We can’t turn the clock back, but we can learn from history and how a country’s swine industry has evolved — or devolved — and learn by others’ mistakes. The United Kingdom is one such country as its swine industry has changed dramatically.

Following World War II, and the fact that the U.K. was nearly starved into surrender, the country’s first post-war government passed legislation to give farmers a guaranteed price for pig meat and all other farm commodities. In the 1980s and 1990s, agriculture dropped on the government’s priority list as food was something that could easily be imported. Today, with fuel costs, the bio-terrorism threat and such, emphasis is again on U.K.-produced food and less reliance on imports.

Fifty years ago there were many U.K.-run Extension station farms and a country-wide Extension service. This helped pig farmers stay up-to-date and run efficient businesses. However, the Thatcher government ended those efforts, and money was funneled from applied research. That was to the U.K. pig farmers' detriment.

It’s no surprise that people in the U.K. are concerned about hog welfare. It’s a sad fact that animal charities get more donations than those for children. It’s interesting to see the welfare issue unfold in the United States, with gestation-sow crates being a hot debate. While loose-housed gestation systems can be as productive, they do require more management and labor. 

Welfare groups highlighted gestation tether and stall systems as being cruel and got government legislation passed banning those systems by Jan.1, 1999. That put U.K. producers at a big disadvantage to major competitors — the Danes, Dutch and French. Of course, all sow stalls are now on pace to be banned in the European Union by Jan. 31, 2012.

When the U.K. sow-stall ban became law, many hog farmers were adamant that it would be unworkable to house gestation sows in groups. They were proved wrong. Adapting to group-sow housing is just another challenge that the U.S. pork industry will find a way to successfully overcome.  

So, in the late 1990s, U.K. hog farmers were struggling financially and then faced more costs to build new systems to house sows and gilts in yard systems. Supermarkets started rolling out Codes of Practice to assure customers that pork in the meat case was produced under welfare-friendly conditions. Production systems using straw bedding were deemed “high welfare.” Those systems are labor intensive, with higher production costs, yet the farmer didn’t receive higher prices. U.K. consumers wanted product from animal welfare-friendly production systems, but didn't want to pay for it.

Disease issues also have been a challenge in recent years. Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome and porcine multi-systemic wasting syndrome (or porcine circovirus associated disease) were rampant in Spain and France, and were first seen in the U.K. in 1999. The diseases worked their way north, reaching Scotland in 2002. This decimated production, and many farms moved to batch weaning, rigorous facility cleaning and disinfection, and better nutrition to combat the diseases. Then in 2000, hog cholera broke in the south and east of England, infecting many large outdoor units.

No sooner had that outbreak ended, when foot-and-mouth disease broke in Northeast England in February 2001. While it mainly affected cattle and sheep, many hog farms were eradicated, and restricted movement played havoc with pig sales.  The State Veterinary Service struggled to cope. If more veterinarians had been available in early 2000, things might have been less serious. What the U.K. government never anticipated was the massive hit that the FMD outbreak would have on U.K.’s sport, leisure and tourism sectors. It was heartening to see the U.S. government take notice and enhance measures to ensure the disease didn’t get into the country.

When the U.K. was in the grips of FMD, mainland Europe’s producers were getting high pig prices, which U.K. producers would also have received in normal circumstances. It undoubtedly would have kept more producers in business.

PCVAD has been a major problem in the U.K., with mortality peaking in 2004. U.K. producers followed French advice to reduce pig stress and gradually lowered mortality. Of course, this also raised production costs.

Environmental pollution cases, which usually involve leaking slurry stores or excessive slurry applications, do periodically occur but pig farmers generally act responsibly. In 2007, the EU did introduce the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control regulations to address manure pollution, storage and application. For example, slurry must be plowed into stubble within 24 hours of spreading. Tremendous paperwork is required for the farm to get an operating permit. It costs an initial fee of $6,500 plus an annual fee of $5,400. The regulations apply to hog operations with more than 750 sow places and more than 2,000 finisher places (pigs over 66 pounds.) About 30 percent of U.K. pigs are raised outdoors and are exempt. All of the form-filling and documentation takes time and money and increases production costs.

As for overall production, sow numbers have declined, from 772,000 sows in 1998 to an estimated 400,000 today. Like everywhere, U.K. producers have faced huge feed price hikes since 2007, causing more producers to quit. In general, the U.K.’s productivity is poor, as the number of pigs per sow per year has advanced little in 30 years, holding around 20 to 21 pigs per year. There are some signs of new growth, however, as 2007’s number increased to 21.64 pigs per sow per year. While this year’s production costs are still unfolding, since 2002, the cost per pound on a carcass-weight basis has averaged $96 to $98.

On the disease front, circovirus vaccines are now available, and the British Pig Executive is allocating $3 million to a PCV-2 research project. By late 2008, 5 million pigs will be vaccinated. Producers report pigs are reaching slaughter weight two weeks faster, and they are selling one extra pig per litter.

Fortunately the industry does have proactive representation in the National Pig Association, with good links to government and supermarkets. Last autumn, NPA launched a massive campaign to inform the public about how much money the industry was bleeding. It was able to get pork retail prices increased, although it has been slow to reach the farmer. NPA estimates producers’ breakeven at $1.34 per pound carcass weight, but pig prices have only reached $1.20 per pound.

U.K. producers seem to have had more than their share of challenges, but hopefully the U.S. industry can learn from the challenges that they have experienced.