Policy Manager's Blog - 12 July 2018

On a fact-finding mission to Helsinki, NFU Scotland Policy Manager Penny Middleton saw first hand how the country manages its pig industry, which produces 2 million pigs per year, and the process for finishing, including the stringent biosecurity measures.

Whilst there is little space for people, never mind agriculture in Finland, the country’s pig producers boast high animal welfare and have had antibiotic free production since 2003.

Finland is 75 per cent forest, 10 per cent water with only seven to nine per cent of land used for agriculture. Temperatures typically range from -25˚C to +33˚C with a growing period of 120-180 days.  The natural conditions whilst stunning, limit what can be grown and add cost to production.

The Finnish pig industry struggles to be competitive on price and relies on niche markets for export.   Selling points are animal welfare (tail docking is banned), antibiotic free production and some units also specialise in producing meat naturally high in omega3.
Going antibiotic free was relatively easy for Finland, whilst the natural conditions may present a challenge to production, the cold temperatures and disperse nature of farms helps prevent disease spread.  I can also testify to the importance of biosecurity from the strict protocols in place for all individuals entering on farm; how many Scottish pig units require visitors to have a sauna before entering the unit?  

In 2003 Finnish producers were given 57 days to stop docking tails.  Although many of the smaller producers had already stopped docking, most of the larger producers still docked routinely and they had to quickly find ways to adapt their existing systems to production without docking.

So, was this transition to full tails a smooth one? Do Finnish producers have all the answers? Or is there a twist in the tale?  When I asked if there were problems in the early stages they all seemed to have collective amnesia, no one could recall problems and maybe this was the case, but I was less than convinced.  

15 years down the line what is the current incidence of tail biting in Finland?  The producers present reported an incidence of zero to two per cent but when pushed on the range across all farms it could be closer to 60 per cent of farms sitting in the zero to five per cent range and a small number experiencing higher levels.  

Finnish pig production is entirely indoors and mostly takes place on a mixture of slatted and partially slatted systems. Interestingly the producers we spoke with placed less importance on manipulatable materials and bedding materials than the UK.  In fact, I would question whether the enrichments we saw would fully comply with UK best practice.  The Finnish producers emphasise that getting the conditions right - temperature, air flow, air quality, feed, trough space, health and group size - are far more important than manipulatable materials or even space allowances.

Finland produces two million pigs per year, a figure that almost matches consumption, but they face high costs of production and strong competition from Germany and Denmark, so how do they survive?  We have mentioned niche export markets but they also have strong support from the home consumer.

In Finland they do not talk about ‘high welfare production’, the Finnish know, and trust animal welfare is covered in the law, they don’t need multiple optional welfare schemes.  Their strength in the home market comes from trust in a brand, guaranteeing native production of a single recognised standard of animal welfare, health and quality.

Is this a country that Scottish producers can learn and develop their practices from? Absolutely – but maybe without the biosecurity sauna on farm.

Author: Penny Middleton

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About The Author

Penny Middleton

Although city born I have always had a strong interest in animals and the countryside. I have a Master’s degree in Livestock Production from the University of Aberdeen and spent some additional time doing research work some of which necessitated working on farm with livestock. I worked as an Inspector for the Scottish SPCA for a number of years before taking over more detailed work for them on legislation, lobbying and training before moving to my current role within NFUS.

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