Europeans rank animal welfare and production efficiency as their foremost challenges.

January 1 is a landmark date for me. Not only does it usher in a brand spankin’ New Year, it also marks the anniversary of my joining the National Hog Farmer editorial staff. I’ve now rung in 39 new years here. With each, I make it a point to reflect on not only the past 12 months, but also my career.

In the early years, we always kept a watchful eye on what was happening in Europe. It was generally held that European pork producers — particularly the Danes, Dutch and Brits — were setting trends that would eventually find their way across the pond.

A look in the rear view mirror seems particularly fitting this year as I reflect on a trip to Hanover, Germany to attend the vast EuroTier 2010 trade show in November.

I hadn’t attended a European trade show in nearly 20 years and, although I try to keep tabs on the production challenges in other parts of the world, I came away from EuroTier with a better handle on global feed cost and animal welfare challenges.

Animal welfare, particularly as it pertains to the use of individual gestation stalls, is a high priority for producers in European Union (EU) countries. And, escalating feed costs are a persistent concern. Exhibitors at EuroTier addressed both issues with targeted products and technologies.

Sow Housing

In the decades that I have written about pigs, European sow housing has evolved from pasture to confinement (stalls and tethers), and now back again to group housing and free-range pastures. This transition is driven largely by animal welfare pressures in EU countries and a mandate to eliminate gestation stalls by Jan. 1, 2013.

The gestation stall ban, passed in 2001, mandates that gestating sows must be kept in groups from four weeks after service until one week before farrowing. Sows must be free to come and go as they please in an area offering no less than 24 sq. ft. of space per sow, while being able to eat their daily meal undisturbed.

EuroTier exhibitors clearly addressed the ban by offering a multitude of hardware and software options that provide the prescribed freedom without compromising sows’ individual care and feeding.

And, as a footnote, I noted one display that took the welfare initiative a step further. For lack of a better term, the “enhanced environment pen” appeared to be designed for a litter of pigs for a lifetime. The pen floor had a solid area for lying, a slotted area for other daily necessities, a nipple waterer, a liquid feed dispenser, a shoulder-high rack to hold hay or straw, and toys. Solid PVC pen walls included open gating over the slotted area so pigs could interact with neighbors in the adjoining pen.

Eye on Efficiency

I was a bit surprised at the number of auto-sort systems displayed. Their popularity apparently meet producers’ goals to better manage large groups of growing pigs, which can be sorted by weight or size, and fed diets to match their stage of growth.

Unique to a couple of these systems, the need for a scale was replaced with a digital camera that served as a tool to estimate body composition and predict the weight of primal cuts in growing pigs.
Similar visual recognition technology, guided by strategically positioned infrared light beams in electronic sow feeding chutes, collected “fitness” assessments (health and body condition) on sows housed in groups. The infrared technology could be programmed to zero in on the tail/vulva area to record the first signs of inflammation, discharge or abortion. The recorded loops can be reviewed by anyone, anywhere, and the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags guide the caretaker to any animal needing medical attention or additional feed. The infrared beam technology could also be used to differentiate gilts from boars/barrows for split-sex feeding, I was told.

Technology vs. Labor

A large percentage of pork-producing farms in EU countries are family owned and operated — and they’d like to keep it that way. They are inclined to invest in more and better technology, if it will allow them to raise more pigs without increasing their workforce.

It was very interesting to gain some new perspectives on pork production in another part of the world. If you’re currently trying to sort through sow housing options, a trip to EuroTier 2012 could be helpful. By then, most EU producers will have more experience with loose sow housing to share.