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Denmark’s pig production – modern, efficient, changing

It’s difficult to find the right words to correctly describe the pig industry in Denmark. Thirsty for knowledge and improvement, the country has been a shining example for many in the pig industry. And they do recognise their own challenges well in advance too.
Gestating sows in a modern Danish facility. They can walk freely and have straw at their disposal. These animals are also Specific Pathogen Free (SPF) sows. Photo: Henk Riswick
Gestating sows in a modern Danish facility. They can walk freely and have straw at their disposal. These animals are also Specific Pathogen Free (SPF) sows. Photo: Henk Riswick

There are strong arguments for the Danish pig industry being an exemplar for the key metrics of global pig production and marketing in the 21st century. This is a strong statement especially when the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s statistics list China, the US, Germany, Spain, Brazil and Vietnam as the top six producers of pork. But efficiency is a relative concept: it’s about getting more from less.

The Danes, by almost all measures, have consistently shown how more pigs and pig meat can be produced from fewer inputs – and still meet modern (and future) norms for disease control, animal health, welfare of animals, the workforce on the farm and in the slaughterhouse. Moreover, their industry’s profile is younger, more knowledgeable and research-driven and very customer (export) oriented.

Denmark at a glance

Denmark is a relatively small country, with an area of 43,094 km2. The country enjoys a temperate climate with mild, windy winters and cool summers. Add to this a low and flat to gently rolling plain landscape and there are great opportunities for agriculture in general and pig production in particular. Most of Denmark’s lands are being used for agricultural production (63.4%). Key agricultural products include barley, wheat, potatoes, sugar beets, pork, dairy products and fish. Denmark’s population is about 6 million, with the capital Copenhagen being the country’s largest city (1.3 million population).

World class pig production

It’s undeniable that Danish pig farmers are world class when it comes to producing the highest number of surviving pigs from their breeding herd: the statistics are clear cut with an average performance for the Danish industry of 30.5 piglets weaned per sow per year. This productivity has meant that more and more pigs have been produced from fewer breeding sows over the years. And the Danes are so good at producing piglets that their farming neighbours in Germany are ready customers for weaners born in Denmark.

Figure 1 - Danish pigmeat exports and live pig exports.

More recently, Polish farmers have discovered that the Danes can produce healthy piglets at competitive prices and exports of live pigs from Denmark to Poland have boomed. Danish farmers are generally younger, more innovative and more co-operative than others. They are also supported by a pig research organisation (owned and paid for by the farmers) that invests in work on genetics, animal welfare, antibiotic reduction and a myriad of other key topics that are vital for the future of pig production.

Efficient processing industry

Danish farmers (like all farmers) need an efficient, scaled-up processing industry beyond the farm gate and the Danish industry’s record of marketing and exporting its final product has also been exemplary. The major Danish processor (Danish Crown, one of the top three pig meat processors in the world) is owned by the farmers themselves. Hence, Danish farmers have a big stake in their value chain and that value chain deals with about 2 million tonnes of pig meat that is produced annually – and which creates almost €4 billion of exports. This export value accounts for about two thirds of all pig meat produced by the Danes and, on that basis, Denmark can probably claim to be the most export-oriented pig industry in the world.

Figure 2 - Danish total sows and total pigs, April 2002 –July 2016.

How did Denmark do it? The Danish industry is thirsty for knowledge and recognises new challenges – but it is also one that is under pressure financially and, crucially, is changing and expecting to change. One example of change is the ‘growth panel’ to increase the number of finishing pigs in Denmark. Around 19 million pigs were slaughtered in Denmark in 2015. This is a modest increase from 2014, but that’s not enough pigs to keep Danish Crown running at full capacity. Too many pigs are being sold to Germany and Poland instead of being grown and finished in Denmark.

SEGES, the Danish Pig Research Centre is developing specific initiatives to improve the financial results of finishing units, increase slaughter numbers and exports and create jobs within the pig industry in Denmark. It is also breaking new frontiers on antibiotic use (testing how to reduce antibiotic use to zero) and comparing which loose farrowing systems will work when sow stalls are eventually banned. An end to castration and tail docking are other key policies being researched by SEGES.

Future challenges

Will the future hold only plain sailing? The answer to this is easy because the Danes themselves see challenges and dangers. For example, the growth of live exports is a two edged sword – it delivers revenues and profits to breeders (and Danish genetics suppliers) but is a threat to Danish processors and the whole industry is very vulnerable to the consequences of an outbreak of African Swine Fever or other pig disease that requires quarantine restrictions on the movement of pigs.

Another challenge is the finite limit on the size of a sow’s uterus – can the Danes really continue to increase the number of piglets produced by a sow year after year? And will Danish Crown and the German mega-meat player Tönnies (the new owner of Tican in Jutland), two giants in the meat processing world, be able to coexist as their new strategies begin to bite?


  • Kim Hansen

    Dear Mr Strak - thanks for a good article - I am a dane myself in the meat business but live in Spain. One of the reasons for big export of small pigs are that to get a license to expand the production is very tough and can take up to 7 years to get and some times not obtainable so the producers produce small pigs instead where they can produce 3-4-5 small aginst 1 big. Another problem the danes have in their economi is that as they export about 80% of their production the are so depending on worldmarket prices (not like in Germany where nearly all products are sold domestic) which mean at surplus worlsproduction the danes a hit with the big exportrange and when low world production they score big money (but not so often) - earlier it was a cyclus of 7 years but nowadyas every thing has changed to be much shorter. HAve a ncie Christmas. Kind regards, Kim Hansen, Spain

  • Trine Vig Tamstorf

    Thanks John for a great article about Danish pig production :)

  • john strak

    Thank you Kim and Trine for your kind words and helpful comments. I could write a lot more about how it all works in Denmark but Pig Progress only gave me a limited space. I am pleased that the message came across - Denmark is the go-to place for anyone who wants to see a world class pig industry. I was especially impressed on a recent trip with the research efforts being made to compare and refine the optimum systems for farrowing without sow stalls/restrictions. This is the future. I advise the Danes not to undersell their know how!

  • Ronnie Okay McKenzie

    Very impressive indeed. I had an offer to visit Denmark to see the pig industry but I ever since postponed as I believed I'd come back discouraged to proceed with my growth.
    The little I learned from this article left me rolling my eyes.
    I would like to believe it's all about dedication & sharing knowledge between farmers. I'm South African & there's lots of potential of making it happen in my country. Challenges we face in SA are more to do with government subsidies. The past still impacts on growth of farmers especially emerging farmers like myself. I would like to be linked with youthful pig farmers in Denmark who are willing to impart with their skills & invest in SA. Markets are there, farming land is available including other necessities to kick off the projects.
    Our shortfall is the capital as infrastructure for pigs comes with huge costs in SA.
    However thank you for the wonderful article & a prosperous 2017 to all farmers out there. Let's keep feeding the world.

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