Draft welfare codes causing stress for pig farmers

Rural Life

22 June 2022

Photos: Tim Cronshaw

A Canterbury pig farmer is pulling his hair out over draft welfare codes that could set his family operation back millions of dollars or... worse, writes Tim Cronshaw.

Sean Molloy is at a crossroads.

The Sheffield pig farmer is struggling to see how he can make the Government’s draft welfare codes work without turning the family’s modern piggery upside down.

Retrofitting the indoor farrowing, weaning and grower sheds was not workable and putting up new buildings was cost prohibitive even if it could get through the council’s consenting process, he said.

Reducing pig numbers would only make the farm less viable.

"We’ve got an idea of what they’ve proposed, but we don’t really know what that’s going to be and how quickly that’s going to kick in, but it’s really, really scary because it’s got the potential to be a game-ender if they put through what they have now. I don’t think we will have an industry — it won’t be economic to farm pigs and it’s really serious."

First off, there was the frustration that New Zealand would come out with world-class animal welfare far ahead of any other country, yet imported pork will come to our shores from countries with sub-standard farms, some of them still using dry sow stalls.

That hurt, he said.

Above all else, though, was the disappointment that no pig farmers or specialist pig veterinarians were placed on a committee that drew up the draft papers. That was baffling.

"The scary part is how we got to this point," he said.

"We’ve got a whole system of reviewing the animal welfare code where we just don’t have any industry or people who have experience handling or working with pigs. You look at an average farm and you’re doing at least 2000 hours a year working with your animals and you’re not invited to a table to talk."

Mr Molloy did go with a group representing farmers to Wellington to talk to the committee.

"You’ve got no decision-making or vote around the table and you’re trying to explain something that’s rather complicated to people and they just don’t get it. At the first couple of meetings it was like 101 of pig farming and we were looking across the table at each other with jaws open."

He would have preferred to have seen the full house of farmers, vets, nutritionists, ethics people, RSPCA representatives, pork processors and wholesalers — among others — thrashing out the pragmatic changes needed.

Mr Molloy said some of the draft code was driven out by idealism and the farrowing crates were a case in point.

"The sow is in there to protect the piglet. If we didn’t need to do that, why would I spend all that money on steel and a crate? It gives the restriction for the sow’s movement, but she has everything else she needs — a safe nest to produce her piglets in, food, water and a regulated temperature."

One of the options was to go free-farrowing which would be like returning to outdoor piggeries and having 25% of their piglets die from predators, disease and sows lying on them, he said.

"I don’t call that acceptable welfare. That’s taking a leap back and it’s how we first started."

To have free-farrowing indoors might protect them from the cold and heat, but would be just as bad for a newborn piglet — only 0.3% of its mother’s weight, he said.

The average litter at weaning at the Molloys’ operation is between 13.5 and 14 piglets per sow, which is at an industry-leading level.

Sows go into farrowing crates for five days and then spend three weeks in them with their litters before returning to gestation pens.

One welfare proposal is to have them in crates a day before they are due to farrow and have them in there for three to four days and then put in pens.

Mr Molloy said that would require at least a complete change of animal management to make it try to work and it was dubious if it would work or be best for the animals.

He said it would also need a refit of their farrowing sheds as the shape of the pen would increase and the building might then be too small.

Farrowing buildings were expensive and designed to last for 25 years so that would be a large outlay.

"The research shows a day before and three to four days after [are] the critical times.

"But from a pragmatic approach, you try to tell me when that one animal is going to farrow. Some of them might farrow five days before they’re expected and some of them two days later than that so we have a window of seven days trying to work out when we’re going to restrict this animal."

A Denmark trial, heavily funded by the Danish Government, used the best and most progressive farmers and even they had question marks about how effective it would become once it went mainstream.

Many changes marked ahead for the indoor farming of pigs has Sean Molloy (left) and his brother Colin, questioning the future of Offaly farm at Canterbury's Sheffield.

Farrowing pens at this stage are proposed to be 6.5sq m whereas the Molloys’ are closer to 5sq m.

"What they have done is heavily look on the welfare of the sow and they haven’t really considered the welfare of the piglet. The larger pen is so the sow can turn around and have a separate zone to dung in and feed. But in the first week when they’re lactating they do next to nothing."

On top of the risk of more piglets being crushed, there were the other headaches of sows excreting in their feed and the difficulties of handling protective sows weighing 300kg in larger areas.

The increased space allowances for growing sheds were a real concern for Mr Molloy.

He said they would make it really expensive to farm as the business had two options — halve the growing pig numbers or double the size of the shed.

Its 1500 young pigs went from 10 weeks to 21 weeks in the growing sheds, starting at 30kg and leaving with a liveweight of 105kg-110kg.

They lived in sheds of about 1200sq m and under one proposal that would need to be increased by 1.5 times to keep the same pig numbers and under another proposal would need to be more than doubled in space.

To double the size of the growing shed would cost between $1.5 million and $2 million depending on building costs.

More money would have to be spent to heat the increased spaces and effluent control would be a problem for floors which were not plastic slatted, he said.

"You increase the size of the pen and you will have real trouble with where they dung because when they are little they will start dunging everywhere and once that habit is imbedded it’s virtually impossible to stop. So you’ve gone from the right-sized pen where they dung in the area where you want them to and then you’re compromising the health of the pigs. The whole thing is a lack of understanding of what really happens in real life. There’s so much wrong with it I could go on and on and on."

Ammonia levels were proposed to be lowered in the rooms, but by increasing their size, ventilation would have to be dropped to keep the pigs warm, he said.

To have the same pork production the final bill would be closer to $5 million as another $500,000 would have to be spent on a new weaning shed and changes to farrowing crates would likely need him to put up a new building, probably at a cost of $1.5 million-$2 million.

Mr Molloy said he could not do that because there would be no payback.

It was not as if the business could pass on the extra costs to customers as it was all sold domestically and pork prices had a ceiling as shoppers considered it an affordable meat.

Before moving to the growing sheds for three months, the weaner pigs went into another shed from age 21 days to 10 weeks. They all left at the same time and the sheds got a deep clean with water blasting and disinfectant before they were reloaded.

Yet another "curly" side-effect of the welfare code review is a proposal to extend the weaning age to 28 days.

That was seven to eight days more than when the Molloy pigs were weaned and the whole system would need changing for that to be lined up, Mr Molloy said.

That would have a bearing on sow condition as they started to lose a lot of condition after three weeks from piglets demanding more milk and starting to chew on nipples, he said.

Piglet mortality could increase.

He said the reality was the weaning period would be collectively pushed out closer to 35 days as some sows gave birth earlier and others later.

The Molloys’ pig farm, Offaly, is on a 17ha block and runs close to 4000 pigs, including piglets.

In 1974 father Peter and mother Christine began an outdoors pig farm and moved to Sheffield in 1980 producing pigs indoors.

The Molloy seniors are phasing out and today it is run in partnership with Sean’s brother Colin in combination with 130ha converted to centre pivot irrigation for growing about 60ha of feed barley for the pigs and grazing dairy cross cattle.

This land also allows them to inject the pig effluent into the grass zone of its pasture once it goes through an anaerobic digester and storage pond on the home farm.

Today it is one of the most hi-tech piggeries in the country with automated feeding systems and heating units controlled by thermostats. Many of the fittings such as the plastic mats and feeders are sourced from around the world, including the likes of Denmark, Germany and Spain.

Mr Molloy said they went overseas for the best ideas and spent an endless amount of fine-tuning to develop new feed systems or feed products.

A fine misting system in the big sow barn from Australia removed dust from the air and collected bugs to improve the health of their pigs as well as keeping them cool in summer.

As a graduate with a chemical engineering degree from Massey University, he naturally gravitated towards science and technology to make their lives — and those of the pigs — easier.

Big changes afoot for farrowing crates appear to be favouring the welfare of sows over their piglets, says Offaly farm co-owner Sean Molloy. He believes more changes for weaning and grower sheds have far-reaching consequences for their indoor pig operation at Canterbury's Sheffield.

In contrast to other farms which might have piglets weekly, the family runs a batch farrowing system. The 400 sows are split into five groups with 20% of them having piglets every four weeks.

During farrowing 1200 piglets will be produced in three days with staff working from 4am to 10pm.

During this cycle the other sows will be weaned, mated or in various stages of gestation.

This means all the piglets born together stay together with a break between each group so the sheds can be cleaned and disease and hygiene can be controlled.

Peter Molloy did not envy the working and regulatory environment his sons had to operate under today.

"We are always trying to do the right thing and improve all the time and to have this come out like that is just devastating and especially by people with no knowledge of the industry and how it works. This is the first time we’ve never had an input into what’s happening ... This might be the end of us if they bring in these rules as they are now. That’s in effect going to shut us down or be hellish expensive."

He said they would be able to compete if there was a level playing field and imported pork had to be farmed under the same welfare standards.

"This is the biggest battle I’ve seen in 45 years. This is really tough."

By any measurement, pig farming is not an easy business today, even putting aside increasingly stricter rules.

The Molloys were a worker down after struggling to recruit someone in today’s tight labour market.

Feed barley grown in the adjoining dairy grazing block fed the sow herd, but that was only about 40% of their total feed intake.

Another 800tonnes of feed wheat was bought for the growing pigs and that had gone from $420/t to $560/t, and there were concerns it could climb to $600/t.

Soya meal used to cost $745/t from South America and is just under $1000/t now. The Molloys had managed to offset that by buying waste milk from dairy factories, fish meal from Sealord or meat and bone meal from meat companies.

But prices are rising for imported amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other feed ingredients with a box quadrupling to $8000.

The Molloys had filled up sheds to avoid months-long delays for imported goods clogged in shipping lanes by Covid-19 disruption and more lately the ripple effect from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Then there is the influx of imported pork coming into the country — once 60% of all pork sales and now 70%.

Among this is pork from Germany, which has over the past year become our leading importer despite an African swine fever outbreak.

Mr Molloy said that was short-sighted because it was saturating the market, crashing the price, and ran counter to the welfare of pigs if the disease should enter.

"A lot of countries have said no way we’re not taking it, but good old New Zealand we just stuck up our hand and said ‘no worries, you can bring it in over here’. Absolutely there’s a risk because we have a huge amount of back yarders who don’t always respect the rules or don’t even know them for a start."

The deadline for submissions on the code closes next month, and the Government is welcoming feedback.

Mr Molloy was holding his breath that wholesale changes would be made to the draft codes.

He said history showed they went through consultation with only a few minor tweaks made to the initial document.

New Zealand’s 90-odd commercial pig farmers might have to go to court to get a solution that worked for everyone, he said.

Perhaps the most hurtful point of the welfare code was that pig farmers felt like they were not being trusted, he said.

That was despite the industry turning itself around 10 years ago when they got sick of laggards ending up on television and tarring other farmers with the same brush.

The pig industry introduced a minimal welfare code, processors refusing the commercial supply of their pork unless they fell into line.

The approaching changes have taken the wind from Mr Molloy’s sails, but not his zest for raising pigs.

"They are a really interesting animal. The way we manage them allows us to make small changes all the time to improve how they perform, whether it’s their health or how fast they grow or whatever.

"There’s all these technologies and management techniques that you can use so you never get bored of having something new to try to keep making things better for them and performing better so I just get a real kick out of that."