Makin' bacon

Consumers are loving Australian pork. Favoured by celebrity chefs for its taste and versatility, pig meat is enjoying a welcome revival in kitchens nationwide. In 2013–14, on the back of a successful nationwide campaign, annual domestic pig meat consumption reached 25.1kg per capita (an increase of nearly 25 per cent in a decade), with 9.5kg of that being fresh Aussie pork.

Locally made ham, bacon, salami and prosciutto increased to comprise nearly a third of the domestic processed pig meat market, and export volumes of our premium-grade pork were up by about 12 per cent in the year to 31 May 2014.

With strong growth in exports forecast for China and South Korea, and recent Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) set to eliminate tariffs on our pork over the next decade, Australia has “tremendous opportunity to expand exports to these countries if the markets are understood”, says Dr Roger Campbell, CEO of the Cooperative Research Centre for High Integrity Australian Pork (Pork CRC).

Our product integrity, enviable biosecurity status and geographical proximity may potentially enable us to airfreight chilled pork direct to Asian retailers, says Australian Pork Limited (APL) CEO Andrew Spencer, thereby putting Australian pig meat producers in an enviable position to sell into “high-end export markets, where food safety, quality and high animal welfare standards are mandatory”.

If Australia’s pig meat is to keep pace with domestic demand and make inroads into lucrative high-end markets, producers must persuade prospective buyers that our pork is “worth the premium”, as Spencer says.

“Our major differentiating attributes are welfare, environmental footprint and product integrity systems—how we manage things like quality, food safety and traceability,” he says.

“Our product integrity systems are probably the best in the world and are the major underpinning of our positioning, especially in relation to the future in significant Asian markets.”

Sociable housing for sows

In 2010 Australia’s commercial pig meat producers responded to consumer concerns about sows confined during pregnancy and made the historic decision to phase out sow stalls in favour of group housing by 2017. Since then, the industry has spent millions ensuring a smooth transition to the new system—a change that almost three-quarters of producers have implemented.

A Pork CRC–University of Melbourne project has found, says Dr Roger Campbell, “If managed well, sows settle quickly, provided groups are kept relatively stable and all sows can access enough feed, water and space.”

Thanks to research and careful management, it’s been “a very positive move”, says Andrew Spencer. “As a result, we’re world leaders in sow group housing.”

Effluent to green energy

Converting pig poo to eco-friendly biofuel via covered ponds and anaerobic digesters substantially shrinks the carbon footprint of piggeries.

“The pig industry has a comparatively small carbon footprint compared with beef but, unlike beef producers, pig producers can do something about it,” says Stephan Tait, a Research Fellow at The University of Queensland’s Advanced Water Management Centre (AWMC) and Head of Pork CRC’s Bioenergy Support Program.

“Farmers can reduce methane emissions by up to 60 per cent by converting effluent to biofuel and covering effluent lagoons,” he says.

At a cost of about $250,000 to set up a biogas conversion system on the average-sized piggery, it’s not cheap, Tait notes, but the energy generated can ultimately offset the capital outlay.

“Up to 80 per cent of the energy at an average pig farm is consumed in heating piglets in sow sheds and weaners,” he says. “Biogas conversion can supply more than double this amount of heat energy, leaving a significant excess to do something else with.”

Currently, biogas conversion systems are economically viable only for producers with breeding herds of 600-plus sows, but Tait’s team is developing cost-effective biogas conversion for herds of 300 to 500 sows with high-energy costs.

“We’ve also guided Australian pig farmers in developing a low-cost biogas cleaning system, which has been trialled full-scale and showed excellent performance,” Tait says. “It reduces operating expenses for biogas cleaning to zero and is about half the capital cost of alternatives.”

Two challenges remain, Tait says: finding a profitable use for the excess energy; and getting cost-effective smaller-scale projects off the ground.

“The overall goal is to reduce a significant proportion—20–30 per cent—of the industry’s carbon footprint to about 1kg of CO2e per kilogram of pork,” he says. “We’re currently on track.”

Better feed for growing pigs

Unlike American pig farmers, who have boosted profits by producing heavier carcass weights, Australia’s retailers demand leaner, lower-weight pigs, which means raising more pigs—rather than fatter ones—faster.

“The two factors most affecting growing pigs’ performance are feed intake and feed efficiency,” says Campbell. His project team is using peripheral chemosensing to determine which tastes and ingredients growing pigs prefer, “so producers can optimise weaners’ growth by manipulating their feed intake”.

Campbell’s team is also looking at how ingredients and grain-processing methods affect efficient nutrient uptake. The result should be faster-growing pigs, which is pleasing for producers and a pork-hungry public.

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Pig toys for enrichment

Social but competitive creatures, pigs housed in close quarters are prone to boredom, stress and injurious behaviours such as tail-biting and aggression. Removing competition for feed is one way to reduce aggression; another is keeping pigs in stable groups. Then there’s environmental enrichment—the new big thing in the UK and Europe, where legislation requires producers to provide pigs with adequate mental stimulation.

Pig farms across the EU are now employing enrichment strategies, toys and games—from durable balls containing food suspended on strings, chains or springs or at fixed stations (so they stay dung-free), to novel foods, foraging materials, traffic cones, dog toys, soft edible toys, broom heads, and radios playing in sheds. There’s even an iPad-controlled interactive game—the Dutch-developed Pig Chase (playingwithpigs.nl) introduced at TEDxBrussels in 2012—that lets people anywhere play virtually with farmed pigs via moving dots on screens.

Guidelines for RSPCA Approved Aussie pork products include enrichment, among other health and welfare provisions, but as yet there’s no legal requirement for Australia’s commercial piggeries to provide it, despite our Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals – Pigs (2007).

Enrichment projects are among those on the Pork CRC’s slate, says Campbell, as Australia’s pork producers prepare for the possibility that legislation similar to Europe’s will be enacted here. “Right now we’re testing an Australian-developed ‘toy’ based on a box with edibles inside,” he confides.

Research from Europe and Britain suggests that if piggeries get it right, enrichment can reduce injurious behaviours and physiological signs of stress at minimal extra cost. The bottom line: Happier pigs are healthier and, some would argue, ultimately tastier.

Home on the range

A small but dedicated group of Australian pig producers—about 3 per cent of the industry, according to RSPCA estimates—is focusing on quality over quantity, raising small herds of genuinely free-range pigs (as opposed to ‘bred free-range’ but actually shed-raised).

One such producer is Warren Smith of Minniribbie Farm, near Coffin Bay, South Australia, whose 100-strong herd of black-and-pink Berkshire pigs gets to forage, breed, suckle and feed freely in uncrowded conditions, seeking shelter when they want it. Smith’s pigs take about twice as long to finish for market (a minimum of seven months) but his per-head costs for feed, fuel, housing, staff, antibiotics, vaccines and veterinary care are far lower, he claims, and the end products taste better.

Smith’s top-grade meat sells for just 50c/kg more than traditionally farmed pork, and he value-adds by processing eight to 10 carcasses a fortnight into ham and bacon, direct-selling to an eager public.

Words: Merran White

Reproduced from the Spring 2015 edition of Westpac’s Agribusiness publication "Produce"

The articles represent the views of the authors and not necessarily that of the Bank. You should seek independent professional advice before acting on any matters set out in the articles.

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