Not so long ago, Danish pig famers were respected members of the rural community, especially since 20 percent of the country’s exports come from agriculture.

Today, many Danes seem to ignore the fact that pork is a massive export earner; they see pig farms as animal factories producing huge volumes of manure and foul air. Affluent “townie” Danes wanting an idyllic life in small villages complain that such odors seriously reduce property values. They want the farms moved or closed, despite the fact that the farms were there first. 

Now, any new barns must be sited well away from villages. Planning permission used to be granted by a relatively small number of official organizations. Today each municipality (98 in all) is responsible for planning issues, each with its own view on interpreting the regulations. On the plus side, regulations regarding the size of new units are being relaxed. Still, it can take up to three years for approval — not that many new barns will be built in 2010, given the current financial climate. 

Environmental issues are a hot topic in Denmark. For example, providing buffer strips alongside all streams and rivers used to be voluntary. Today, they are a legal requirement. But what is most worrisome is that Danish farming organizations were not invited to discuss and debate such new measures — they are imposed unilaterally.

The Danish Crown Group is a huge organization, slaughtering the vast majority of Danish pigs, and Japan is its premier export market.

In its 2007/2008 annual report, the Danish Crown noted: “Due (amongst other things) to the unsatisfactory administration of the Danish environmental regulations, total production of pork (and beef) is declining…” Because of problems with slurry, many Danish producers now just produce weaned pigs, most of which end up in Germany. Live-hog exports have risen from 3 million in 2003 to 7 million in 2009 (forecast).

The Danish pig industry has lost $1.68 billion during the last two years. The carcass price for 2009 was 83 cents per pound, but this is forecast to rise to 86 cents per pound for 2010. That would mean a net profit of $8 per pig, allowing producers to recoup some losses. What confuses things is that the Danish Crown, being a co-op, pays a big bonus retrospectively, so quoted pig prices don’t tell the complete story. In fact, this year the bonus will be over $10 per pig. So, losses would have been much worse had Danish productivity not been so strong. (See tables.)

The top 25 percent of breeding herds wean nearly 30 pigs per sow per year, with the best weaning 32 pigs. Remember, in Europe three-week weaning is illegal, so these weaning rates are very strong. Top Danish advisers believe that producers will soon produce 35 pigs per sow per year.

Feed-conversion rate is nudging 2.5:1. Of course, most Danish producers feed wet feed by pipeline which gives better feed conversion than dry feed. Also, slaughter weights are lower than in the United States; hence, feed conversion tends to be lower.

In Denmark, there is a national breeding company, Danbred, which essentially produces a national pig. Only three breeds are used: Landrace, Yorshire and Duroc. The two white breeds produce the traditional F1 cross, which is mated with Duroc semen. There are no commercial breeding companies in Denmark.

Producers base intensive selection on highly prolific lines, as well as the number of pigs in the litter one week after farrowing to place emphasis on mothering ability. Consequently, Danbred stock produces very large litters, which is a bonus but creates its own challenges. Danish producers now feed lactating sows four times a day to ensure they get enough feed for abundant milk production yet maintain bodyweight. Weekly farrowings accommodate piglet fostering, and nurse sows ensure as many pigs thrive as possible. Certainly this means a lot of work for the farrowing-house staff, but it is cost-effective.

Welfare issues are another hot topic. Some gestation-stall housing must be phased out by 2013 in all EU countries. Now the spotlight has moved to loose housing of farrowing sows, for which the Danes are spending $554,000 on research. Much of this funding goes to farmers who have installed special farrowing pens in existing facilities. In fact, many Danish farrowing houses have crates that can be opened out after a few days — an ideal compromise in my view. These new pens are evaluated by hard-nosed commercial guys, not activists.

Piglet crushing is still a problem, with pre-weaning mortality at 20 percent, so it’s not cost-effective for commercial use. Also, with a loose sow and litter there’s always the concern about human safety.

EU law states pigs must have straw. The Danish welfare lobby thinks pigs don’t get enough straw (often it’s just a handful, as a gesture to meet legal requirements), so $218,000 has been allocated to fund a research trial. This will involve giving differing amounts of cut and uncut straw (0.7, 1.8 and 3.6 ounces per pig) once, twice or five times a day. Pig behavior will be studied closely to find out how much straw is needed to meet the pigs’ needs for rooting and to express “normal” behavior. Researchers also will test the slurry systems’ ability to handle larger straw quantities. But I can give the answer already — not very well. I can see over-stressed farmers being angry at the thought of blocked slurry channels and burnt-out pumps. The research will be followed with great interest.

Castrating male pigs is another area of interest. Because of key Asian export markets, the Danes don’t want to stop castrating; however, animal-welfare pressures are mounting. Since June, piglets in Denmark must be given a very small injection of a pain-relieving drug just before castration.

Now, $504,000 is being invested to find castration alternatives. The Improvac vaccine for castration is being tested, but there are concerns about negative consumer reaction.

Certainly producers everywhere are facing challenges, but in several areas, especially animal welfare, the Danes are biting the bullet. 

Measuring Productivity

Here’s a look at productivity on Danish hog farms. These statistics are based on national data collected in 2008. Presented here are the averages for all producers and for those ranking in the top 25 percent of productivity.