Where profitability meets welfare in pig production

02-03-2015 | | |
The gestating sows in Krannestrup Farm are kept in dynamic groups of 65.
The gestating sows in Krannestrup Farm are kept in dynamic groups of 65.

Research is being tried out on Krannestrup Farm (a farrow-to-finish farm) in Denmark to achieve the same or more productivity with higher welfare systems. Impossible – but doable.

It’s pretty obvious to see: Denmark’s pig industry is at a crossroads. On the one hand, the country has been leading the pig industry for years when it comes down to technological progress. On the other, paradoxically, the country also faces probably one of the most stringent environmental and animal welfare requirements in the world. And things are not exactly getting easier, with the current agricultural minister being Dan Jørgensen, who has been well-known in Denmark as a ‘animal friend’. One of his recent key messages to the country’s pig industry was: pre-weaning mortality needs to be decreased by one piglet per litter.


Krannestrup Farm, Denmark

Type: Multisite farrow-to-finish farm (five locations)

Number of sows: 1,200

Arable ground: 410 ha

Employees: 10

Piglets weaned/sow/year: 31.8

Piglets born alive/litter: 16.9

Stillborn piglets/litter: 1.5

Preweaning mortality: 18.8%

Weaning age: 29 days

Sow genetics: Large White x Landrace

Semen used: Duroc

Money is the key to welfare in pig production

“Now that is very easy to decide from behind a desk in Copenhagen,” comments Niels Aage Arve, second-generation pork producer from Hjortshøj, Denmark – and he shakes his head. His brand new breeding house is a well-visited attraction, being not far from Aarhus in Jutland. In addition to this farm, he owns a further four farm sites, one for weaners and three for finishing. About half of the piglets he breeds he finishes himself, the rest are sold. Arve is one of many fine pork producers who do play a part on the forefront of the winds of change. He manages to boil the entire discussion on animal welfare down into one word: money. It is, as always, the dilemma when aiming for higher welfare, Arve explains. “If the premium we might get is high, we as farmers could do anything. But if we have high welfare standards we need to be compensated by premiums as it makes the pork more expensive, but so far no-one is going to buy the pork.”


Niels Aage Arve: If the premium we might get is high, 
we can do anything.”

For that reason, he has welcomed the Danish Pig Research Centre (VSP) to do ongoing research experiments in his commercial facility. He thus helps the farmer-funded organisation in one of its main tasks, to achieve higher animal welfare and fewer environmental pollution and at the same time not let this go at the expense of e.g. the excellent Danish breeding figures, and in that way to keep Danish pig production profitable. In order to achieve that, ground-breaking new technologies and methods need to be tested and proven.

Improved pig welfare does make a difference for pig production

Animal welfare does make a difference, Arve states, while walking through his breeding sow house, which was only completed in 2012. Take for instance group housing for sows. Arve says, “You can see that the sows get some exercise and therefore are in a better shape when they go back into the farrowing house. In addition, we see less shoulder and back ulcers as the sows are not lying down all the time.”

Creating a better sow environment with a straw dispenser robot

As is the case with many farms in Denmark, Krannestrup Farm is going that extra mile to create a comfortable place for sows and gilts. One of the most peculiar features is the presence of a JHminiStrø straw dispenser robot, by JH Agro. It moves through the sow house on a rail and dispenses straw wherever it is needed – little bits at various moments through the day. Walls between sections do not form an obstacle, as special doors open and close as soon as the straw dispenser goes through – as if it were a busy waiter in a restaurant disappearing into the kitchen.


The straw dispensing robot by JH Agro is on its way through the insemination house.

Sow housing equiped for a sow’s every need

The first room in the sow building is a large insemination area, where sows are kept in groups of 58 animals in free access stalls and where they stay for an average of five days until confirmed in-pig. They then move into the next group housing section. This is divided in static groups of approximately 65 sows equipped with Electronic Sow Feeding (ESF) stations provided by the Danish firm Skiold. Inside the group housing pens there are walls of 1 m and 0.5 m as sows usually like to lie against something to feel comfort and secure. On average they have a space of 2.2 m2 per sow.


The Electronic Sow Feeding stations as provided by Skiold.

Hospital pen for each group housing

Adjacent to each group housing pen is a hospital pen. Rather than having one pen for the entire building, each group has its own hospital pen. This way injured sows – usually with bad legs – don’t have to be pushed for long distances, which can be quite a job which is easily postponed for time constraints. Being on time is very essential, Arve says. “If you wait one day longer, it might be too late for recovery.” Having been brought into a nearby hospital pen, the sows can lie down on a comfortable bedding of straw to let a wound heal, get medical treatment or to gain strength again for a couple of days. “They can’t get it much better than this,” Arve says.


A sow recovering in a hospital pen at Krannestrup.

Research: foster sows take on weakest of large litters

In the breeding house next door the lactation and farrowing rooms can be found, with spacious pens equipped by Jyden Bur. Being part of the Specific Pathogen Free (SPF) programme, the farm is free of the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), but still Kannestrup has to deal with considerable preweaning mortality figures – just under 19% on average for the last year. One of the strategies to overcome this is by using foster sows to also allow the smallest in larger litters to get through the first few days of life. The risk of spreading pathogens by mixing litters is one he is happy to take.

Research: use of loose housing during farrowing and lactaction

In addition, one of the key areas that the VSP is researching is whether or not loose housing during farrowing and lactation is feasible without losing a lot of piglets. On Arve’s farm, Dr Vivi Aarestrup Moustsen, chief scientist Housing & Environment at the VSP, is carrying out comparatory research in these rooms, in cooperation with the University of Copenhagen. Two farrowing strategies are being examined:

  • The ‘Free Farrowing’ pen where sows are loose during farrowing and lactation
  • The ‘SWAP’ pen – where sows are loose but can be confined if the breeder thinks this is appropriate.

The Freedom Farrowing concept in practice. The sow is allowed to walk around any moment of farrowing and lactation.


This sow is kept in a SWAP pen – with confinement only as long as this is needed to protect the piglets.

Phenomenon of ‘killer sows’

Although definite results cannot be published yet, it is clear that the option to confine sows temporarily offers opportunities to see beyond known knowledge with regard to breeding and piglet mortality. In this respect, Moustsen points e.g. to the phenomenon of ‘killer sows’, i.e. sows sometimes simply appearing to be clumsier or less careful than others and thus causing large numbers of casualties in litters. In addition, focusing on trials at the farrowing crates at Kannestrup, it is possible to exactly define which periods during farrowing and lactation are essential with regard to mortality. Eventually, Arve hopes to get pre-weaning mortality down to 15%.

Krannestrup is foremost a big breeding facility

Of course this is not the only research performed at Krannestrup – and one should not forget that the farm is a commercially run breeding facility, which needs to perform to produce sufficient amounts of piglets both for its own growing facilities and for selling to other farms.

Advantages of teaming up with VSP

There are certain advantages teaming up with the VSP, Arve explains. “They pay us for the additional time and costs related to the trial. For instance, this costs us one extra personnel. And in case we do not produce as efficiently because of the limitations caused by the trial, the VSP also compensates us for that. Last but not least, the VSP pay for the equipment needed to run the trial.”

The Danish Pig Research Centre (VSP)

Relatively speaking, Denmark is one of the largest pig countries in the world – with just over 1 million sows and almost 30 million piglets per year produced, on a population of just 5.5 million people and a surface which is less than one-third of Iowa. In this industry, the Danish Pig Research Centre (VSP) plays a pivotal role. The VSP is a farmer-owned organisation which forms a bridge between the academic world on one hand and the pig farmers on the other. It has close contact with universities like e.g. University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University – as well as with various universities in other countries. Simultaneously, however, the VSP organises trials on Danish pig farms; in total, over 200 commercial Danish farms are involved in some way with VSP research, Krannestrup just being one of them. Results of the trials will be shared directly with the owners, i.e. the 4,000 Danish pig producers – in the form of advice, education, lectures and a website.”

[This article was featured in Pig Progress magazine no. 10 – 2014. For more published articles register free to view our digital magazineAlso for a complete overview of all farm visits take a look at the interactive map]

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Editor of Pig Progress / Topic: Pigs around the world