In pig farming, it’s usual for pigs to be kept on a closed floor in the sty, with the manure stored beneath it. So they’re actually living on top of their own mess. In our new innovative sty we do things differently. Here, the pigs have their own designated place for excretion. The toilet and living areas are kept separate, as they are for us humans, and have been for centuries.
During the antibiotics project that we conducted over the last two years with the Dutch Innovation Platform, I led many conversations and discussions about cutting back antibiotic use. I wondered how it could be that in one ‘sector’ (human) with a high population, antibiotic use could be kept at a low level, while in another sector (intensive farming) it’s so difficult. Then I realised that the biggest steps forwards in public health were made when ‘living’ and ‘toileting’ were separated. And therein lay the key to innovation regarding pigs’ excretory behaviour. Why had we never made this simple comparison between the two sectors before?
The farm’s cleaners
Way back when, the concept of pig farming did not exist. On a farm there would be one or two free range pigs, who would eat the farm’s food waste. Just like chickens, they were the farm’s ‘cleaners’. In the phase after that, between 10 and 30 pigs at most were kept on a farm. They were placed in a sty with a closed floor. From that point on, pig farming expanded. The pigs were given small cubicles with closed floors that were littered. The straw and the faeces were used as manure on the farm’s arable land.
Specialisation meant that more and more animals could be kept – with all the consequences that followed. If one pig in the sty got sick, all the others would immediately go the same way. Which was why, in the 1960s, someone came up with the idea of keeping the pigs on top of grids, thinking that was better, so that they didn’t come into contact with their own faeces. This also ensured that the meat quality was healthier and safer.
But the grids were not a good solution from an animal welfare point of view. Because of their legs, it’s not easy for pigs to stand on grids, so pig farmers went back to using closed floors.
The closed floors were better for their legs, but the manure storage created unhealthy air, so the animals would get coughs and lung problems more quickly. To prevent this, farmers started using antibiotics. At the time it seemed like a good solution, but we’ve come so far since then that we want to bring antibiotic use down and even reduce it to nil.
So it was time to rethink the situation. To go back to the origins of pig farming and other sectors. Which brought me to question why things were fine in the human sector but not with pigs. And the answer lay in the toilet.
In my next blog I’ll tell you more about the daily manure removal process in our new sty and the accompanying manure fermentation system. And how it also allows farmers to generate their own green electricity from the manure.