Concern draft code will hurt piglet welfare

Farmers Weekly

9 May 2022

Colin Williscroft

The recently released draft welfare code for pigs will not only have a negative effect on farmers and piglet welfare, it will also affect the staff who look after them and consumers who want to buy fresh NZ pork, Manawatū pig farmer Andrew Managh says.

Managh, who farms about 700 hectares near Halcombe, with about 6000 pigs on the property on any given day, says despite the draft code seeking to improve pig welfare, in a practical sense it means farmers are being asked to invest money into something that will not achieve that goal.

He says under the proposed changes, farrowing pens at his and his wife Geraldine’s Ratanui Farm property will need to increase from their current 4.5 square metres to 6.5m2 and he can’t see the benefit in that.

Massey University based NZPork animal welfare adviser Dr Kirsty Chidgey says the main causes of piglet deaths in any system are starvation, hypothermia and accidental crushing by the sow.

Farrowing crates significantly reduce crushing but also allow critical management like fostering to ensure all piglets have a functional teat and colostrum, a heat lamp to attract piglets to lie in a safe area and reduce chilling, and stockpersons can quickly and safely give sows assistance to farrow if needed.

Chidgey says it’s not clear how or why the 6.5m2 was decided.

Pen sizes in other countries that have adopted farrowing pens are mostly in the range of 5.5m2 to 6m2.

Germany recently adopted legislation to require temporary crating in 6.5m2 pens.

German farmers will have 15 years to transition (by 2035) and their Government is providing funding to cover up to 40% of expenses, with a maximum limit of €500,000 per farm.

She says research into farrowing systems is clear that alternative systems to farrowing crates have comparatively higher piglet mortality.

“Farmers are concerned about piglet welfare for many reasons but the outcome of these proposals will not necessarily bring an improvement to animal welfare,” she says.

“Yes, there’s a cost to farmers, and certainly to the consumers as well, but there’s a welfare cost here too.”

She says some of the other proposals in the draft code are not supported by animal welfare science, such as proposed increases in space for growing pigs, which are between 56% and 140%.

“We think there would be unintended welfare consequences of those proposals.

“That’s because it would require much more frequent movements of pigs and frequent mixing of pigs of different ages and sizes to regularly readjust stocking density on existing farms. This would impose unnecessary stress and reduce the welfare of the pigs. However the reality is most farms would not be able to adopt either proposal for space.”

Managh says if the proposed changes to the code become law, he would need to reduce pig numbers by about 60% to fit his operation’s total space.

That would mean that he couldn’t keep on all the 21 staff he currently employs and he is concerned for the welfare of staff who would have to deal with extra dead piglets.

“Our staff come to work to look after the welfare of piglets, they don’t turn up every morning wanting to walk around and pick up crushed piglets.”

He expects other farmers will choose to walk away from the industry, which longer term will affect consumers.

“I imagine a large number of farmers will exit the industry and then consumers of fresh NZ pork won’t be able to purchase some of the cheapest protein on the market.

“It will force the cost of living up again, and if the only option is imported product from a country with a lower welfare standard, then there’s no winners.”

“The Government’s own report said the cost of fresh NZ pork would increase by 19%.”

Managh accepts welfare changes need to be made but he wants them to be science based and practical, rather than based on an ideology or a set agenda.

Chidgey agrees changes need to be made to the code but says that some proposals have overstepped the mark and are unprecedented on a global scale.

“We already have some of the highest standards in the world,” she says.

“If you look at even the major pig producing countries, the EU for example, we have higher standards than most areas.

“Some of the countries that we’re importing pork from don’t even have an Animal Welfare Act, they don’t have codes of welfare, yet we recognise sentience (the capacity to experience feelings and sensations) in our Animal Welfare Act.”

She says NZPork supports an increase in the space allowance for growing pigs but the magnitude that the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) has proposed is too much.

Submissions on the draft welfare code, which is available on the Ministry for Primary Industries website, close on June 24.

Chidgey says there is a lot of material to digest but it’s important that farmers understand what’s in the proposals.

“They have a voice and we want them to think about how this will affect them and communicate that through the submission process.

“It’s not just commercial pig farmers, there are 5000 properties in NZ that are not commercial pig farmers but own and keep pigs.

“They will be similarly affected by any changes to the code.”

View the draft code and supporting documents here.