Today is the Pig Day, I was up early again as I had an hour and a half to drive to get to the pig farm nr Slagelse. I was meeting farmer Sten Rytter and Bente Damgaard (wife of the Chair of the Local Action Group for the Municipality) who was going to act as my translator for the morning. Sten and his wife had moved to the farm in 1996, they have two boys (21 & 18), though neither take much interest in the pigs (pig farming isn’t sexy apparently – why has no one told me this before?). The farm is 120ha and Sten and his wife are the sole workers. They grow wheat, barley and rapeseed. The wheat and barley is used as feed for their pigs and the rapeseed is sold as a cash crop. They’re 80%+ efficient in their feed production with the protein element coming from bought soya, sunflower and waste milk/whey from the dairy producer Arla (who was delivering while I was there).Grains were stored in silos and ground into a fine meal in a series of mills every two days. The meal is pumped to storage tanks ready for an automated computer system to mix the correct ration of protein, cereal and whey. The large storage tanks could hold two days of feed, which were pumped into the pig barn (again automatically) at feeding time, four times a day. Feeding for us is manual and extremely labour intensive – by his own admission, the automated system ran itself, all Sten had to do was make sure that the grain bins were kept full.I‘ve seen automated systems on other farms, and I’m always impressed with the automation. It might seem that a computer does everything, but there’s a real understanding of the actual feed – not only do they manage its composition but for the most part in Denmark, it’s been grown and harvested by the pig producers themselves. I try and buy barley meal for our pigs, but it’s increasingly difficult to do so. Our neighbours are refurbishing a hammer mill so soon we might be able to mill locally grown barley for the pigs. Grinding the barley to a fine dust allows the pigs to derive the greatest amount of nutrient from the feed – not only does it make rearing more efficient, it makes the growing/conversion of the feed more efficient too. Controlling the feed process I think is crucial; whether it’s growing the feed, milling feed or making your own ration.The farm is a fattening unit, so pigs come to the farm at around 12 weeks old, and remain on the farm for another 12 weeks before they’re sent to slaughter. Commercial pig production ranges from 18-26 weeks depending on the hybrid type of the pig, the feed conversion, the rearing method and the quality of feed. The pigs are around 30kg when they arrive, and are 105kg when they’re sent to slaughter. He buys the ‘weaners’ from a nearby breeder who keeps 750 sows, in Welsh terms this is big, in Danish terms, this is pretty small. Each breeding sow averages 15-16 pigs per litter, and 2.5 litters per year. These sows are kept on average until they are 3-4 years old before being sent to slaughter (as their litter numbers decline). The price of each weaner is set and regulated based on the cost of production by a national union, Sten currently pays 490Kr (£58) per pig which is pretty close to the cost of a Pedigree Welsh Pig of the same age in todays market. These pigs were a hybrid, crossed from Yorkshire(Large White), Duroc and Hampshire pigs and have been specially bred for their muscle definition, lean carcasses, fast growth and high feed conversion rates. He takes delivery of approximately 190 pigs every Wednesday, and the same number leave the farm every Monday destined for the slaughterhouse. Up until July they fattened 7500 pigs per year, but he has been granted a license to increase production to 10,000 per year as production is regulated by the Government. He doesn’t have a contract for the finished pigs, price is based purely on the demand/price from the slaughterhouse. At the moment he is getting 12.10Kr/kg deadweight (£1.43/kg) which is below the current UK average (£1.68). His price/kg is significantly higher than the base Danish pig price as his pigs adhere to a particular welfare standard, both his weaner supplier and he are part of a welfare scheme (similar in principle to RSPCA Freedom Foods). Although he doesn’t know which processor takes delivery of his pigs, they are all sold to the UK market.
One question in particular that I had for him was the subject of castration. All of his boars on the farm arrive ready castrated. From 2018, traditional castration will be banned across the EU. Castration is rare in the UK for small scale producers, but is a necessary function in the commercial world. Natural substances collect in the fat of male pigs once they reach sexual maturity which results in a tainted smell and flavour to the meat. When I asked, Sten just shrugged and said “we’ll have to wait and see what happens”. I’m particularly interested in castration as we specifically want larger and older pigs for our charcuterie production. Older more developed meat is of far better quality, is deep ruby in colour and for many technical reasons makes better charcuterie. It means that we have to keep gilts or use culled sows solely, leaving younger male pigs for the fresh pork market. Interestingly Sten mentioned that his castrated boars have growth rates identical to the gilts, however, gilts are more profitable as on average they generate 62% usable meat (of liveweight), where the boars only produce 60%.
Based on a brief head count, each pen could hold up to 20 pigs. Every pen would be disinfected prior to a new delivery of weaners and would remain their home for around 8 weeks, at that point they’d be split to allow more room for their final 4 weeks. Their waste falls through the slatted floor into a tank which is emptied when the pens are cleaned out and fresh straw bedding is placed in the pen three times a week. Each room is kept at a constant 16C, and the ventilation system is connected to his smartphone and sets off an alarm if there are any malfunctions. Feed is pumped in automatically, and the moisture content in the feed is near sufficient for the pigs, but each pen (by law) has a drinker. None of the rearing shocked me, it was far better, more modern and well kept than many rearing systems I’ve seen. I’m actually an advocate of partial rearing indoors, though I much prefer to see pigs in open barns, with natural airflow and deep straw bedding. I’ve seen too many smallholdings who advocate 100% Free Range where pigs spend their winters cold and wet and stood in 3 inches of mud from September to May. I much prefer to see warm, dry pigglets running through mountains of straw.
Due to yesterdays cock-up I had a change of itinerary today so I headed to Copenhagen sooner than expected. One last blog post to come, and that’ll bring my Danish adventure to a close.