In the current situation it’s a matter of holding on — although this is hard when it costs so much money. It’s a question of keeping up one’s spirits and the high production efficiency.”

That is the opinion of Nicolaj Norgaard, who in January became chief of Denmark’s key pork industry organization, Danish Pig Production. Norgaard made that statement during the opening session of the annual, five-day Agromek livestock exhibition in Herning, Denmark.

Norgaard further outlined the challenges that lie ahead for the Danes, “…at the moment it’s the extremely poor trade exchange, along with high feedstuff prices and low meat prices, that overshadows almost all other factors in Danish pig production. But it is important that despite the current depressing situation we still attempt to keep our spirits up.”

Fortunately, many Danish hog farmers have capital reserves accumulated during the last 10 years on which to fall back. High hog output has allowed the Danes to produce hogs economically in relation to other major hog-producing countries, in spite of high input costs. Processing costs also tend to be higher in Denmark.

One big plus is that Danish producers tend to buy their feedstuffs forward on a 12-month contract. This has helped them control risk and keep feed prices down, as compared to other competitors who generally don't buy forward to the same extent.

Norgaard considers the economic crisis to be only temporary and believes that pig prices will soon increase to compensate for the high feed prices. At the moment, Danish pig producers are losing a total of $85 million a month. That’s a complete reversal within 12 months, leaving producers to bite the bullet and search for risk management options and solutions. 

Still, the Danes are helped significantly by the structure of their pig industry. There is a great deal of research that’s funded by their pig levy (or checkoff in U.S.terms) to help them find answers. Much of the research is carried out on farms, with a network of advisors who pass on the research results directly to individual hog farmers for adoption.

A National Hog Producers Congress is held annually to update producers on new developments and techniques. It’s the largest pig event in the world, with just less than 2,000 delegates, 98 speakers and 70 presentations. Much of this research is published in English in an annual yearbook which you can check out on the Danish Pig Production Web site at www.dansksvineproduktion.dk.

Danish pig producers also benefit from the Danish national breeding program. There are 29 nucleus breeders with 18,000 sows, along with 150 multipliers who have 45,000 sows in total. There are only three significant breeds in the country. The dam lines are based on Landrace and Yorkshire, which are crossed to produce an F1 50/50 cross. Duroc is used as the terminal sire breed, making slaughter pigs 50 percent Duroc. There has been a fourth breed — the Hampshire — used in the past, but that breed is now being phased out.

Here’s a look at the kind of production performance that the Danes get.

Danish breeding performance data 2006

Average

Top

Litters per sow per year

2.24

2.32

Pigs born alive per litter

13.3

13.8

Stillbirths per litter

1.7

1.6

Weaned pigs per litter

11.4

12.2

Age at weaning (days)

31.3

29.7

Weight at weaning (lbs.)

16.1

15.6

 

 

 

Grower data

 

 

Mortality

3.6%

2.1%

Age at 66 lbs. (days)

85

81

 

 

 

Finisher data

 

 

Mortality

4.2%

3.0%

Average slaughter - weight=lbs.

177

178

Average lean meat

60.3%

60.1%

 

Piglets are weaned at 4 weeks of age, which means that the farrowing index is not as good as when pigs are weaned younger. However, the sows raise very large litters so overall productivity is first class. Weaning at 4 weeks means piglets can be fed less-expensive diets than if piglets were weaned earlier, which is important given current sky-high feed prices. Also, producers can use simpler post-weaning housing when piglets are older, heavier and stronger at weaning.

Quality assurance is a priority in the Danish pig industry, due to the large volume of meat that is exported. All producers must keep detailed records regarding pig movements, as well as input purchases and pig sales. Other records are required concerning feed type and quantities fed, all drugs and medicines used, stocking density of pens and so forth. Independent auditors carry out on-farm checks on a regular basis.

With regard to gestating sows, stalls are gradually being replaced, with about 75 percent of gestating sows now kept in loose housing. Danish legislation states that by Jan. 1, 2013, sows and gilts must be loose housed from four weeks after breeding until seven days before farrowing. There also are specified space requirements, which vary depending on the number of sows in each group. For example, a group of 30 sows needs an area of 24.2 square feet per sow. Some producers have put in electronic sow-feeding systems, but they require a lot of skill to operate. Free-access stalls are simpler to operate and are popular. The sow can enter and leave the stall of her own accord, but once she’s in her stall another sow is not able to open it. Replacing stalls is another cost the industry could well do without right now.

The Danes are carrying out much research on loose housing of lactating sows, as the animal rights lobby would like to see farrowing crates banned. What the activists forget is that newly farrowed sows are very protective, and a crate provides protection for workers and piglets should a sow turn mean. Mortality is still higher in the loose systems than in traditional crated pens. Also, the loose systems take up more space.

Twenty years ago, Danish pig farmers were respected members of local communities. Nowadays pig farmers keep quiet about what they do for a living. As in other countries, townsfolk want to live in rural areas but then they complain about the smell. Pork exports are a massive currency earner for the Danish economy, but despite that, the Danish parliament has introduced tough legislation with regard to reducing ammonia levels and odor emissions. A variety of systems are being tested, such as chemical purification with sulfuric acid. But such systems are still too expensive, costing $4 per finishing pig. Treating slurry with ozone is another technique being used. New legislation will limit the expansion of existing hog operations, and moving entire hog barns substantially away from human habitation is an expensive option.

One producer I spoke with predicted within 20 years’ time most of Denmark’s pig production will be exported to the Russian prairies — where there are no people.

Some Danish producers will not survive this current economic crisis, and the trend to fewer and larger hog businesses will continue. Still, the Danish hog industry is resilient and ultimately will bounce back.