Do happy animals earn you more money?

EDE, Netherlands — Gerbert Oosterlaken feels tremendous satisfaction when he watches his sows and piglets eat together as a family in his newly built hog barn. “That is beautiful to see,” he said.
Oosterlaken, who farms in northeastern Netherlands, took a giant leap forward last year when he and his wife, Antonet, built a 600 sow unit and paid special attention to animal health and welfare.

“Healthy animals are happy animals and earn you money. Unhealthy pigs never have animal welfare,” he told a recent Canadian farm tour group that was hosted by the Dutch economic affairs ministry, which oversees agriculture.

The barns, which the Dutch refer to as stables, opened last April, and Oosterlaken claims improved animal behaviour compared to his confined unit, where he kept 280 sows.

“My sows now are less aggressive than my sows in my old farm,” he said.

The sows and their piglets live as families in individual pens with plenty of room for sleeping, eating and playing in a 1.5 by 2.5 metre space.

Sixty percent of the floor space is solid and the pen has natural light.

The sows give birth in the pens. Movable bars can be pulled down if the sow needs to be temporarily restrained. Oosterlaken, who has one employee, needs a system that is also safe for people.

Weaned piglets stay in the pens after their mothers are removed for breeding and remain there until they weigh 25 kilograms. It is a familiar place for the piglets with less fighting and reduced need for antibiotics.

“It is one of the successes of our farm,” Oosterlaken said.

“When you get your management back, then you can get away from the antibiotics.”

The barn is divided into four hygiene zones. People working in the barn wear coveralls that are colour coded to the zone system to remind them not to walk back and forth through the facility. Hand washing is emphasized.

Clean air is important for the well being of the pigs and workers. Oosterlaken believes too much ammonia in the environment makes the pigs more aggressive with more ear and tail biting.

Biological air scrubbers were installed to reduce ammonia levels, while specially engineered systems take away manure.

Next year, European Union regulations will force farmers to treat their slurry and remove 30 percent of it from the area. He calculates it will cost $70 to $115 per cubic metre to get rid of it.

The EU banned gestation stalls last year, and Oosterlaken’s unit exceeds legal specifications for space and light.

He wants the barn to last 20 years and does not want to make changes every two to five years when government policies change.

The rules require that finishers be given one sq. metre of space, piglets 0.4 sq. metres and a sow 2.25 sq. metres. Oosterlaken’s sows have 2.6 sq. metres of space.

The public is allowed to visit and watch the operation through large windows and in a large upper floor viewing area in the middle of the facility that oversees the stalls.

Oosterlaken planted trees around the barn and created pathways for the public.

However, the bottom line is that these units cost more to build than a traditional facility. He estimates that a conventional barn costs $3,200 per sow while his barn cost $4,100 per sow.

He figures he can make up the added investment with sows that live longer and finisher pigs that gain better.

“When I see what these results are, we cut the losses after weaning by half,” he said.

Farmer Annechien ten Have-Mellema said expensive feed and high land prices make innovations necessary.

In some cases, she added, those high costs and expensive welfare demands have driven people out of the business.

Ten Have-Mellema, former chair of the Netherland farmers organization’s pig section and vice chair of the producer board for the national livestock and meat association, takes a different approach than Oosterlaken, but the consideration for animal welfare is just as high.

She and her husband keep 320 sows and have used group housing on straw since 2000.

“There is strong emphasis on farm animal welfare because it is our licence to produce,” she said.

They farm 600 acres in the northern part of the country and run a biogas plant to get rid of manure. The gas heats their home and barns and powers a generator, while surplus electricity is sold to the grid. They are also developing a process to kill bacteria in the manure so they can sell it.

The EU keeps issuing new directives with the latest being a ban on castration of hogs by 2018.

Ten Have-Mellema has been fattening non-castrated boars since 1995.

“In Holland, about 50 percent of the piglets are not castrated anymore,” she said.

The Dutch export 70 percent of their pork production and some markets have specified no castration, as have some Dutch retailers.

Intact males are usually slaughtered at 95 kg, and many farmers believe they have better feed conversion and faster growth.

Processing plants have trained inspectors to detect boar taint and rate carcasses from zero, meaning no odor, to three to four, indicating a heavy smell. About two to five percent of carcasses are pulled and sent for further processing.

“With genetic selection we can make a big effort in getting less boar taint,” she said.

Her farm markets its pork as animal welfare friendly and receive a premium price. However, she said customers need to pay more to cover the added costs as the EU continues to upgrade standards and retailers demand higher standards.