A Snapshot of the Future?

Based on size and structure, American and European agriculture is dramatically different. Yet, when it comes to consumer trends and activists" actions, developments over there eventually cross the pond to reach our shores.

A recent trip to the Netherlands provided a glimpse of such developments associated with pig production. While it's easy to focus on the differences between the U.S. and Dutch pork sectors, there are similarities, just on a different scale.

Holland is double the size of New Jersey, and there are about 6,500 pork producers in all. Swine herds average 320 sows, with 10,000 sows representing the largest (4,000-head maximum on one site), and they produce about 25 million pigs annually. Like U.S. pork producers, Dutch hog farmers face high feed prices and low margins. Their numbers are declining and herds are getting larger to a point. More than 60 percent of the country's live hogs and pork cuts are shipped elsewhere mostly to Germany. 

They also face a long list of outsiders (non-government organizations, activists or "pressure groups," as they call them) that want a say about what occurs on the farm. While the European Union has strong animal-welfare and production requirements, Holland has tended to lead the pack. Part of that is due to a rich commitment to research and technology, and part is due to the population density. At a population of 16.6 million, that translates to about 495 people per square kilometer versus 32 in the United States.

Animal-welfare groups have been active in the country for several decades; however, the tipping point occurred in the late 1990s to early 2000s when a series of animal disease breaks, including classical swine fever, avian influenza virus, Q fever and foot-and-mouth disease, required millions of farm animals to be culled. Scenes on the nightly news triggered public outrage about "modern livestock production."

"We didn't have the answers as to how to prevent such a break in the future or how to bridge the gap with consumers" concerns," says Annechien ten Have-Mellema, a pork producer and chairman of the pig-farming section of LTO Nederland (a farm group that deals with legislation and policy issues). The social stigma became intense, as some parents went so far as not letting their children associate with farmers" kids.

Animal welfare, food safety and modern farming practices were tied together as consumers" doubt about the country's food producers grew. "The consumer and producer have grown apart," says Hans de Haan, senior consultant with ZLTO, the country's largest agricultural group. "Farmers are not looked upon favorably." That's  particularly true for pig farmers, he adds.

NGOs began pressuring retailers, which trickled down to farmers, and that has led to a long list of new developments. (It's worth noting that the animal activists hold two seats in the Dutch parliament.)

The most notable are housing systems for egg-laying hens and gestation sows. While the European Union's ban on gestation-sow stalls goes into full effect on Jan. 1, 2013, Holland led the trend by researching and adopting a variety of group-based gestationhousing systems.

Other countries that are ready for the gestation-stall ban are the United Kingdom, Finland and Sweden, notes Gerard Albers, director of Hendrix Genetics, which includes Hypor on the swine side. "France, Spain and Italy have the lowest amount of farmers converted."

Have-Mellema says that, overall, 10 percent of E.U. producers will likely leave the business due to the gestation-stall ban. She cites the following reasons:

  • Cost: "They don't have the money for the investment."
  • Age: "Depending on the farmer's age, it may not be a profitable investment."
  • Environmental issues: This depends on the farmer's land base and ability to increase the production footprint.

There will likely be a period where pork supplies will tighten, Have-Mellema says, as has been the case with the laying-hen housing conversion. That E.U. ban occurred on Jan. 1, 2012.

"There has been a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in egg production," Albers says. "It can have tremendous impact on prices egg prices were like we've never seen before."

As for enforcement, Have-Mellema says E.U. member states will be in charge of their own efforts. Producers out of compliance can be taken to court. "In the end, they all will have to do it," she adds. "It may take some years before the European Union is really 100 percent."

Producers that continue to raise hogs will get bigger. That's what Have-Mellema and her husband have done with their operation in northern Holland. Having adopted pen gestation with straw bedding 12 years ago, they are expanding the sow herd from 320 head to 600.

"The farmer has to learn to manage a new system. You have to build upon your knowledge and learn what works for your farm," she says. "Management also is very important in a stall system." 

Asked whether group sow housing can work for larger production systems, Have-Mellema says, "I'm convinced you can do it with 30,000 sows too." But she adds that phasing out a housing system within an industry is a very slow process; it took 10 to 15 years for the Netherlands.

Genetics companies like Hendrix and ToPigs helped in that transition, as they moved their nucleus herds into group-housing systems several years ago. "So indirectly we've selected for group housing based on performance for some time now," says Hanneke Feitsma, DVM, research director at ToPigs. "As producer systems change, genetics have to change." She points out that each animal gets a social breeding value, which includes such things as aggression and sociability. Robustness and leg conformity are other priorities.  

"Figure on a two- to three-year transition period," Feitsma notes. 

There's no consensus on a perfect housing method, although the activists most prefer that all animals have access to the outdoors. "The NGOs want pigs outside; we say we can have better health inside, which means better welfare," says Gerbert Oosterlaken, a pork producer from Beers.

Throughout Holland, much research on sow housing and animal welfare continues and the decisions are not stagnant.

As another producer example, Arno van Son relates that his parents" 250-sow operation moved to "in/out stalls" nearly five years ago. This system features open-ended stalls, with a feed hopper and nipple waterer for each sow, combined with a slatted open area (3 meters by 15 meters). Sows can move about as they please. "Out of a 50-sow group, maybe 10 are in the rest area at a time; the rest are in stalls," he relates.

The family also has a pen system. Overall, van Son says his family likes the in/out stalls, and they didn't see any significant lameness or culling issues. "Larger sows do get larger and small, passive ones don't do as well," he says.

The van Sons do lock bred sows into the stalls for three weeks post-insemination to allow embryos to attach, but in the future that allowance will drop to four days. "That's a concern," van Son says.

"Eventually that will go away too," Have-Mellema believes.

In fact, long-term the in/out stalls are in jeopardy, even though most Dutch producers use the system. "We don't support that," says Bert van den Berg, senior policy officer, Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals, the country's oldest and most active animal-welfare group. "It doesn't reach the humane level." He adds that SPA would not support in/out stalls even if the sows were given a larger common area. The stalls are the sticking point.

 He points to farrowing and says the crates should be taken away in two to five days, "as the risk of crushing is only in the first few days." He anticipates that "someday farrowing crates will be gone."

It's hard to tell whether Dutch pork producers agree with the direction their business is headed or accept that it's in their best interests to work more closely with retailers, activists and researchers to find solutions and options. "It's a continuing discussion," Have-Mellema says. "You have to change; otherwise, you're not in business anymore. Future housing systems will combine good animal welfare with societal preferences."

Just like production protocols differ from one farm to the next, certainly they differ between countries. But as the world continues to shrink, one cannot ignore the snapshots that other countries provide.