Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal. His columns will run every second week in the Manitoba Co-operator.
Despite losing money for most of the last four years, Danish producers are optimistic they can survive and prosper by improving productivity and efficiency.
Danish producers are certainly not low-cost producers, and must also deal with a barrage of regulations, emanating both from the European Union and their own parliament. So they must constantly battle to increase output.
Their ally in this fight is the Danish Pig Research Centre (PRC), which has 155 employees dedicated to finding answers to industry challenges, both technical and political. Funded by checkoffs and grants, the centre has a budget of $21 million. In conjunction with the national farm advisory service, it monitors the performance of about one-third of the national herd, in order to evaluate the impact of its work and identify new areas for research.
Rationalization has seen the number of producers fall to only 5,000 about 2,100 operating farrow-to-finish systems and the rest either specialist finishers or weaner production units.
The average size of sow farms producing weaners has grown considerably over the last 10 years, with over two-thirds of sows housed on farms with more than 500 sows.
While overall sow numbers have declined, the country’s 1.1 million sows produce 27.5 million pigs per year due to exceptionally high breeding herd productivity. Pigs per sow/year in 2009-10 stood at an average of 27.6 and that figure has been increasing by 0.5 pigs/year since 2003. The top 25 per cent of producers averaged 29.9 pigs weaned/ sow/year, with a litter size of 14.8 born alive and 13 pigs weaned per litter.
Over the last few years it has been more profitable for producers to sell 30-kilogram weaner pigs in Germany, leading to a reduction in throughput for processor Danish Crown. In 2010, an estimated eight million weaners were exported and Danish Crown responded by rationalizing its processing facilities.
The number of pigs processed in Denmark has fallen from 22.6 million in 2004 to 19.3 million in 2009.
PRC estimates that a farrow-to-finish producer lost about $15 per pig in 2009 and $11 in 2010. It notes that, in 2009, investment in new facilities and refurbishment was only one-third of the normal level.
Despite the reduced level of investment, Danish producers have not shirked from responding to legislation on sow housing.
The Danish government enacted legislation in 1998 to phase out sow stalls by 2013, which was followed by a similar EU law in 2001. A survey by PRC showed that by 2010, nearly 70 per cent of producers had already completed the transition to loose housing, while 94 per cent of the 700 producers surveyed expected to be in production after 2013. Not only that, but they expected to increase their sow numbers by an average of 14 per cent.
Genetics plays a huge role in the ever-increasing productivity and the vast majority of producers use breeding stock from the industry’s own breeding organization DanBred. In the four years until mid-2010, the number of piglets per litter alive at Day 5 has increased by an average of 0.45.
Now that 30 pigs weaned per sow has become commonplace in Denmark, PRC has started a project aimed at solving the problems that arise from exceptionally high litter size.
Sow feeding is one area of investigation.
“Colostrum differs from sow milk, and at the beginning of lactation, sows do not produce much milk,” notes a PRC report. “Therefore, a transition diet is being studied for use around farrowing that contains less protein and more medium-chain fatty acids originating from coconut oil.”
The project will evaluate whether additional coconut oil increases the level of the energy source glycogen in newborn piglets and whether the sow’s production of colostrum is increased. The transition diet will be fed from either one, three or five weeks before farrowing until five days post-farrowing.
Providing sufficient pen space for large litters to suckle is also receiving attention. PRC had previously determined that the width of the area occupied by the sow when she lies down and the piglets when they nurse should be a minimum of 127 cm (four ft. two ins.). This “lactation width” is considered an important measurement.
“New crate designs for use in traditional farrowing pens have been developed that meet the recommended lactation width,” says the PRC report. “These crates are currently being studied to establish the effect of increased lactation width on the number of weaned pigs per litter and litter weight at weaning.”
PRC researchers have shown that sows with 15 teats only weaned 15 pigs in 10 per cent of the observed situations. On the other sows with 15 teats, runts were moved to another litter or piglets died either because they had a bad teat or because they could not compete. They are now investigating how to distinguish good teats from bad teats on gilts during the growth period. Also, they are looking at whether a teat needs to be suckled during the gilt’s lactation period in order for it to function well in the following lactation.
In demonstration herds, four local pig advisers are investigating if it is possible to increase productivity by four pigs from 28 to 32 weaned pigs per sow/year or from 31 to 35 weaned pigs per sow/year. This and similar projects are the key to the continual progress that Danish producers are making and will ensure their continued competitiveness.