By Mike King and Marlys Miller

EuroTier, held every two years in Hanover, Germany, offers insights into how the European pork industry is facing 21st-century challenges. As guests (Mike and Marlys) of its organizer, the German Agricultural Society, the Pork Checkoff learned from pig farmers, veterinarians, and allied industry representatives at the four-day November show, with five key takeaways:

  1. Consumers and regulators present challenges.

European and U.S. pig sectors face many universal challenges. Leading the list is the knowledge and information gap between farms and increasingly urban consumers.

One speaker addressed a recent survey that asked 18- to 36-year-old consumers in the Netherlands, “What do you think of when you hear the word farmer?” Not one respondent connected farmers with the fact that they produce food.

“Increasingly, the public is placing demands on how food, particularly animals, are raised,” said Caroline van der Plas, a food and farm advocate based in the Netherlands. “As farmers, you have to explain how food is produced and create a sense of wonder about how their food is raised.”

With food-related fears, Europeans and Americans differ. Experts at EuroTier said Americans fear germs, while Europeans, and Germans specifically, are more afraid of chemicals in food. So, Americans welcome post-harvest innovations such as bactericidal rinses of carcasses, but Germans view it as contamination.

Common issues on both sides of the Atlantic include challenges from activists and non-governmental organizations that question farming practices regarding the environment, animal well-being and food safety.

Lawmakers affect pig farmers in all countries. In Germany and other European nations, farmers voiced concerns about ensuring a future license to operate. In a very relatable example, German farmers face challenges for siting new hog buildings due to environmental restrictions and activist actions.

Nadine Henkel, a German pig farmer and veterinarian, runs a 1,250-sow farrow-to-wean operation with her husband. The couple would like to build a new sow unit on an existing site to double their production, but breaking ground has been a slow process.

“For a new barn, it requires 10 years to get a return on investment,” Henkel said. “Because our environmental laws change every few years, it’s hard to establish a long-term plan.”

  1. Threat of African swine fever (ASF) is heightened.

Walking up to the EuroTier entrance made it clear that protecting Germany from ASF was a high priority, with ASF-positive wild pigs now as close as neighboring Poland and Belgium. Instructional signs and disinfection mats greeted attendees. The intent was to protect German pork production, which is often likened to that of Iowa due to its large volume of grow-finish pigs within Europe.

Farmers, veterinarians and allied industry at EuroTier are focusing on biosecurity, innovation and building awareness to fight the spread of foreign animal diseases such as ASF.

  • Biosecurity – Curtailing human traffic on farms and washing and disinfecting vehicles on/off the farm is being emphasized. This includes adopting the “Danish-entry” system of using a clean and dirty dividing line where clothing/boots, etc. must remain and not enter the clean side of a barn.
  • Innovation – A new, truck disinfection system by Meier-Brakenberg drew keen interest. Offered in stationary and mobile options, the idea is to disinfect the outside of a truck entering or leaving a farm or packing plant. Another application could be at the border of a country or state. The product is not currently available in the United States.
  • Building Awareness – Each of Germany’s 16 states implement education and outreach to thwart ASF. For example, the Lower Saxony State Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (LAVES in German) exhibits outlined biosecurity measures for farms, animal transporters and hunters, as well as ASF control strategies, diagnosis and disease progression details.

“Humans can easily transfer items contaminated with ASF and are therefore a major way that ASF can travel from one area to another,” said Christiane Linne-Jonas, DVM, with LAVES. “We have been communicating with hunters about the potential risk of ASF transmission from processing and transport of infected meat from wild pigs.”

As of late November, hunters in North Rhine- Westphalia had harvested a record 66,000 wild boars. To support hunters’ efforts, two of Germany’s leading packing plants, Tönnies and Westfleisch, agreed to take 10,000 of the wild boars as “it’s in our best interest to prevent ASF spread to Germany.”

LAVES also addresses food safety issues. Officials are concerned about how consumers will view pork safety if ASF strikes.

“It’s something that we are thinking about now because we know that consumers will likely be skeptical about pork safety when a disease such as ASF occurs,” Linne-Jonas said.

As in the United States, ASF is a reportable disease in Germany. They want to avoid economic damage by protecting farms through strict biosecurity and sanitation methods.

“ASF is a very stoppable disease,” said Tony Pearson, a global technical consultant for biosecurity and hygiene with Antec International in the United Kingdom. “We’ve seen what can be done to protect commercial herds in places such as Poland that has ASF in wild pigs. The country has had one domestic herd break in four years, which occurred just recently. Meanwhile, the disease has been in the wild herd for many years.”

  1. New regulations are coming for castration.

Based on the 2013 Animal Welfare Act, legislation restricting castration in Germany was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2019. However, the Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliament) recently postponed implementation for two more years in an attempt to find workable solutions.

Proposed castration options have pros and cons, but the big debate centers on economic implications and the fact that the inhaled anesthesia option, in particular, needs more research and refinement to be practical.

Under the original plan, physical castration of male pigs less than eight days old would require veterinary-administered anesthesia by injection or inhalation to put the piglet to sleep or local anesthesia, which is common in other EU countries. The veterinarian requirement raised concerns about having enough personnel to perform the task.

Other options under the regulation include immunocastration or marketing intact male pigs, with limits now set at 5 percent of total German hog slaughter.

Local anesthesia receives the most support from farmers, their associations and veterinarians, but they emphasize that it should be allowed to be carried out by trained farmers.

Britta Becke, a practicing farmer, added that while she considers immunocastration appropriate, packing plants are apprehensive due to consumer concerns. From her perspective, local anesthetics are simple, safe and free from side effects.

Meanwhile, several European-based swine genetics companies are working to produce boar lines with reduced skatole and androstenone levels – the primary agents that create boar taint.

  1. Product innovations offer unique solutions.

One EuroTier silver innovation medal went to Taintstop from Belgium. The feed-based product is designed to reduce boar taint by influencing bacterial digestibility in the large intestine and reducing related production of skatole and other indole compounds.

Another pig production silver medal went to Pig T pig toilet by Big Dutchman. It is designed to immediately separate urine from feces and litter to reduce emissions. Flooring allows urine to move into a catch trough and into a separate storage tank. A conveyor belt removes feces and litter to another collection unit.

Also a silver medal winner, the EZ Clean Corner for Chain Feeding systems from Hog Slat accommodates cleaning and flow of dry feeding systems.

Winning the gold medal, Speedy Trough Suction Unit from Meier-Brakenberg promotes optimal feed hygiene. Connected to the gun of a high-pressure washer, the Speedy Trough Suction removes wet or dry feed, sucking it into a container. It eliminates hand cleaning and accommodates quick, thorough cleaning.

  1. Digitization aids farmers, appeases consumers.

EuroTier’s emphasis on “Digital Animal Farming” could not be overlooked. The show highlighted technologies to improve the health/welfare of animals, enhance the environment and improve farm efficiency and sustainability.

U.S. farms use digital technology, but the pace of integration by European livestock production is impressive. From common ventilation and feed system usage to full chain-wide use of sensors to determine animal movement, growth and performance, digitization is happening.

Many companies offered cloud-based solutions that can be accessed 24/7 from a mobile phone to monitor and control equipment.

“Farmers have long been data managers,” said Karl Schlosser, EuroTier project manager. “The digital farm is a networked operation both internally and externally to selected partners.”

That could include connecting production sites with data management services, a veterinarian, a packer and even a retailer.

Clemens Tönnies, co-owner of Tönnies Group, a leading German meat processor, said European consumers continuously demand increased transparency from farms, so on-farm data are critical.

“We conduct onsite animal welfare checks and provide feedback to producers because people want to know where their meat came from and how the animal was treated,” Tönnies said. “With traceability and transparency through digitization, we can provide this to them.”

German consumers, just like their U.S. counterparts, are asking questions about how their food is produced.

  • To help guard against African swine fever, biosecurity measures, such as sanitation mats, greeted those entering EuroTier.
  • Trucks entering or leaving a farm or packing plant can be disinfected using a new system from Meier-Brakenberg not yet available in the U.S.
  • EuroTier attendees from around the world saw innovations ranging from new farrowing stall designs to digital production solutions.
  • With “Digital Animal Farming” as the theme, vendors offered tools to manage production data, control equipment and maintain animal identification through the chain.