Last year, Ole Kjaer was the number one pig farmer in Denmark. Unsurprisingly, in the land of Danish bacon, this is a pretty hotly contested award.
The biggest factor in his high profit rate? The astonishing productivity of his pigs. Each of Kjaer’s sows produces an average of 41 piglets a year.
In the UK, the average sow produces 25.8 pigs a year. In the US that number rises to 26.4. But in Denmark, the world’s laboratory for industrial pig farming, the average sow produces 33.3 piglets – and some farmers, like Kjaer, manage to push that figure even higher. Some believe that one day they could even reach the magic number of 50.
The pig economy
Danes say that most countries in the world have farmers, but Denmark is the only nation where farmers have a whole country. For a country with no coal or oil reserves, agriculture is a vital source of income. Denmark produces three times the amount of food it needs for itself, with exports of pig meat accounting for almost half of all agricultural exports and more than 5% of Denmark’s total exports.
This is industrial agriculture at the cutting edge of what is technologically possible. And backed by an apparently bottomless well of government support.
Beyond the funding received by the country’s Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University and funding from the EU (€1bn – £852m – a year), there is also direct government support for farmers. Since 2014, for example, the government has given more than 3,700 farms up to €1m each, for modernisation.
The government has previously backed plans to double the country’s yearly production from approximately 28 million to 56 million. “I am ready to welcome the aim of producing twice as many pigs in Denmark if we can handle both animal welfare and the environment. The government has sent a clear signal that we will develop agriculture for precision farming with a lower environmental impact,” said the then minister for environment and food Esben Lunde Larsen on a visit to a slaughterhouse in Jutland run by Danish Crown, the world’s largest pork exporter, last year.
The results look, on the surface, pretty good. Each year Danish Crown – owned by Danish pig farmers – sends nearly 2m tonnes of pig meat to 127 different countries around the world, bringing in more than €3bn.
Meanwhile, the leading Danish pig-breeding company, DanBred, sells its technology around the world, with an office on nearly every continent. The company boasted an enhancement of €2,17 on average per slaughter pig per year during 2017. “The largest genetic gain ever realised”, they called it.
Denmark’s pig problem
But behind these glittering numbers lie more troubling figures. Those high performing sows do not last long. After delivering just three to four litters they are sent off in large numbers to the abattoir. Danish pig farmers discard some 500,000 sows every year, close to 50% of the population, according to Maria Eskildsen and Andreas Vest Weber’s book Pig Production, written in 2015. Among the reasons given for this procedure of rapid replacement are failing fertility (28%), bad mother characteristics (25%), age (20%), sickness and injuries (14%), lack of heat (7%), logistics (5%) and unwanted behaviour (1%).
And although the figure has slowly decreased during the past decade, around one in10 sows is still found dead in the pigsty or in such a condition that she has to be put down. In 2011, the average sow mortality figure for these incidents was 11.3%. The Danish Agriculture and Food Council (DAFC) said the figure today was 9%, but this percentage is still higher than most other comparable countries, according to a Danish review. Methodologies vary enormously, but a study in Sweden found annual rates of 7.3%, for example.
Sow deaths are usually due to lameness and leg problems, but when the animals are found dead pig producers often cannot state the cause of death. Even with an autopsy, almost a third of the causes of death are unresolved.
The DAFC said the number of sows being replaced may be due to genetic improvements, fertility failures and the structure of the herd, and cannot be interpreted as sows being culled for welfare reasons.
“Denmark has a central and precise system that registers and collects all dead sows. In most other countries dead animals are destroyed at local facilities without being registered. Therefore, it makes very little sense to compare mortality between countries. In addition to that, regulations on fitness for transport of animals are substantially stricter in Denmark compared to for instance Spain, the US, Canada and France, Japan. That means fewer sows in Denmark are allowed to be taken to slaughter, but instead are being put down at the farm,” said a DAFC spokesperson.
Piglets and mortality rates
The attrition rate among piglets appears to be similarly high. In 1996, when the average litter in Denmark was 11.2, pre-wean mortality was just over 18%. By 2009, when aggressive breeding pushed that litter total up to 14.2, pre-wean mortality rose to 24.22%. A focus on this issue by farmers has brought that number down again, to about 21.7%, according to the DAFC, while at the same time the average litter size has risen to 16.9 piglets. Meanwhile the US pig industry had an average pre-wean mortality rate of 17.6%, for example, between 2012-2017. Every day 25,000 piglets die. Over the year they add up to 9 million dead piglets, compared with a total production figure of approximately 28 million.
The DAFC disputes the suggestion that piglet deaths could be an unavoidable side-effect of increasing the size of litters beyond the 14 piglets the sow normally is able to feed. It said that when there are more piglets than teats, extra milk is provided and the surplus piglets are moved to nursing sows.
According to research centre Seges, part of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, there can be more challenges: “Unfortunately, it is often difficult to determine what has made the pig weak. It can be a viral infection such as influenza or PRRS, prolonged farrowing or sub-supply of nutrients in the latter part of pregnancy.”
There is growing anxiety among animal welfare campaigners about these practices. “Danish pig breeding is now extreme with big welfare consequences for the piglets,” says Britta Riis, director of Animal Welfare Denmark. “Litters are now so large that many piglets are small and weak. The suffering and death rates of piglets are completely unacceptable. The breeding should be reversed so the sows give birth to a much smaller and more natural number of piglets that are stronger, and the sow has a reasonable chance to provide for [them].
“The pressure on the sows for ever-increasing production is sky high. It is a short rough life with no consideration for the animals’ natural needs and natural biology. In terms of animal welfare it is really a race to the bottom,” adds Riis.
There are also environmental costs attributable to Denmark’s livestock population, including pigs and cattle. Natural habitats like moorlands and bogs are threatened by ammonia emissions from the farming sector, while wetlands and Danish coastal waters are being loaded with nitrogen. Danish farmers are responsible for more than 20% of total national CO2 emissions, although agricultural emissions have dropped by 16% since 1990. The stark odour from the thousands of production plants can make life intolerable for neighbours of the huge complexes.
The strategy of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council is to allow the Danish pig producers themselves to set the direction to raise the level of pig welfare.
Despite more than 3,000 inspections annually of Danish pig farms, the Danish Agriculture and Food Council has had to admit that there are still challenges relating to the proper handling and treatment of sick and injured animals.
“We have challenges regarding mortality and welfare as do every other country with a large pig production,” said Christian Fink Hansen, director at Seges.
“Every year Danish pig producers invest substantial amounts in research and development to improve animal health and welfare and reduce mortality. The average sow mortality in Denmark has declined during the last nine years. The average number of stillborn and early deaths [have] reduced while at the same time litter sizes have risen. Both financially and with regard to securing good animal welfare it is in the farmers best interest to increase the durability in sows, and that the piglet survival rate is high,” added Hansen.
The former liberal government of Denmark sought to double the country’s pig population, despite the fact it already far outnumbers the 5.7 million-strong human population. Perhaps it is now time for the newly elected Social Democrat government to stop and count the costs?