits, but reduces the utilisation of nutrients from the manure from 75% to 45%, increasing the need for artificial fertiliser. The DPRC has started trials for an automatic straw dispenser that would provide pigs with enough straw to keep them comfortable and entertained without compromising the utilisation of slurry. “We need to identify more intelligent ways to use straw without compromising the environment,”​ says Vig.

In the future, Danish pig farms could even be built on two levels, with the heat emanating from the pigs downstairs being directly recycled to produce tomatoes on the upper level.

Despite acknowledging the uncertainty surrounding the European market as the 2013 regulations get closer, the Danish pig industry seems committed to embrace the changes in welfare, and keep innovating towards ever-more ethical farming. Howard concludes: “We’ve just come through a very tough period for the pig industry, not just in Denmark but across Europe, but we’re hoping that, perhaps, on the back of better prices in the next couple of years, that may provide the basis for new investment in Denmark, implementing the best welfare practices and of course introducing new environmental technologies.”

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