Friday 1 May 2020Sustainable Pig Systems - Looking to the future

The UK enjoys a long and proud tradition of pork production, with pig farmers working to balance the pressure of delivering quality products with the need for profitable business models.

The national herd across the four British nations numbers some 404,000 sows, 60% of which live indoors. Whether born indoors or outdoors, 90% of all meat pigs are grown and finished in indoor systems, with these indoor units successfully weaning 10% more piglets than their outdoor counterparts. A small number of bigger players have grown within the industry, running expansive businesses across the UK, but mostly in East Anglia, North Yorkshire and Aberdeenshire.

In recent years, the main pressures upon the pig industry from retailers and consumers have focused on price and animal welfare. Debate about the relative merits of indoor and outdoor systems – not all of it balanced and well informed – has raged, with the positive outcome being significant advances in welfare standards across the UK.

Now, however, there’s a new pressure demanding the urgent attention of pork producers – the question of sustainability. While pig production is responsible for lower carbon emissions than either beef or lamb, it still leaves a substantial footprint. Looking to the future, farmers will be expected collectively and individually to find innovations to reduce the environmental impact of their operations.     

Retailers and sustainability requirements

With their attention taken up by welfare considerations (including antibiotic usage), the major supermarket chains have not yet brought their full weight to bear on the matter of sustainability. But a growing body of research makes it likely carbon-reduction regulations will be put in place and targets formalised before long.

Rainforest conservation might feel a million miles from the day-to-day concerns of a pig-unit manager in the north of England, but it’s on the radar of retailers. Though not yet banned, soya is increasingly frowned upon. Not only does this staple livestock feedstuff threaten rainforest environments, it also carries a financial cost and carbon burden due to the distances it must be transported.

For both producers and retailers, pig feed is a good place to start the sustainability dialogue. By giving careful consideration to what animals are eating, players can get ahead of the curve and prepare themselves for impending regulation. Choosing a more sustainable feeding system offers the opportunity to put in place low-carbon production while saving money and protecting the environment along the way.

Making a start to improve sustainability

Global population growth is outstripping the rate at which food can be produced and soon demand will overtake supply. While plant-based diets become more popular in western countries, growing affluence in developing nations means those populations are eating more meat. When you consider that it takes three kilos of carbon-heavy corn or soya to produce one kilo of meat, it’s clear that we need to think again about how our livestock is nourished. 

Which is where co-product feeds make a compelling case as a cost-effective way to rear and finish animals. By using resources that have already fulfilled a primary purpose, co-products carry less of a carbon load and free up land that might have been used for animal food to be used instead for human food. Efficiently rearing animals on ‘waste’ products is a win-win for resource efficiency and carbon reduction.

Currently, dry compounds made from grains dominate in livestock production because it’s cheaper to install an efficient feed system, because they’re familiar and because they deliver proven results. But feeding compounds can be wasteful, especially in outdoor systems, where it also encourages scavengers and therefore leads to inefficiency. Pellet feed might be easy to handle, but pelletising adds an additional layer of cost, compared to meal or liquid feeding.

Although animals may take a few extra days to reach slaughter weight with co-products, they’re a cheaper option. Moist or liquid co-product feeds are locally available, so transport costs are reduced. They also carry a lower carbon emission. Installing a wet-feed system is a short-term investment against a long-term plan.

Embracing innovation

There’s plenty of innovation going on in agriculture. Activities we currently take for granted – such as muck spreading, for example, which costs a lot in terms of time and diesel – might become things of the past. It’s possible that soon we’ll steam the liquid off slurry utilising the heat generated from the pigs themselves and dry the solid to use as an effective fertilizer. Or we could capture the ammonia in pig buildings and harvest the hydrogen within it to use as a green alternative to fossil fuel.

Changing feed can feel like a big risk in systems accustomed to working in a tried-and-tested way, but Duynie’s research and analysis ensures the effectiveness of our products. Our team can advise on the best products for your system. Changing to co-product feeds could be your first step in innovating for a more sustainable future. The innovation jigsaw includes improved genetics, housing modifications, welfare advances and the adoption and adaptation of advanced technologies. Introducing co-product feeds is an accessible choice in laying down the first piece in your sustainability pathway.

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