4 December 2023 | Category: Uncategorised

Pig production: fast forward to 2043

By Robert Hoste

Pig production economist

The pig industry faces numerous challenges, and it’s important to consider how pig farming and the industry will evolve in the future. Let’s delve into several developments that are shaping the future of pig production. Allow me to introduce myself; I am John, a proud pig farmer residing in Western Europe, managing an 800-sow farrow-finish farm. We live in the year 2043. So that’s 20 years after farmer Theo from 2023.

Improved animal welfare

In the middle of the 21st century, the standards of animal welfare on pig farms have significantly improved. Animals are primarily housed indoors, and practices such as tail docking, castration, and teeth clipping are now the exception rather than the norm. Animals have ample space and access to enrichment materials that allow them to express their natural behaviours without compromising their zootechnical performance. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that these improvements come at a cost. Increased space requirements lead to higher housing expenses and necessitate a skilled labour force, which I will discuss later. Society’s demand for enhanced animal welfare standards is clear, and as the saying goes, “What you pay is what you get.” In fact, the cost of production has risen by approximately 25% compared to the past, even after adjusting for inflation.

Innovations in farming

Governments, citizens, and neighbours of farmers no longer tolerate unpleasant odours, ammonia emissions, or particulate matter (fine dust). To combat these issues, various technologies have been developed to minimise these emissions, both under the slats and at the outgoing air. While complete odour elimination remains challenging, outgoing air is often blended with pleasant scents, such as the aroma of a forest or freshly mown grass. Additionally, feed formulations are adapted to minimise nutrient losses, and food by-products and leftovers are utilised fully in pig feed. Pigs play a vital role in recycling these resources, transforming them into highly valued animal protein.

A unique situation has emerged in the European Union, where the European Commission introduced the European Green Deal in the early 2020s. This comprehensive set of measures led to reduced feed and meat production within the EU. Drastic reductions in pesticide use have affected the quality of certain grains, prompting the development of technology for rapid detection of mycotoxins and other harmful elements in feed ingredients. Consequently, feed prices have risen significantly. As the European Union lacks sufficient protein production, synthetic amino acids are now abundantly used in pig feed, which also aids in reducing nitrogen excretion in manure. This innovation has been adopted in various regions of the world grappling with local nutrient surpluses. With the substantial growth of pig production in Asia to meet the demands of a growing population, the challenges of producing sufficient, high-quality feed protein have increased. Synthetic solutions have become a practical necessity.

Automation and smart monitoring

As I mentioned earlier, finding well-educated employees willing to work on farms has become increasingly difficult, resulting in the development of technologies to automate manual tasks as much as possible. Automation extends to pen cleaning and animal handling, with improvements in animal monitoring using monitors, cameras, and microphones. All animals are equipped with smart chips for identification, temperature monitoring, and heartbeat tracking. This allows continuous monitoring of various aspects of the animals’ health and well-being, including temperature, coughing, mobility, eating and drinking behaviour, heat behaviour, feed intake, daily weight gain, as well as air quality within the barns. The entire system offers significant cost savings compared to human labour, yet it functions to support us.

With the help of highly trained farm workers, we aim to outperform technology in monitoring the animals and swiftly identifying any deviations. As a result, our labour requirements have decreased compared to the past, with just 4.5 full-time equivalent workers. During the farrowing period, which occurs over three consecutive days every three weeks, two dedicated individuals focus on ensuring the survival of all piglets.

Data-driven management and an improved health situation have led to significant improvements in zootechnical performance. Mortality rates have decreased to 12-14% between birth and slaughter, and feed efficiency in the finishing phase now averages an FCR of 2.0. This is a source of great satisfaction for both us as farmer and our employees, as it makes our work much more enjoyable.

Biosecurity is a top priority on our farm. Farm workers are highly vigilant and conduct daily inspections of all areas. They shower twice before entering the stable. When entering different departments, they consequently change boots and coveralls. This level of precaution incurs extra costs, but the result is content and thriving animals, rendering it a worthwhile effort. The use of antibiotics has come to almost zero, thanks to our high biosecurity standard, but also to extensive automated animal observation.

“Fair Farmer Pay”

You may wonder about the size of our farm. The intense competition (the ‘rat race’) that characterised the early 21st century is outdated. On our farm we have 800 sows, with breeding, rearing, and finishing operations situated on three separate locations. We produce nearly 30,000 pigs annually. Presently, we enjoy a respectable income, approximately double what my father earned during his time as a pig farmer. This is what we call “Fair Farmer Pay,” reflecting the high level of responsibility we bear in providing food for our consumers. Our customers insist on this fair compensation, recognising their duty to produce in line with rigorous sustainability standards that benefit farmers, animals, products, and the environment. We have established close partnerships with our customers to meet their specific demands. In our farm, we focus on enhancing meat taste through the use of specific feed ingredients. Other pig entrepreneurs pursue other specific objectives to improve meat quality based on their customers’ preferences. Collaboration in the value chain is essential, as it helps spread the risks, which can be substantial due to fluctuating feed prices. The feed supplier, we, and the meat company jointly manage these fluctuations, as we have agreed to share profits and losses. We are exceptionally content with all these changes.

Our feed supplier plays a critical role, possessing comprehensive knowledge of our farm’s production details and the entire process, up to the sales in retail stores. The meat processor manages the supply chain, leveraging their understanding of consumer demands, upstream production processes, and expertise in optimal carcass valorisation. Our partnership extends to the feed and meat industries, and even to the retailer, allowing for mutual insights into processes and costs. This collaborative approach optimizes the entire value chain, reduces failure costs, and ensures flexibility in supplying consumers, as we have a vested interest in the entire supply chain, both operationally and financially. Nonetheless, as entrepreneurs, we remain responsible for our specific part of the production chain.

Changing meat market in the European Union

The European Union now produces less pig meat than it did two decades ago, with a strong focus on satisfying domestic demand rather than on exports. Edible offal parts such as ears, tails, feet (as depicted in the image), and organs are exported to countries that have a demand for these products. This approach reflects a strategy of “smart autarky”, in which the European Union aims to be self-sufficient in pig meat while exporting parts of the pig that are less popular in Europe but highly valued elsewhere. No meat is imported, as the EU maintains higher standards in terms of product safety, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability than any other region worldwide. Consequently, pig meat is no longer viewed as a commodity; the gap between Europe and other major pig meat producers has widened in terms of production requirements and costs. China, the United States, and Brazil are the largest players on the world market, while Europe’s role has diminished in terms of volume. Still, Europe remains a hub of innovation and progress in the industry.

Consumption patterns have evolved, with European consumers now eating less pig meat compared to two decades ago. This trend is a result of changing dietary preferences, particularly among younger individuals who are partly opting for alternative protein sources. Additionally, the elderly population, known for their significant meat consumption, has decreased. Traditional hot meals, once comprised of meat, potatoes, and vegetables, have given way to convenience foods as we’ve transitioned from cooking our meals to purchasing ready-to-heat dinners. The food processing industry has adapted to this shift, transforming from carcass cutters to food providers.

Modern pig farming

Consumers today are highly conscious of their food choices and are well-informed about the origins of their meals, including where the meat ingredients were sourced, the animals’ birth, rearing, slaughtering, and processing location. Furthermore, consumers have easy access to information regarding the carbon footprint and other environmental aspects associated with their food. This information is available through QR codes printed on the meat using edible ink. While consumers may not scrutinise these details frequently, having access to such information builds trust in the product. Despite reduced consumption, pig meat remains highly appreciated by most consumers as a natural source of protein, iron, and essential vitamins, contributing to a healthy and sustainable diet.

In summary, compared to the past, where my father worked as a pig farmer, the industry now faces higher demands, but we also find greater satisfaction in our work. No longer burdened by around-the-clock toil for meagre income, we now enjoy a respectable livelihood. Automation, sensors, and other technological advancements significantly reduced the need for manual labour, especially the more strenuous tasks. This has led to improved animal welfare, enhanced zootechnical performance, and better animal health. It has also provided valuable supply chain information and guarantees. Collaborating with partners in the supply chain has earned us respect as food producers within society. We prioritize the recycling of food by-products and leftovers, and antibiotic use has dwindled to the point of being almost unnecessary. Pig meat production within the EU has decreased as we emphasize self-sufficiency and smart autarky, with favourable prices for our products. In essence, I am a contented pig farmer, grateful to live in this era.

Credits: this text has been presented in a webinar organized by Serket Tech, 3 November 2023

By Robert Hoste

Pig production economist

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