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Pork: European-style

By Staff | Oct 23, 2015

-Contributed photos SOWS ARE HOUSED in this Hamilton County farm’s gestation pens from breeding until about one week prior to farrowing. Pens hold from about 65 to 250 sows and have solid-floored large nests that allow use of bedding. Each sow has 32-square-feet of living space in the gestation pen.

By LARRY KERSHNER

“mailto:kersh@farm-news.com”>kersh@farm-news.com

First of a two-part series

WEBSTER CITY – Dr. Gary Dial, a Hamilton County veterinarian, said he makes no judgments in how pigs are raised in conventional operations, but he’s trying to raise pigs in a welfare-friendly manner that meets with the demands of a consumer market that is critical of traditional systems.

And this is accomplished by adapting European-style production.

THE ENTRY into the Electronic Sow Feeder.

“We think we have an interesting business,” Dial said.

Dial is part of an Iowa-based company, Truebridge Foods, with Iowa and Illinois producers feeding into their markets.

“We produce cage-free natural pigs,” Dial said. “We don’t use farrowing crates, we don’t use gestation stalls, we don’t use antibiotics, we don’t use growth hormones in our pigs at any point in their lives.

“These pigs are always fed vegetarian diets and most of the standards by which we raise our pigs by are dictated by the markets we sell into.”

Truebridge sells pigs to natural pork processors and market some of their pigs for themselves.

WEANED PIGS ARE MOVED into the wean-to-finish barn and remain there until marketed. Partially slatted floors allow use of bedding.

“All of our farms are certified by one agency or another,” Dial said. “There are certain specific standards that have to be followed, that are dictated by markets.

“Then we have a production person that goes onto a farm every week to make sure those standards are complied with.”

In addition, Truebridge assigns three inspectors that go to the slaughter plant and watch their pigs being slaughtered and processed, “so we can make sure we can preserve the identities of the different parts and pieces that we market.”

Janelle Roker, another veterinarian who oversees financials and marketing for Truebridge, said there is also a third-party group that audits the farms.

“It’s an independent, unrelated company that comes in and does that,” Roker said.

Janelle Roker

The designs

“Our system is not a conventional system like you’d see in commodity pork production,” Dial said, “nor is it similar to what you’d see in what I call a more traditional type of systems.

“Our farms are based on European technologies.” These include:

  • All sows in gestation have electronic sow feeding systems.
  • Special farrowing pens, not crates, that are made for Truebridge based on European designs.
  • Special, European-designed waste management ventilation systems that help achieve what is needed from an environment standpoint.
  • “We like outdoor access for our pigs,” Dial said, “but not all our pigs have outdoor access because of the disease challenges in central Iowa.

“But when we can, we allow them outdoor access and still utilize the existing ventilation system in that barn.

“So our farms by American standards would be very modern in terms of the equipment used,” Dial said. “And that’s because of the production practices that are required.”

Gary Dial

After touring a number of European farms studying varying practices, Truebridge selected technologies that can be accommodated within common American buildings and business practices and still fit Truebridge’s business model.

“We wanted to be able to take existing Iowa farms and adapt them to European equipment and building designs,” Dial said. “We got into this because we wanted to produce pigs in a more welfare-friendly conditions than in convention systems.

“We’re not passing any judgment in terms of what the commodity industry does.

“We produce this way, and what others do doesn’t concern us.

“We were looking for what we thought was a more comfortable environment for the pigs and the workers.

“That was our driving force.”

Costly production

These pigs are immensely more expensive to produce, Dial said, citing the cost of the equipment and vegetarian diets and its not always an all-in-all-out sale into premium, value-added markets.

“The cost of production is significantly higher than they are for commodity pigs.,” Dial said. “You have to remember we don’t sell all these pigs. We capture what we call a conversion rate on each lot of pigs – the number of pigs sold at a premium, divided by the number of pigs in the group that did not qualify for the premium.”

He said it’s not unusual to see 10 to 20 percent of the pigs not qualify for the premium, usually due to having to use antibiotics if the pigs get sick.

“But these pigs carry the same cost structure as the pigs who qualify for premium markets,” Dial said. “So if you have a healthy sow farm, your conversion rate can be rather high.

“But if the health of the sow farm deteriorates, obviously there’s the potential for your conversion rate to suffer.”

An additional cost is the outdoor access.

“We have fabricated what’s called pig-actuated doors,” Dial said, “which allows our pigs to go outdoors and come in on their own volition.”

Because of the cost of the doors and the paddocks, Dial said Truebridge is rethinking that design considering other ways to provide good environmental conditions for its pigs, rather than exposing them to the pathogens circulating in Iowa.

Biosecurity is even more an issue than commodity operations, Dial said.

“It’s important for everybody that they keep their pig farms at least clean and free of disease, but certainly with us because we don’t have antibiotics to fall back on,” he said.

Meat quality

“If people buy one of these added-value pigs the meat quality will be there,” Dial said. “Meat quality has to come through the boar side and the sow side.

“So we have to use genetic lines where we can get better color, higher pH, more marbling, than what a conventional farm would use, because our customers expect that because they are paying a premium for that product.”

On the breeding herd side, Dial said Truebridge producers are competitive in terms of performance of their sow herds.

On the finishing side, they use boar lines that may not be as efficient as far as pigs converting feed as conventional farmers would be.

“When you couple that with not being able to use dopamine and growth-promoting antibiotics,” Dial said, “they probably don’t grow as fast as commodity pigs do.”

“Depending on the market, we grow them about the same size as the commodity producer,” Dial said. “With the trend toward heavier weight in the commodity industry, I would suspect we are lighter than some producers right now.

“We market our pigs between 265 to 275 pounds.

“It gives us the size of product, particularly the size of the loin eye that most retail stores and most food service stores would want.”

Disadvantages

The meat side of the business has some disadvantages, Dial said. Since the pigs cost significantly more to produce, “It requires us to get more for that meat when we sell it.

“So the toll-processing charges are significantly more than if we had our own slaughtering plant like most of the large endusers do.”

He said adding the cost of pig production, slaughter and fabrication; plus transportation because the volumes are less, “we have to make more money on a total pig business,” Dial said.

For those who want to get into the value-added pork business, Dial said, it’s important to realize that the excess production costs make carcass yields critically important.

“You have to be able to utilize as many pounds of that pig into premium markets as you can,” Dial said. “We like to be about 80 to 85 percent.”

In fact, Roker said, 100 percent of the pig is used, but there are certain pieces that can sell for a premium while others into commodity markets.

“About 85 percent needs to get sold at a premium price,” Roker said.

This requires a blend of the right kind of customers.

“Some want different cuts of meat and that’s what Janelle does well,” Dial said, “figuring out how to push-and-pull prices so the pricing of different custom cuts fit the customer base.

“So as much as possible the added cost is covered.”

By being integrated through ownership, Dial said, “we’re flowing money back-and-forth so the different components of the value chain are treated fairly.

“There is much more money in the meat side than the live side of the business. We started Truebridge a while back, so we can catch some of that margin and flow it back to the farms.”

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