Outdoor pork provides antibiotic-free alternative

By Peter Crichton

PIG producers are being urged to consider drug-free outdoor rearing systems, following recent claims that intensive indoor farming methods rely too heavily on antibiotics to promote faster carcass growth.

The news comes in the wake of a recently published House of Commons select committee report which recommended a ban on the use of antibiotics as growth promoters. Officials from the feed trade body UKASTA have also said that farmers must cater for consumers who want certain in-feed antibiotics banned.

Outdoor fattening systems are claimed to be more welfare friendly and far less dependent on the use of antibiotic growth promoters. And for those producers with access to light, free draining land and stock with the right “lean genes”, it can be a worthwhile option.

Recent trials have indicated that “free-range” fattening is wasteful both in terms of feed utilisation and growth rates. It is also very hard to select or even catch pigs at the optimum weight levels and therefore less efficient than most indoor systems.

But the use of large tubular-framed tents attached to outdoor runs or pens has proved to be both efficient and an economic alternative to indoor fattening. Each pig tent can hold about 100 pigs to bacon weight and carefully designed step-up hoppers and drinkers can provide the optimum low-stress finishing environment.

Stocking rates of around 0.85m2 per pig meet current guidelines and growth rates can match the best types of indoor housing.

During winter periods, big-bale straw walls built around the tent framework keep temperatures at ambient levels and, in the hotter months, most of the bales are removed, leaving just the bottom layer as a retaining wall, thus improving ventilation flows.

The cost of these tents works out at around £30 per pig place and the framework and fabric covering should have a design life of 5-7 years.

Most outdoor systems are operated on an “all in, all out” basis and the tents can be moved to fresh ground between batches. Output and profits from well-managed tented fattening systems compare favourably with the top 30% of UK producers, according to Meat and Livestock Commission statistics.

Provided that these outdoor operations are efficiently managed, they should be able to provide the ideal type of “welfare friendly” at an economic price – exactly the sort of pig demanded by supermarkets. Many producers feel however that they should be paid a substantial premium for this enhanced product.

Detractors argue that most supermarket contracts currently fail to pay enough of a premium to make outdoor production really worthwhile. But better promotion at the point-of-sale could help to generate more interest at the commercial end of the market.

  • MLC calls for antibiotic reduction in farming, FWi, yesterday (6 May) — Click here
  • Peter Crichton is a Suffolk-based pig farmer offering independent valuation and consultancy services to the UK pig industry

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