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Pig rearing in the US: “Europe is 10 years ahead of us!”

During a week-long study trip to the Midwest, 32 members of the EPP gained some interesting insights into pig production in the US. The group visited farms in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin to share information and experiences with famers in these regions. Their fascinating findings are summarized below:

Production system and costs

Around 70% of pig farms operate in integrated systems and are therefore tied to contracts. However – unlike many of their colleagues in Germany – these farmers do not feel that this approach limits their freedom to run their own businesses. They see it more as a form of risk protection which guarantees prices and provides them with a steady basic income during difficult times such as the PED outbreak.

Sow breeders in the US – unlike most of their German counterparts – do not rear piglets alongside the farrowing operation. Instead, after weaning at 21 days, piglets are sent straight to finishing farms. With this ‘wean to finish’ system, there is no need to move the pigs from a fattening to a finishing facility.

Pigs are kept in groups of between 20 and 40 on fully slatted flooring with a slurry pit underneath the slats.  There are no statutory requirements regarding the floor design. The spacing of the concrete slats can be 25 mm, or even more in some cases (slat width approx. 8 cm). It was noticeable that often the slat spacings varied in the same building. This is due to manufacturing tolerances and poor slat arrangement. Contract finishing is the preferred option, with contracts running from 10 to 12 years for new-build agreements.

While in Europe the main aim is to boost productivity by optimising biological performance and efficiency, pig farmers in the US currently focus on growth. This has led to a rise in the number of fattening pigs over the last five years, although sow numbers have actually stagnated. As a result, piglets have to be sourced from elsewhere, such as neighbouring Canada.

With costs for management, energy, environment and shed construction significantly below the equivalent rates in Europe, pig production in the US is a profitable business. In the last two years, numerous new fattening facilities have been or are in the process of being constructed – largely because, compared with Europe, it is relatively easy to obtain planning approval for these buildings. Often all that's needed is a copy of the architect' drawings and a slurry management plan.

“Keep it simple” seems to be the rule of thumb as far as essential equipment is concerned: A standard pig house is equipped with dry or mash feeders supplied via tube conveyors, a water trough for each pen and a tunnel ventilation system. In larger houses or in very hot regions, the ventilating air is cooled and filtered, whereas exhaust air treatment is unheard-of on these farms. As regards digitisation, this tends to be reserved for arable farms rather than livestock farms. We noticed that arable farming receives the lion's share of investment on many farms, with livestock farming taking a back seat.
Feed is based solely on corn and soya, which is grown on-farm on a large scale. Essential amino acids and trace elements are covered by adding mineral to the feed, so the pigs receive simple, home-grown rations. Some farms have their own feed mills, which further reduces feed costs. DDGS (distiller's dried grains with solubles – a waste product from ethanol production) is often used as a further source of energy.

One farmer made an interesting observation about agricultural systems on either side of the water: “Europe is 10 years ahead of us in terms of regulations and production conditions.” He expects more stringent legislation to be introduced in the US during the coming years (after the Trump administration at the latest).

GMOs and antibiotics

Corn and soya bean are the dominant crops in the Corn Belt. And over 90% of seed is genetically modified. According to the farmers, this is standard practice for controlling weeds in intensive corn and soya production. Although we discussed Europe's GM-free approach, the farmers we spoke to see no need to rethink their current cultivation strategy.

Organic farming has made some advances in recent years, but with little demand for organic products within the US, there is no incentive to increase organic cultivation at this stage.

There has been a sharp decline in the use of antibiotic growth promoters in recent years, although they are still permitted in some sectors. With increasing pressure from the retail trade, this form of performance enhancement will soon be consigned to the past.

Animal welfare and sustainability

Animal welfare and sustainability are important issues in the US too, although they are discussed in different terms to Europe. Apart from the group rearing of sows, there are virtually no measures designed to improve animal welfare. There was a noticeable absence of open troughs, solid surfaces, organic manipulation and nesting materials or space to move in the farrowing facility. Far greater emphasis is placed on training staff to handle the animals with care. This is documented and can be demonstrated at any time on request. In the US, slurry is regarded as organic fertiliser rather than a waste product. As part of a sustainable closed-loop economy, farmers spread the 'product' on their own land, or have a cooperative arrangement to spread it on neighbouring arable farms.

Several US farmers were amazed that many European pig farmers incur significant costs for slurry disposal. Livestock transportation times of up to 24 hours are permitted by law. Even weaners may be transported for up to 16 hours (in special air-conditioned lorries with a water supply). Transportation of animals from farm to abattoir for slaughter averages just two hours in Iowa thanks to a good abattoir infrastructure. Slaughter animals are transported in semitrailers (two tier, without water). Fasting animals before transportation is not common practice. The semitrailers (photo) have a capacity for 162 fattening pigs or 300 to 400 piglets weighing 25 kg.

Hygiene is a significant problem in the transportation of animals to slaughter. Since most abattoirs have no facilities for cleaning trailers, the lorries return unwashed. Consequently, most finishers have their own trucks with semitrailer.

Quality, food safety and export

The Iowa Pork Producer Association (IPPA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) are responsible for public relations and promoting a positive image of American pig farmers. Both organisations are funded by pig farmers who pay a mandatory 'pork checkoff’ – a 40 cent levy on every $100 of pork sold. A further 10 cents is paid out for ‘strategic investment’. At present the money is spent mainly on activities aimed at improving water quality (sustainability), animal welfare (Iowa Farm Animal Care) and farmer training.

According to a statement by the National Pig Producer Council, only 15% of US citizens are interested in how and where their food is produced. Price, quality and food safety is the prime concern for 85% of consumers. Exports are also underpinned by these characteristics – which constitute the main arguments when negotiating new trade agreements. Niche markets such as 'raised without antibiotics’ or 'national & fresh' have therefore had little opportunity to develop.

For NPPC representatives, open markets and fair competition are an essential requirement for a functioning global market. As well as the NAFTA agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, the US has also set its sights on Korea, Vietnam and Japan as further trading partners. The Trump administration boasts in the daily press that food exports have risen by 6% compared with the previous year, in line with the motto: “Export food, not jobs!”

European pig producers can only hope that fair competition will prevail in terms of production conditions as well as target markets.