Expert opinion

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The future of swine breeding

This month, Pig Progress featured a great farm visit on a 9-level pig breeding facility in China. Pig Progress editor Vincent ter Beek writes that it is quite unlike anything else in the world, yet at the same time the concept evokes mixed feelings with many readers. Why is that?

What will the future of swine breeding be? That question was asked to 4 panel members at last week’s International Technical Meeting of swine reproduction specialists Magapor, in Zaragoza, Spain.

In 2 of the 4 following pitches, the 400 delegates were shown the picture below.

Sow farms of 7 layers with 1,000 sows on each floor. Photo: Henk Riswick
Sow farms of 7 layers with 1,000 sows on each floor. Photo: Henk Riswick

Impressive pig farm feature in Guigang

Proudly I can say it was taken from a very recent feature published by Pig Progress. In March, my colleague Kees van Dooren travelled to Guigang in southern China, to visit a farm which has sow houses with 7 storeys and also with 9 storeys, housing 1,000 sows per floor. He realised, I realised, our readers online realised and so did the speakers at the Magapor conference that here, global swine production had just touched new ground.

How new exactly?

Multi-storey pig farm in Germany

It’s not that keeping pigs on floors on top of each other has never been done before. In Eastern Germany (before the fall of communism in 1990), smaller-size multi-storey pig buildings were built, like the one below from 1969, for a total of 500 sows.

A pig facility in Eastern Germany from the 1960s. Photo: Jan Willem Schouten
A pig facility in Eastern Germany from the 1960s. Photo: Jan Willem Schouten

Multi-storey pig buildings in the Netherlands

Multi-storey buildings also exist in the Netherlands, like the one below here which I visited myself some years ago. Truth be told, this farm has ‘only’ 2 floors and has been neatly camouflaged in the surrounding countryside, so one hardly realises these pigs are kept on 2 floors.

A 2-layer pig house in the east of the Netherlands. Photo: Vincent ter Beek
A 2-layer pig house in the east of the Netherlands. Photo: Vincent ter Beek

What I remembered of that farm visit, was the same kind of excitement of going into a Boeing 747 jumbo jet for the first time. Initially it felt exciting to go up to a different floor in a plane, but soon I forgot all that and found myself strapped in in just another plane seat. So if I didn’t notice any difference, why would animals if they were on a different floor?

New step in global swine production

Still, I’m tempted to say the Guigang farm does constitute a new step in global swine farming development. I remember clearly Prof Dermot Hayes saying that in China, the majority of its 1.4 billion people and 450 million pigs have to live on a strip of land comparable to the area between the United States’ east coast and the Mississippi river.

No wonder that in China, there is a growing awareness to make the most efficient use of space – and just start building farms on top of each other.

Additional advantages

In the China farm feature, the owner also spoke of improved animal health, as air from one floor cannot enter another – something which would be possible when all sow houses would have been built laterally to each other. Plus, the owner stated, a lot less staff was needed, which is good for efficiency and biosecurity. All in all, what emerged was a rosy picture.

Apart from being published on the website of Pig Progress, the farm feature also was published in Dutch in the Netherlands’ leading agricultural weekly Boerderij. On social media, the topic was shared and commented very often.

What struck me in all this was the ambiguity in the reactions.

Hesitation about multi-layered pig farms

Again, yes, on one hand people were awestruck, yet on the other I read hesitation. I think it was perfectly summed up in a reaction by Dr Jeremy Marchant-Forde, research animal scientist at the USDA-ARS.

He tweeted, “The idea of this just has me uneasy. There is no real difference from intensive production on one floor, but from a public perception viewpoint, I think it is industrialisation gone far beyond what will be publicly acceptable. Ultimately unsustainable IMO.”

Public opinion vs livestock farms

Now here’s something very interesting. This type of building would not be ‘accepted’ by the public in the United States. I can add, from my own observation, neither would it be accepted in my own densely populated Netherlands. Nowadays, ambitious pig producers even find themselves having a hard time convincing local authorities for the expansion of regular existing pig houses, as protesting neighbours sometimes will continue to appeal.

I think it is perhaps fair to say that in most European and other countries where the public opinion can be strongly heard, an immediate outcry of disapproval by welfarist groups and animal-loving locals would be made if plans for swine farms like these would be released. ‘Factory-farming gone mad’ – you can think of similar phrases yourself.

Pig technological development

Now I am a big believer of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, yet once more it is remarkable how these concepts can sometimes be at odds with further technological development. I’m not saying that it is a good or a bad thing – I’m just observing.

The future of swine breeding? Look to China. It is not only catching up. It is overtaking at an impressive pace.

5 comments

  • Daniel Jones

    Merchant-Forde is expressing a negative opinion without adequate thought. He is short sided and myopic in his views. This progress can have a huge impact on positive public opinion of farming on so many different levels as it can solve for some of the hardest variables that we face. BTW. These folks did not just wake up one morning and say let's go build a multi story pig house for no reason. There are real issues they are solving for and we would be wise to learn from it rather than stick our head in the sand.

  • tom tor

    Just 1 puzzle bothering me. Where does the slurry from each level get stored. Assuming the floor is slotted 😯

  • Vincent ter Beek

    Hello Tom, if you click through to the original feature describing the farm, you will find the answer. There is a side box dealing with the manure.

  • Liu shuang

    China is the third largest land area in the world.

  • Marc Martens

    I visited this enterprise just after the IPVS meeting in Chongqing, end of june.
    I was also very impressed by the set up.
    be aware that these buildings are situated in a remote area in Southern China, not far from border with Vietnam, a region with modest mountains. not easy to find there large platforms to build on.
    The manure system is very innovative, it runs through tubes with a diameter of around 45 cm and ends up in a basin some 100 meters away from the buildings.
    Manure is treated such that dry fraction is separated from watery fraction. watery fraction is pumped to region around where forests are in place for wood-production. Dry fraction is also used for fertilization of grounds.
    Around buildings I could not smell any pig, the outgoing air is also treated with washers.
    Feed comes from a nearby feed factory and goes via tubes to the buildings.
    a big challenge is the cooling of air and filtration. environmental temperatures in summer may rise above 40 degrees Celsius.
    In my opinion from welfare, environment and sustainability this is an example of high quality.
    I lived one week with the workers in their nearby "dormitories" and I felt the optimistic and ambitious atmosphere there.
    For sure there are many challenges to face but the project is awesome.

    Marc Martens

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