Action required on Danish organic piglet mortality

Scientists who undertook a study commissioned by Denmark’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries have concluded that efforts should be made to reduce the high rates of piglet mortality seen in the country’s organic pig herds.

The ministry and the Danish pig farmers’ association agreed in 2011 on an action plan to reduce piglet mortality in both conventional and organic productions, with part of the plan focussing on a long-term breeding programme to ensure that more piglets survived.

However, a recently published study that Aarhus University carried out for the ministry showed that there was a need for a special effort in organic pig production. Mortality is higher in organic production than in conventional production, and there are several reasons for this.

In conventional herds the stock manager has some management options that are difficult to practise in organic herds. For example, in conventional systems there’s the option to move piglets from large litters to a nursing sow, whose own piglets have been weaned. In organic production, the lactation period is two to three weeks longer than in conventional production, giving an organic nursing sow a very long lactation period.

In addition, a number of practical issues affect piglet mortality. In organic production, the sows farrow in huts in a free-range system, making it difficult to monitor the perinatal and early lactation period, and thus to intervene if pigs are in need of help. Finally, the organic piglets are highly vulnerable to natural hazards in the form of foxes and birds of prey.

Studies from organic farms showed a piglet mortality rate of about 33%, which is higher than in conventional pig production. Although the scientists emphasised that the data material is not extensive, there was a clear need to look for ways to reduce piglet mortality in organic herds.

The scientists point out that there is a need to think innovatively in the design of the farrowing area and in the development of monitoring tools and improved access to the sows.

“Better access for monitoring combined with better access to the huts will give us a better chance to adjust litter sizes and to use nursing sows,” senior scientist Lene Juul Pedersen, who wrote the report with Jan Tind Sørensen, said.

“There is also a need to explore the prospects of breeding sows that are better adapted to the organic production conditions with farrowing in huts in the open,” Jan Tind Sorensen added.

In short, the researchers concluded that organic sows needed to produce fewer but larger and more robust pigs. This would mean the sow would be able to look after her own litter, and the lack of monitoring opportunities would be less important.

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