German hog farms adapt to stall-free, drug-free model

Germany, it appears, could teach Canadian hog farmers a thing or two. And two of its hog producers came here to the annual swine industry seminar recently to do exactly that.

German producers have learned through trial and “a lot of mistakes” how to raise hogs in free-stall conditions, said Dr. Friedrich Osterhoff of Ahrhoff GmbH, a company that runs a feed mill and hog farms.

The company, based in Boenen, Germany, has also learned how to achieve high performance and herd health without antibiotics or hormone growth promoters.

Feed conversions are running around 2.6 kilograms of feed per kilogram of hog, he said.

Another major difference is that all German hog farms practise batch farrowing, he said. It reduces labour, improves the number of pigs weaned per sow and makes all-in, all-out disease-reducing management possible.

Sow groups, he said, need to be at least 15, and preferably 30 or even more. At 10 or less, there is a lot of fighting, he said.

A typical farm runs five to seven groups per sow herd, he said. The one disadvantage is needing more sow crates: 20 per cent more for a four-week batch system, 29 per cent more for a three-week batch system.

Litters are equalized at 12 to 13, he said. Batches farrow within two to three days. “We only have a couple of busy days per month,” Osterhoff said.

One of the most popular sow barn designs is open-ended crates. The sows are free to roam in a wide aisle, then enter a crate to feed.

A gate closes to keep her in and other sows out while she eats. And she will usually rest in the crate, sometimes for many hours, often all the time, Osterhoff said.

“Of course, when the inspector comes, the crates are all open,” he said with a chuckle echoed by an audience of about 90 people.

For breeding, the Pietrain breed is popular as a terminal cross, Osterhoff said, more popular than Durocs. The Germans have imported some of Canada’s best Durocs.

Osterhoff has helped to organize 15 trips over the last 10 years for 300 German farmers to scrutinize the Canadian and U. S. hog industries. Ontario suits them better, he said, because the scale of farms closely resembles Germany’s farms. They find it’s harder to learn anything useful from the large U. S. operations, he said.

Among the things they learned in North America was the value of segregated weaning setups.

Hans-Peter Witt, who farms 950 hectares and raises about 28,000 market hogs per year near the North Sea and border with Denmark, told how two women inseminate 100 sows within an hour to 70 minutes. Any sows that fail to catch are culled unless their track records are strong enough to warrant another chance.

Many of his sows are outside, even in winter weather that can dip to -15C. Their watering nipples are beside the barn, under a tin roof and behind a curtain of plastic strips, and the system has never frozen, he said.

Painkiller options

Castration, he said, is emerging as a major animal welfare issue. The Germans have tried and reject antibody injections and carbon dioxide anesthetic. Neither is allowed by the government, although they are legal in other countries such as Switzerland and Australia.

Painkiller injections seem likely to become the solution when current castration practices are banned, Witt said. Injections are expected to cost 10 to 15 euro cents (C15 to 18 cents) per pig.

Witt also outlined how compulsory state-run insurance programs operate, covering losses when a “named” disease wipes out a herd. Many farmers buy additional voluntary insurance to cover additional diseases and losses related to quarantine zones embracing a healthy herd.

There are 15 million euros (C$23 million) in the fund now, so premiums have been suspended, he said.

German pork-packing companies make so many excellent sausages that per capita pork consumption is 55 kg per year, Osterhoff said.

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