‘The Fourth P’ of pig production

02-04-2014 | | |
Cover page of a presentation with this theme in Atlanta, GA.
Cover page of a presentation with this theme in Atlanta, GA.

When producing pigs sustainably, many point to the interests of consumers, those of the industry and the effect on Mother Earth. But aren’t we forgetting one? Recent developments in Europe appear to add one more dimension to think of.

I am not an activist. Nor am I an animal welfarist. I don’t believe organic farming is the way ahead meeting the serious future global food demands. Having said that, what I am is a journalist, flying all over the world and learning about the latest trends and developments in swine production. Especially in Western Europe, I do observe a greater role for ‘the Pig’s perspective’ in recent renowned academic research.This paradigm change in thinking I have come to call the ‘Fourth P’.

So which come first, second and third, you may wonder? With regard to defining the concept of sustainability, the common three which are usually named are ‘People’, ‘Profit’ and ‘Planet’. In this approach, only then we can speak of a ‘sustainable’ product, when the interests of all three are taken into account. When producing pork, this equals the interests of consumers, producers as well as the place all pigs live in are guaranteed.

Pig diseases in Western Europe

Before diving deeper into the fourth P, some history may be useful. A growing interest for the pig’s well-being in general grew in Western Europe in the 1990s. Only when basing it on my own memory, I would like to refer to the outbreak of hog cholera, also known as Classical Swine Fever, which rampaged the pig industry in the Netherlands.



For preventive reasons, almost 10 million hogs in the Netherlands alone had to be culled to avoid a further spreading of the disease. Pictures of culled pigs being hauled into a large truck dominated the news for days on end – a collective end towards the convenient innocence about meat production. Members of the public, until that moment unaware of what was going on inside pig houses, were confronted with animals having to die – and this time it even didn’t serve the purpose of becoming bacon, ham or a sausage.

Mad cow disease

In that same timeframe, troubles around mad cow disease (BSE) had pretty much the same effect. Over time, in Western Europe and in the whole of what is considered the developed world, cases like these have led to a growing awareness of what is sometimes called ‘factory farming’ or the ‘bio-industry’. As a result, animal welfare organisations grew up everywhere. The press often reported widely on their statements – and in my country, the Netherlands, to my knowledge the first-ever ‘Animal Party’ made it to Parliament.

To take a position in between, in recent years a special meat certification label was called into life in the Netherlands. In cooperation with retailers and the Dutch Society for the Protection of the Animals, the label ‘Beter Leven’ was set up, in English this would mean ‘Better Life’. In this scheme, meat gets awarded one, two or three stars, depending on how much welfare a pig, broiler, layer or cow has had during its life. With regard to pigs, attention is being paid to a host of different issues, like floor space, distraction material, castration, tail biting, gestation crates, etc.

What if the pig could design?

Funny enough, this initiative came into existence on the basis of research by the Netherlands’ Wageningen University. In the so-called ‘Comfort Class’ study, between 2006 and 2009, for once researchers wondered what a pig house would look like if the pig was taken as the centre of the approach. Forget about making money, this is an experiment, what is it going to look like? A pig house like this obviously had a lot of space, toys were placed everywhere and there were specified dunging areas.

One of the conclusions of the research, as may be expected, was also that it was not feasible to apply this in common practice, to make a living out of it. Nevertheless, the big gain was that it marked a different direction in thinking.

Free farrowing research in Denmark

Putting the pig more central in the research, and then trying to look if there is something to win from it – the trend can be seen everywhere. Where in the US the industry is still struggling to decide whether or not group housing for gestating sows is a good thing – in Denmark the next question is whether or not freedom should also be applied during farrowing. Why create a barrier between mother and kids?

The first draft of a so-called free farrowing (FF) pen, in research by the Danish Pig Research Centre and the University of Copenhagen, showed that mortality is still quite high, so a next version of their farrowing pen was developed, the so-called SWAP-pen. In this version, sows can be barred for a short period of time after farrowing, to allow the youngest piglets to gain strength and be quick enough to avoid crushing.

Free farrowing in practice in Germany

Moving south, to Germany, at various trial farms in the country the concept of free farrowing is being applied. Livestock equipment company Big Dutchman has been launching a concept of a total freedom sow house at EuroTier 2012. Here piglets and sows can even mix a few days after birth. They also concluded that neonatal mortality is high and they are currently testing solutions. Daniel Holling, responsible for the concept study, told Pig Progress last year: “We cannot afford not having ideas about it. We would like to be ready for these big changes due to future requests.”



The topic of tail biting and tail docking is also being reconsidered. A recent article on this topic in Pig Progress by Finnish scientist Prof Anna Valros of the University of Helsinki was titled ‘Tail biting and tail docking: Biology, welfare, economics’. This last goes to show that here also the matter of money is taken into account. She will be the leader of Europe-wide further research to the matter of tail biting – even the USDA-ARS is involved. The goal? Trying to find ways to avoid tail biting which do not include tail docking. Effect? Less work for the producer, less pain for the pig.

Castration: nasty work for producers

Much the same goes for the topic of castration. Not having to castrate saves the pork producer some nasty work, and pigs suffer less. On top, there are additional advantages, most notably a better feed conversion rate amongst boars when compared to barrows. It is no surprise that a permanent goodbye to castration is only possible if the whole chain has agreed to do so and currently agreements have been made to stop castrating in 2018 in the whole of the European Union. It is questionable whether this will actually be feasible, but attempts are made.



The Netherlands has managed to ban most of castration already. One thing that needs to be solved is the matter of boar taint; currently a heat detection method at the slaughter line is the only trusted method to ensure no tainted meat makes it to consumers. A smarter use of genetics or feed could also make a difference.

How to create conditions that pigs remain healthy

In the field of animal health, I observe a similar line of thought as well. No longer is the question relevant as to what diseases are around – but how to establish whether or not a pig is healthy – and how to create conditions that pigs remain healthy. For that purpose, Wageningen University in the Netherlands set up a checklist, which includes e.g. measurable data like growth, protein conversion, mortality. In addition, checks in the slaughterhouse are included, e.g. testing for liver quality, lung quality as well as pleurisy. There are plans to also include the usage of antimicrobials, which in Europe and to a lesser extent in the US are on their way out.

The effect of such a checklist? If pigs can be kept healthy even without the help of antibiotics, this means that there are advantages for the producer (the first P) as there is no sub-clinical disease slowing down growth figures; for the people (the second P) as the meat contains less pathogens; for profit (third P) as healthy pigs need less feed; and… the pig. One leading Dutch veterinarian, at a recent congress, simply stated: “It is important that a pig feels good.”

A small step for a farm

So far, these examples really require a different type of thinking and may include many people and instances. But there are ways to do it on a much smaller scale as well. One only has to think of the example of the rooting cone, introduced for finisher pigs by Weda and developed by the University of Kassel in Germany. The system is simple – pigs can rub their snouts through these balls, attached to the floor in the middle of a pen.



Unlike the majority of toys, they have been found to continue to be liked by pigs – so much, that pigs have been observed to lie and sleep around it. Researcher Dr Uwe Richter told Pig Progress: “Many toys just had to fit the federal EU laws and they were designed to look good through human eyes. They were not designed to fulfil the needs of pigs.” Research is on the way to see if this may help reducing tail biting as well.

Another example is the recent development of large pellets for creep feed. In nature, piglets of about ten days old usually run around with chestnuts or acorns. Why then, does creep feed come in tiny pellets of several millimetres?

Researcher Dr Henry van den Brand, Wageningen University, told Pig Progress: “What do we give our toddlers to keep themselves occupied? Certainly not very small pieces of toys!” The concept has been produced by Dutch animal nutrition company Coppens. The large pellets have been shown to have a positive impact on the duration of the weaning dip – and piglets put on weight quicker and grew faster after weaning.

Taking a pig’s perspective

In short, there could be many reasons why producers may have to take a pig’s perspective now or in the future. They could do it because they have to for legal reasons, or because they want to for ethical reasons – or anything in between. It may take some re-thinking, but there are examples in which adding the pig perspective yields insights that also benefit planet, profit and people.

Those insights could not come more timely. With the year 2050 approaching, everybody is talking about feeding the world by that year. Demand to meat is expected to rise tremendously in one part of the world – and at the same time there is a growing demand for more animal welfare in the other. One may indeed wonder – why not reconcile these objectives?

This article is a summary of the presentation ‘The Fourth P’ given at the VIV International Pork Production Summit, held at January 29 in Atlanta, GA, United States.

Source: Pig Progress 30.3 (2014)

VIV International Pork Production Summit

The presentation was part of the first-ever ‘VIV International Pork Production Summit’, a pig-focused event which took place simultaneously with the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta, GA, United States. About 100 pig production experts lined up for this event, which featured various keynote presentations as well as three simultaneous sessions.

Keynote speaker James Kenwood, managing director and coverage banker at Rabobank International, spoke of US hog margins which are bound to rise to unparalleled highs during 2014, related to the PEDv outbreak, see also pages 6 and 23.

In addition, a major speaker was Ma Chuang, vice secretary-general of the Chinese Association of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, and partner at Boyar Communications. Amongst others, he spoke of the effects of recent legislation of a new large-scale waste disposal act, effective since January in China. This could lead to relocation of pig production sites.

At the invitation of Reed Business Media, Prof Dr Dermot Hayes, Iowa State University, spoke about chances for the US pork production on the Chinese market – read more on page 34.

Other speakers at the management session included Simon Lague, Fancom, who spoke of iFarming; Dr Guido Klement, PigTek, highlighting smart technology on the farm; and Sean Francy, Valco, who spoke of swine ventilation management. Other simultaneous sessions there addressing topics on feed and nutrition (high feed prices, phytase and mycotoxins) as well as animal health (trace minerals, antimicrobials and PED virus). 

ter Beek
Vincent ter Beek Editor of Pig Progress / Topic: Pigs around the world