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Balancing act

‘Finely balanced’ are words which sum up the fortunes of Danish pig producers in the first half of 2014. Prices didn’t reach previously anticipated levels but feed costs remained on a downward trend. Rising export of weaners from Denmark continued to put pressure on local availability of finished pigs. The problems for Danish and other EU exporters on the Russian market were offset by good demand from the Asian markets. There was more public discussion on the Danish Food Minister’s plans for pig welfare and the Danish industry was placed prominently in the shop window in a recently broadcast episode of Channel 4’s ‘Food Unwrapped’.

As ever, life in the international pig meat market remains something of a ‘balancing act’ and this was certainly the experience of Danish pig producers in the first six months of this year.

Against a background of declining pig supplies across the EU, it was expected that prices would show a decisive upward movement. Although prices did show modest improvement, the anticipated rises did not materialise. However, feed costs, which account for around 65-70% of the overall ‘cost of production’, remained stable and the latest indications are that cereal prices will remain on a downward trend as good harvest prospects are reported in many of the world’s key producing regions.

Total Danish pig production showed a small increase but exports of weaners from Denmark continued to rise, reaching 4.3m head in the first five months of the year, compared to 3.9m head in the same period in 2013. Germany remained the main export destination but sales to Poland, Italy and the Netherlands showed significant increases.

Higher export of weaners continued to put pressure on the availability of pigs for slaughter in Denmark. Pig slaughterings fell 7.6m head in January to May this year, compared to 7.7m head last year.

The industry continued to highlight the distorting effects of burdensome environmental legislation, which placed Danish producers of finished pigs at a competitive disadvantage to their main EU competitors.

The prospect of further reduction of domestic slaughter capacity remains. Danish Crown announced a programme to rationalise their sow slaughtering by closing production at Sæby and centralizing all sow slaughter in Jutland at Skærbæk. The slaughterhouse at Skærbæk slaughters 240,000 sows per year, while around 90,000 are currently slaughtered at Sæby.

However, the company was happy to announce that a 'rescue plan' had been negotiated with the employees’ union and the Danish authorities to secure the future of the slaughterhouse at Rønne on the island of Bornholm for a further five years.

The ban on all exports of EU pig meat to Russia, following the discovery of African Swine Fever in wild boars in two EU Member States, Poland and Latvia in early 2014, had a depressing effect on pig prices in the EU. Although the price of loins and legs remained relatively unscathed, the price of shoulders, collars, fats and trim, for which there had traditionally been a good demand from the meat processing industry in Russia, was virtually halved in price in the weeks following the ban.

However, Danish and other EU pig meat was in good demand on most Asian markets, as the spread of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhoea Virus (PEDv) in US and Japanese pig herds reduced the availability of pig meat for those markets.

Following the much publicised Welfare Summit in March, the Food Minister Dan Jørgensen recently published a more detailed ’action plan’ for how welfare in pig production can be further improved, across a wide range of areas including reduction in levels of piglet mortality, free farrowing for sows, castration of piglets without anaesthetic and tail docking.

DAFC supports the Minister’s vision for animal welfare of the future, which , in many respects, it regards as a natural continuation of the work pig producers are already engaged in.

”There is nobody more interested in healthy pigs than us.” said Erik Larsen, Chairman of the Pig Research Centre. ”We have been working on reducing piglet mortality for years, so the action plan is fully in line with the work we are already engaged in. Pig producers are, of course, very interested in the survival of as many pigs as possible, as it makes good business sense,”

The ’action plan’ sets out how, by 2018, alternatives will have been found to castration without anaesthetic. Castration is currently necessary because meat from non-castrated pigs often gives off ‘boar taint’, an unpleasant odour.

”We are, of course, totally dependent on the fact that the meat products we supply are of a high quality, are tasty and consistent. This is the reason why we are currently forced to castrate entire males. We have been searching for alternatives to castration for a long time, so to believe that we can solve the problem tomorrow or next year is unrealistic. We have, therefore, agreed with the minister that we will work towards avoiding castration without anaesthetic as quickly as possible,”

At the moment, many Danish pig producers dock their piglets’ tails in order to prevent tail biting. 

”Like a range of other issues in modern pig production, tail biting is among the most complex. We see tail biting among conventionally reared pigs as well as free-range and organic pigs.  The best way to prevent tail biting is by docking the end of the piglet’s tail. The industry has not yet found a better solution than docking so the Food Minister’s statement that we must continue to focus on the tail biting issue has our full support,” says Erik Larsen.

A recent episode of Channel 4’s ‘Food Unwrapped’ included filming in the Danish Crown abattoir at Horsens, to illustrate the background to the long-standing presence of Danish bacon on the UK market. It featured, British pig farming champion, Jimmy Doherty joining a ‘factory tour’ in the company of site manager, Per Larsen. The tour included all facets of production from the lairage, carcase dressing, cutting and bacon curing. It presented a positive picture of modern pig meat production, with a strong emphasis on the efficiencies, hygiene and the automation of today’s systems. The coverage was generally light-hearted in keeping with the tone of the programme.

The last sequence showed Danish Crown's Agnete Poulsen talking to a group of school children in the visitors gallery, also mentioning that the Horsens plant receives 25,000 visitors per year. This clearly demonstrated the willingness of the Danish industry to 'open its doors' to the outside world.