August 2016: Is niche production the way forward for Danish pig producers?

If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I’d definitely have said no. Denmark was known for producing a good, quality, standard product – and lots of it. Niche production in Denmark would be organic, or in a few cases outdoor free-range, and that was it. However, with falling prices of standard pigmeat, and challenges on the export market, more and more producers are looking to find ways of maximising the prices of their products.

In the past few years, Danish Crown has tried a concept where pigs are produced without the use of antibiotics. First, the aim was to try and see if you can rear finishers without use of antibiotics, but later it was extended to the entire life of the pig from birth until slaughter. The concept involves increasing weaning age, changes in feeding strategies and feed composition, increasing hygiene and much more.

There’s definitely extra costs associated with producing pigs that won’t be treated with antibiotics throughout their lives, but the first farm trials have shown promising results. The producers receive a premium (approximately 20p/kg extra), and the meat will be marketed as a premium product at a higher price in the supermarkets.
The consumers respond positively, too. In fact, there’s such a big interest in this that another large retailer has initiated its own antibiotics-free pork, and has its own producers signed up to deliver pigs to this specification. The concept is heavily based on feeding the pigs in a specific way, using certain protein sources and so on.

So is this the way forward? Well, with the current restrictions in the yellow card scheme, and an ever-increasing focus on the amount of antibiotics we use in pig production, I’m adamant this is a positive direction we’re heading in. We can never have a zero tolerance of antibiotics, because we’ll have to treat our animals when they’re sick. However, the challenge is to find the balance, where the amount of antibiotic-free pork on the market remains as a premium product, because it will no doubt add to the cost of production.

Zinc is a necessary component of a pig’s diet, and we need to add 150mg of zinc for normal growth and development. We are, however, challenged by the government to look at the therapeutic use of zinc – in particular as a treatment for post-weaning diarrhoea (2,500ppm in the feed for two weeks after weaning). Due to increasing pressure to reduce the use of traditional antibiotics, zinc therapy has become a popular antibiotic alternative that’s now widely used.

The problem is that a recent report from Aarhus University describes the accumulation of copper and zinc in Danish agricultural soils in intensive pig production areas as a potential environmental risk. Therefore, when looking at methods and ways to reduce the use of antibiotics, it now needs to go hand-in-hand with managing and feeding pigs without the use of zinc as well. We are currently looking for alternatives to zinc – including seaweed and probiotics – and results are to follow.

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About The Author

Lisbeth Shooter is a former BPEX knowledge transfer manager who’s now head of department for feed efficiency at the Danish Pig Research Centre.