Serbia’s pig industry has to deal with a lot of challenges simultaneously – and African Swine Fever in neighbouring countries just adds to the burden. Massagrar in northern Serbia manages to stand out with attention for detail, a willingness to learn and applying technology.
There is always a pleasant hustle and bustle in the farrowing rooms at Massagrar Farm. Two women work together to hang up heating lamps above sows which are about to farrow, meanwhile one of them is also helping a newborn piglet out with its umbilical cord and then to get to the teat properly. “At the farrowing section, workers are present around the clock,” explains Dragan Vlaškalin, farm manager. “By being there 24 hours a day it helps to achieve a better result in the end.”
It may just look like a little thing, but it’s a lot of little things like these that together explain the success of Massagrar, a 1,250 sow farrow-to-finish farm in northern Serbia. The country, surrounded by the European Union but not part of it, has a range of challenges to overcome, so making swine production profitable is not a given for everybody. In the context of relative political isolation and an abundance of foreign imports of pigs and pork, the country’s pig industry has to find its own road of development. Add to that the occurrence of African Swine Fever in neighbouring Romania and Hungary and it is clear that being successful with pigs does not come automatically.
“One of the problems in Serbia’s pig industry is that until five or six years ago, most farmers took little or no interest in technical results,” explains Nenad Stanković, sales representative of complete feed supplier Sanders. “It’s getting better with the younger generation these days. After all, the attitude of many farmers is: ‘I want to have better results.’ When you want to know how to perform better, you first need to have results of how you are performing now.”
With that, Mr Stanković touches on one of the key elements which makes Massagrar stand out. The farm, located near Sečanj, about 15km from the border with Romania, is equipped with a range of technical equipment that allows the tracking of technical results – and thus capable of figuring out how to improve as well. Overall technical details are monitored through WinPig by AgroSoft, but also inside the farm buildings nice examples can be seen. For instance, the farm weans 28 piglets per sow per year, but when asked how that compares to the average in Serbia, it is difficult to gauge. After all, most farms do not measure key performance indices and don’t have figures like these available. The guess of the Massagrar farm team is that Serbia’s average is at 22-23 pigs/sow/year.
Another example of advanced technology can be found near the grower barns. Feed for weaner pigs (after 26 days for seven weeks) is composed of a starter and a grower diet, both produced externally by Sanders. In order to make the transition for the weaner pigs not too heavy, the feed rations are mixed by a Spotmix installation (Schauer), which changes the rations day by day a little bit. The computerised system carefully monitors how much of each diet is being used and served to the animals. On top of that, in combination with a weighbridge, it is possible to calculate average daily gain and feed conversion rate – and entire figures for 2018 can be presented. In Serbia, this is how the better farms distinguish themselves.
A good health status contributes further to Massagrar’s good market situation. The farm complex, measuring in total ten large pig houses, is currently owned by Zoran Ilić, who bought the farm complex from the government in 2011. The complex was built in 1984 and over the years, the new owners have changed and modernised many aspects of the farm. First of all, the farm was cleaned out and new, Danish genetics, were trucked in to begin with a healthy set of 650 Specific Pathogen Free sows and 20 boars. All animals on farm are negative for Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) and local diseases.
Acquiring healthy animals is one thing, keeping them healthy is another. That is why the farm spends ample attention on biosecurity, both internal and external. The farm is surrounded by a double fence with a road in between. Feed trucks are allowed to enter through the first fence, then can drive in a circle around the premises and deliver the feed at the silos which can be connected to the feed truck at the other side of the inner fence. That way physical contact is limited between in and out.
Visitors need to take a shower in order to get on-farm. That is uncommon on swine farms in Serbia as it happens only on a few pig farm locations in the country, farm staff explain. At various places around the shower as well as elsewhere on the premises, visual management instruction posters are hung up, including new ones asking everybody to be alert and vigilant for African Swine Fever. On top of that, there are cameras hanging throughout the property, so every unwanted movement by pigs or humans can be detected.
Dragan Vlaškalin, age 50, is the farm manager for Massagrar, an agribusiness in northern Serbia, combining crop production with a 1,250 farrow-to-finish farm. On several locations the farm grows its own crops as well as blackberries. In 2018, the pig farm supplied over 28,000 finisher pigs at an average weight of 106kg (max 168 days) to three slaughterhouses in a 200km radius around the farm. The ultimate aim is to reach a level of 36,000 annually. The farm uses SPF Danish genetics; commercial pigs are a combination of Landrace x Large White with Duroc. Antibiotics usage is limited to day 1 after birth (colistin and amoxycillin) and the same cocktail again in the first three days after weaning. The farm employs 18 staff; the total agribusiness employs around 60.
Getting good and qualified staff also relates to good hygiene, explains Mr Vlaškalin. He admits that it is difficult to attract good staff. Payments at Massagrar are well above the minimum wage of € 275/month, he says, up to € 400. “If farm staff feel they don’t make enough money, they can do something else at night, which might mean they work on other farms. That we can avoid by paying a decent salary.”
The input of fresh genetics from outside is kept limited. About 40% of the new gilts come from the gilt unit Edufarm, near Crvenka in Northern Serbia, having the same health status as Massagrar. New arrivals will have to stay for four weeks in a quarantine unit, offering place for 50 gilts. The remaining 60% of the replacement gilts is selected on-farm. Semen is coming from the farm’s own boar population.
The location of the farm, however, already provides a good natural defence as well. There is no other commercial pig farm in the wide surroundings. The nearest professional facility is up to 70km away.
Improvements and modernisations also account for the farm’s success. After having been taken over in 2012, the farm grew to house 1,250 sows, the maximum possible for this site. Then, bit by bit, the older rooms were converted into newer constructions. To give a practical example: new floors with plastic slatted floors have been placed in the majority of the farrowing rooms, instead of predominantly concrete floors. That change allowed water to flow away easier. Especially in summer this helps reduce the humidity inside the building, with better growth rates (+600g at weaning) as a result.
Some sections are still like they were – curiously the older farm kept sows in group housing using stanchions. Currently there is a mixture of newly built gestation crates and old-fashioned group housing facilities. “If possible, we would like to convert everything to individual crates,” explains Mr Vlaškalin. One of the reasons mentioned is the occurrence of locomotion problems in sows due to there being a lot of concrete floors. As Serbia is not part of the European Union, there is no obligation for the farm to convert to group housing.
Sanders – moving into Serbia’s market
The first years were still tough as the company did not have any name in the market and its produce was relatively expensive. Last year, however, the production was over 65,000 tonnes with external capacity being necessary from time to time to meet the demand. Nowadays the feed mill produces for the local market as well as internationally, with customers operating the feed truck transports in Sanders branded lorries. They ship their produce to e.g. Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Hungary and recently Albania as well. Currently it is in the top-5 of complete feed producing companies in Serbia. In total 70% of the produced feed at the facility is for pigs, the rest for poultry and ruminants.
Major future reconstruction plans for the farm include the conversion of several older sections into modernised grower rooms. Currently, pig growth figures on the farm are slightly lower than they could be, because of its own success. Since all the improvements led to a substantially lower mortality and a higher number of pigs weaned per litter, the farm was confronted with the problem of overstocking. That problem should be solved by September 2019.
One of the major changes the new owners decided to do, is to start a cooperation with complete feed producer Sanders. Initially, the farm constructed an own feed mill on-site to be able to process their own feed, which is grown at other properties 20km away. The overpowering facility determines the farm’s skyline.
The feed mill, however, was only a partial success as the results in post-weaning were not as good as hoped. For that reason, Massagrar turned to Sanders. The company, providing many high-quality feeds with Mixscience support, helped technical results to be improved substantially. Mr Stanković says, “For instance, prior to our cooperation, the farm had an FCR in post-weaning pigs of 2.12. This dropped to 1.91 last year.” Currently the on-site feed mill only makes mash feed for the finishers on-farm.
The farm’s location, as mentioned 15km from the border with Romania, is worth mentioning, as in that country African Swine Fever is abundant. Clearly, there is a fear that the virus will hop across the border as well and Mr Vlaškalin is honest he hopes the virus will be kept out.
The virus and its worldwide impact has an indirect effect on pig production in Serbia and at Massagrar. Many farms in Serbia are dependent on imports of weaner pigs. With China heading for mass deficits of pork, the prices for weaner pigs have shot up, making weaner imports more difficult. That problem does not exist at Massagrar, as the farm grows its own piglets, and chances are good that the farm will be making good profits, provided that the virus will stay away.
Even more reason to make sure every piglet will make it through weaning, which brings this article back to the workers taking care of the farrowing rooms around the clock. Piglet mortality is below 8% in the farrowing units. It’s all a matter of economics, Mr Vlaškalin says. “Winning one piglet in that way saves much money. If the workers save one piglet per night, it now is already worth € 80. Multiply that by 30 days and you can see it pays off to hire people to work here per night. Just one extra piglet per night justifies it.”