Antonius - a double winner
It’s not every pig that has its own patron saint, but the Antonius breed is special in a number of respects. Named after St. Anthony, the protector of the “lower” animals, Antonius was the first of Denmark’s “speciality” pigs and dates back to 1976 when a gap in the market for premium pork products was identified.
In the sparsely populated region of Northern Jutland, Karsten Pedersen and his son, Daniel, keep 2,100 sows in conditions they describe as “the most modern in Denmark in terms of animal welfare”. Of the 60,000 piglets they produce per year, 44,000 are Antonius while the rest are sold under the Contract for Production of UK Pigs.
When the market for Antonius increases, father and son want to become exclusive Antonius producers. “With Antonius, the quality of the meat is crucial, but as our farm is geared up for the highest of welfare standards, we’re also keen for this to be a key parameter in Antonius production,” explains Daniel, who graduated from agricultural college in 2012.
“For us, Antonius production makes better sense commercially because we receive about DKK 20-25 more per pig (approx. £2.50-£ 3.00). But it’s not all about the bottom line. It’s also a question of feeling pride in the work we do.”
Much of that pride derives from the Freedom Farrowing system that the Pedersens installed in 2010. (Under Antonius rules, all sows must be in loose farrowing systems from 2017). “I tell my fellow farmers that if they want to stay in farming for the long-term, they should switch to Freedom Farrowing. This is the future. It may take some years before it becomes legislation in Denmark, but we have to bear in mind that there are five and a half million people in Denmark and 25,000 farmers – a small percentage of the population. Yes, we own over half the land, but we don’t set the rules about how we want to farm. The general public perceives that Freedom Farrowing is a better system and this is what matters. I believe that this is the way to go and half of the Antonius producers have already switched to Freedom Farrowing.”
The Pedersens’ farrowing pens, which are divided into a feeding, resting and defecating area, have heated floors and a sprinkler system to cool the sow down in summer and to encourage the piglets to separate from the sow after the first couple of days and retreat to their heated area.
“Although our piglet mortality rate is around 14-15%, which is higher than in conventional pig production, we have fewer stillborn pigs,” says Daniel. “There’s no doubt that freedom farrowing gives the sow a higher standard of welfare. We now need to study whether there are genetic reasons for some sows to have a tendency to crush their piglets – which I think there are.”
To be an approved Antonius producer, the following must be complied with: no tail docking, 66% of the flooring must be non-slatted, piglets must be 50% Duroc and should be at least 28 days old before weaning, only organic fat should be used in feed, the pigs should be afforded 30% more space compared to current legislation and fresh straw should be dispensed on a daily basis.
The Pedersens’ production system not only complies with all Antonius requirements, it exceeds them in a number of respects. For instance, fresh straw is dispensed three times a day.
Asked whether he would like to improve his farm in any way, Daniel’s answer is an unequivocal ‘no’. “Our intention was to make our farm future-proof and I think we’ve succeeded. I would like to see the market for Antonius grow, particularly beyond Denmark, but at the moment, I’m satisfied with the way things are.”