Pork production in the Netherlands is about to get a lot more challenging.

Not only did the European Union (EU) come out with tough new rules aimed at improving the welfare of pigs, the Dutch government has taken the rules further, saddling farmers with extra cost and management requirements.

“When you earn enough money, rules are not a problem,” says Gerard Peters, who farms with his wife, Francien, and sons, Timo and Pim, at Reusel, the Netherlands, near the border of Belgium. The Peters family is facing new animal welfare rules that threaten to drastically increase their cost of production, yet the consumers who demanded the rules are still free to choose less expensive meat produced elsewhere.

New welfare rules, dictated by the EU, were not enough to satisfy politicians in Holland, where producers must follow even stricter regulations. Pork producers are scrambling to figure out how they can switch from individually housed animals to group housing and still survive financially.

Approximately 30% of Dutch producers currently use group housing. Given the choice, Gerard believes most would prefer to house sows individually. The increased workload of keeping bedding dry and the feeding area clean is chief among their concerns, he says.

Expansion Plan

Three years ago, the Peters had a typical Dutch farm with 140 sows and 30 milking cows. Gerard realized that both enterprises were too small to be viable, especially with the new welfare regulations looming.

Although his heart was with the cows, the family weighed the costs associated with dairy cows vs. the opportunities with sows. They decided to focus on producing pigs. The Peters generated some money by selling their dairy quota, valued at between 78¢/lb. and $1.04/lb., roughly $13,786/cow (all figures in U.S. dollars).

They took the unusual step of housing sows in large, open pens with straw. Part of the reason that they like using straw is that the manure is much more concentrated than a liquid system. Pens hold 150-200 sows, each divided with concrete barriers to partially separate the sleeping area from the eating area. Straw bedding stays in the barn for an entire year, while the eating area is scraped daily. Manure is stored outside the barn.

North American producers looking to comply with strict environmental regulations may be surprised to learn that the Peters are able to operate a 500-sow unit on 29 acres. However, with land valued at between $13,947 and $23,246/acre, owning large acreages is simply impossible for Dutch farmers.

Manure is trucked 60 to 125 miles to western and northern Holland, at a cost of $17/ton, where it is predominantly used for crops.

Manure is tested for nutrient value to help determine the cost of disposal. The nutrient content of the manure from the Peters' operation is two to three times more concentrated than with a liquid system, so removal is less expensive.

The building costs were far less for this barn than for a more conventional operation, he notes. Straw bedding helps keep the sows warm. The Peters pay about $92/ton for straw, which translates to about $23/sow/year. Natural ventilation also helps keep costs down.

The family is still building sow numbers. Gilts are 6-7 months old when they arrive. Sows are divided into two groups — younger, leaner sows in one group; older, more conditioned animals in the other. Peters says they've had limited fighting problems when mixing the animals.

A chip embedded in each sow's ear tag operates a computerized feeding system. Teaching sows to use the feeders has been their biggest challenge. “It is a big problem,” he says, while acknowledging that the temperament of individuals plays a big role in determining whether the feeding system is successful or not. Some producers have taken the system out because they cannot make it work, he adds.

Producers must be vigilant when checking the computerized records. Because sows eat the straw, there is no visible way to tell if a sow is eating her ration without checking the consumption records generated by the computer. Each sow has her own nutrition curve and is fed accordingly. More wheat and barley are being fed. Feed is priced weekly, based on input costs. His feed costs are approximately $230/sow/year.

Management Changes

The Peters have noticed some changes in production numbers with the new system. Although their number born live is larger than before, fertility problems reflect a higher number of recycles.

Artificial insemination is used exclusively. They use Dutch Pietrain semen on their largely Dutch Landrace-based sow herd.

The new welfare regulations do permit placing newly weaned sows in individual crates for two days prior to breeding and for four days after. Bred sows are moved to the main barn and placed in large groups during gestation.

Since sows have only been away from the group for four or five weeks, they remember their penmates and do not fight much, he explains.

A boar is kept in the sow barn for heat detection. Sows showing interest in the boar are taken back to the breeding barn for a second service. Eighty to 85% of the sows conceive at first breeding. Recycling sows that do not conceive in the second breeding are culled. Veterinarians perform ultrasound pregnancy checking during routine visits.

At birth, piglets' teeth and tails are clipped and they receive iron shots. Piglets are also given an injection to fight Mycoplasmal pneumonia and an oral treatment to combat coccidiosis. Males are castrated at 7 days of age.

At 8-10 days of age, the Peters remove the biggest pigs in litters that are too large and puts them in an empty farrowing pen equipped with a small wooden hutch and heat lamp. A computerized milk feeder mixes warm water with powdered milk replacer and dispenses it to the piglets every hour.

Quality Assured

The Peters farm, like 90% of Dutch farms, is enrolled in the “Integrale Keten Beheersing” program (IKB), a quality assurance program that guarantees food safety. IKB has over 400 different requirements, but Gerard says most of them are things that farmers do anyway.

IKB rules require farmers to buy feed from an approved feed company, keep a record of any farm visitors and follow strict hygiene measures, especially in transport. Farms must have truck-cleaning facilities and showers.

A veterinarian visit is required every two weeks. Some medications are not permitted at all, while others have longer withdrawal times than on farms not following IKB rules. A veterinarian must prescribe any medications used on the farm. Antibiotic use in feed is limited to very young piglets.

Gerard and Francien run the farm, with part-time help from one son. A normal day begins at 7 a.m. and evening chores usually end around 8 p.m.

They are paid $23 to $25 for each 5-week-old piglet sold, although they do not have a contract.

The Peters have changed to a three-week production cycle, allowing them to market groups of 700 piglets. These larger groups bring a slight premium.

The pigs go first to a nursery, then to a finishing barn. Holland's welfare rules state that pigs are allowed to move only once; therefore, all of the Peters' pigs are exported to Germany.

Although they receive less money per animal than they did when they were selling pigs at 50 lb., Gerard says they are further ahead because they do not have the extra cost associated with raising weaners (less medicine and feed and manure removal).

The Peters wean 23 to 24 pigs/sow/year and have about 12-13% prewean mortality, both average production numbers in Holland.

Dead stock on Dutch farms is picked up and incinerated. The Peters pay by weight for smaller animals and by the animal for larger ones. Their average monthly charge is $115.