In 1968, Leon and Rose Verschelde, Kristof’s, started a farm with 35 sows and 25 dairy cows in the picturesque Belgium countryside. From 1968 to 1995, the farm expanded to 375 sows and 80 dairy cows. In 2006, the Verschelde’s son, Kristof, and his wife, Angelique, took over part of the management of the farm, and by 2007, he had expanded to a 700-sow farrow-to-finish operation.
The following year, the DLG (German Agricultural Society) and the European Pig Producers Club presented the Pig Farmer Award to the Verschelde family and two other outstanding European pig farmers.
Angelique and Kristof Verschelde won the award for their consistent and exemplary further development of their sow farm, including the impressive 32.07 pigs weaned per sow per year. With extensive measures to improve animal health and animal welfare, they laid the foundation for a commercially viable operation that is optimally equipped to satisfy future market requirements.
Sows are kept in five groups: 140 in the farrowing house, 140 in the breeding area, 140 in 4-week gestation, 140 in 8-week gestation and 140 in 12-week gestation. Weaned pigs are in two groups and market animals are in four groups. Replacement gilts start in the weaner barn and then go to a specific rearing house. After 30 weeks they go to the gestation room to be bred.
The work process is also divided into a 4-week system. Kristof says the advantages include:
- Fixed operation scheduling
- Work efficiency
- Only one age in the farrowing house at one time
- Two weeks of heavy work following by two easier weeks
There are disadvantages too, with less opportunity to change planning and a weaker position in marketing.
The Verschelde’s have a closed herd to maintain a high health status. Most of the sows are an F-1 crossbred and 70 sows are grandparent stock. Pietrain genetics are used to produce market pigs while Large White and Danish Landtype breeding stock is used to produce females to retain in the herd.
A long lane with a scale close to the road allows for biosecurity. And two-site production breaks the disease cycle. As in North America, feed costs are significant, so the Verscheldes use liquid feeding. The farm has one full-time and one part-time employee in addition to Kristof and Angelique. Attention to detail allows them to achieve 14.67 live pigs born per sow per year, 2.48 litters per sow per year and 32.07 weaned pigs per sow per year. Those are numbers any North American producer would be proud of.
To achieve this level of production, the Verscheldes have prioritized these key management factors:
- Animal health
- Specific tasks in each stage of production
- Feed management optimization
- Cost control
- Attention to meat quality and taste
- Exchange of management and new technology ideas with other producers.
Challenges for pork producers in Europe are similar to those in North America, including cost control and pork prices. “Retailers lower the prices to the consumers by paying less on the level of the producer,” Kristof says. He says it’s frustrating to see that there is higher demand for pork from consumers, yet the prices are the same as they were 30 years ago. “Policymakers must realize that impermissible speculations on raw materials lead to, on the one hand the impossibility to conceive a good agricultural policy and, on the other hand, to more hunger.”
Guaranteeing the continuity and strength of the farming sector is important to European farmers, just as it is for North American producers.