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Pig Farming – Indoors Or Out?
Although there are as many systems of pig production as there are individual farms, these can be divided into two main types: indoor and outdoor pig production.
Within pig farms, herds of pigs are kept in a relatively small, closely controlled area, usually with some form of climate control, often with liquid feeding systems, and (increasingly) ‘high health’. These systems are often referred to as factory or ‘intensive’ production.
Outdoor pigs have breeding pigs (sows and litter) that are kept one or two years per site on free-draining arable fields, with ‘arks’ and electric fencing. More than a third of the UK herd is now kept in this way, with an increasing number of pigs being reared to slaughter outside weight too.
Both systems have their ‘pros’ and ‘cons’: let’s start by examining the positive features of both.
Inside you have the advantage of environmental control: piglets can be born and raised at the right temperature; adult animals can be kept cool in summer and warmer in winter – they also don’t get a chance to get sunburned; and air flow, especially the prevention of drafts, so harmful to pig health, can be controlled. You can also control the feed intake of housed pigs, and are better able to reduce wastage (so important in these days of rising feed costs) – it is also easy to install computer controlled feeding methods such as automatic seed feeders and liquid feeding for fattening stock. Indoor farms tend to be more productive than outdoors given the ability to control feed and environment – it is possible to achieve a greater level of monitoring and measurement and thus control of the many variables in an indoor situation. It is also possible to establish and maintain a high health status for your herd, significantly reducing disease risks and challenges.
Yet abroad you would benefit from much reduced capital costs, lower operating costs, a real marketing advantage these days when ‘free range’, ‘free range’ and even ‘organic’ hold sway over consumers who might be persuaded to share with a premium price for such environmental friendliness. There is a perception of higher welfare in operation for the outdoor pig (more natural, better able to express the ‘inner pig’. Finally, there is the very real advantage of using pigs as a ‘break crop’ ‘cleaning ‘ and fertilizing a piece of arable land that needs weeding and refreshing.
Great advantages, but what about the disadvantages?
Indoor setup costs are three times higher (on a per seed basis) than for an outdoor unit. Energy costs are high, and slurry disposal can be a problem (although welcomed by the arable boys once spread and incorporated into the soil), and certainly a significant cost. The high population density of an intensive farm also has its own problems: diseases spread like wildfire when they gain access to the herd, and the smell can become offensive, especially on hot days. Welfare concerns are also very important – it is easier to fall within the law than outside (stock densities and environmental enrichment come to mind).
Outside, the biggest problems are lower productivity and extreme weather (on my outdoor unit I saw water freeze as it came out of a four inch valve on a bowser one winter). Getting quality staff is also a growing problem – every day outside is not necessarily idyllic. Animal control and the health status of the herd are also a potential problem, as is the management of the feeding herd that should be kept outside (appetite control, feed conversion, growth rates and feed wastage will all be major challenges that justify a healthy premium price) .
There you have it. “Swings and roundabouts” as they say – “six of one and half a dozen of the other”. Perhaps the best is a compromise – well-designed buildings and slurry management systems, pipeline-fed fat pigs (eg with dairy waste), loose housing and lots of straw. Throw in some high welfare features like Electronic Sow Feeders and lots of environmental enrichment, and maintain a high health status, then maybe you have the best of both worlds? One thing I know for sure is that pigs get as miserable as we do on snowy, icy, wet and windy days, and, like us, they find drafts and high temperatures just as uncomfortable.
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