The French model for pig production

Technical performances

Although the last 30 years has seen labour, building and facilities costs spiral, pork production costs have held relatively stable — ample proof that French pig farms have continuously improved technical performance to stay competitive. French pig farms have adapted progressively by continually improving every link in the pork chain, from genetics-driven selective breeding to pig barn design and back to diet and hygiene control.

The all-in all-out system

Efforts to streamline production and plan out the successive events in the pig farm calendar converged on the need to manage animals in similar-sized batches. This led to adoption of the all-in all-out system.
Sector organization system: the ability to plan out batch movements makes it possible to pinpoint the production volumes deliverable for scheduled market sale.
The selective breeding and reproduction stages can identify future needs for breeding stock ahead of schedule.

Optimized farm facilities and reproduction cycling: the all-in all-out system makes it possible to only build the amount of stalls necessary, working to a fill rate of over 90%. This makes buildings more cost-effective. All-in all-out also offers the advantage of making it possible to schedule work and animal movements way in advance. Sows are also more efficiently replaced, thus avoiding herd ageing which impacts negatively on all-round prolificness. Number of live-born piglets per litter increases up to the fourth litter, then drops away. All-in all-out herd management makes it possible to regularly phase-in gilts to keep mean herd age as close as possible to optimal prolificness. The all-in all-out system has gone through several development stages. To begin with, only one type of batch management was introduced, tied to the sow hormone cycle. Then, as hormonal treatments for synchronizing oestrus hit the market, other batch systems were developed. Synchronizing first oestrus in gilts increased competitiveness, as almost all the animals given treatment are inseminated over a far shorter time-window than the two or more weeks that would otherwise have been required.

Health control

Batch farrowing : the all-in all-out system quickly merged with batch farrowing management of the farm barn facilities. This technique guarantees a better health—hygiene record, as each time the animals leave the pen, there is a sharp drop in germ load and a break in the infection vector dynamics.

In a given barn, the animals will all share the same immunological and health—hygiene status, thus minimizing infection and transmission. Studies have reported that farms not employing batch farrowing face 12% lower ADG, 5% lower FCE, and a 50% higher rate of pulmonary lesions with a 5-fold higher severity.

One-way flow and health protection: one-way flow was developed as a system for maintaining top-notch health-safety status, sealing the farm off from any possible outside source of contamination. Circuit isolation (animals, workers, deliveries, removals) and check-in sealed entry facilities have progressively become the norm. The cutting edge is to equip pig barns with air filtration systems.

Diet adjustments

Understanding nutritional requirements: the last three decades have seen insensitive research aimed at pinpointing the nutritional requirements of pigs at all production stages. The results have not only improved feed efficiency but have also meant that pig waste now presents a lower pollutant content.

Adapted formulation: research findings have translated into on-farm practice as feed formulations adapted to each stage in the animal's lifecycle. The typical farrow-to-finish pig farm now co-employs 7 diet formulas. Three feeds are designed for breeding stock: one is a "young breeder feed" for gilts, one is a feed to gestating sows, and one is a feed for lactating sows.
For porkers, there is a starter feed for the weaning phase, followed by a post-weaning feed that promotes muscle growth. A formulation developed for growers helps maintain ADG. Finishing feed is engineered with less dietary nitrogen to minimize nitrogen excretion. In the most technologically advanced pig farms, this dietary requirements adjustment even extends to multiphase inputs enabling daily adjustments of dietary nitrogen intake. Controlled diet management hinges on feed that is manufactured to the highest level of raw ingredient quality. This is why farms control feed manufacture standards to secure further guarantees on formulation quality and traceability.

Feed manufacture

The process of manufacturing composite feeds is characterized by quality monitoring that kicks in right from raw material ordering (identifying source, nutritive value, and health—hygiene profile). When the raw materials are delivered, a quality inspection plan checks the chemical values of the delivery. The formulation is engineered to meet animals' zootechnical needs depending on their growth stage and the nutritional value of the raw materials, and according to their market price. Dosage is tracked end-to-end throughout the feed manufacture process. Finished product is delivered to the pig farmer in specially-adapted screw-feeder trucks.

Technical management tools

Progression on technical pig farm performance levels could only be achieved by measuring this performance and identifying directions for improvement. Technical and economic benchmark process chains were therefore introduced to provide pig farmers with these key feedback.

Technical sow herd management: technical sow herd management focuses on the reproduction component of the business process to deliver the keys required for decision-making on this critical system station for all-road pig farm cost-effectiveness.

Sales engineering management: sales engineering management integrates both the economic and technical dimensions of the entire system station. It is a key approach for establishing the main areas for improvement and setting the allied corrective action.


Building design

Today's pig barns and buildings have been shaped by breakthroughs in technical and technological development.

Insulation: even farms in temperate climates quickly learned that pig barns had to be insulated. Newborn piglets through to weaner stage have heat requirements that make barn heating a necessity. Without extra heating, newborn—suckler deaths increase and FCE decreases. Insulation has widely developed as the natural way to minimize energy expenditure, as it has such a short ROI turnaround. Data reported in a recent Canadian study (2009) clearly illustrate the impact of building choices on feed conversion efficiency. Tightly-insulated structures built in Canada to the French model enable an FCE of 2.80, whereas the more light-frame under-insulated barns that American producers build under the same climatic conditions suffer a lower feed efficiency at 3.02. This differential pans out at 16 kg of feed per porker farmed. The sow sheds that originally went un-insulated were then refitted with insulation, in a move designed to minimize summertime heat stress.

Wall-to-wall slatted flooring: in the early days, the production development turnaround was achieved on sectional slatted floors. However, wall-to-wall slatted flooring quickly became the norm, gaining momentum as better-quality materials became available. This development brought with it significant time savings, as animal waste could be managed without any farm worker labour input until the slurry is finally cleaned out. The other parameter that gave impetus to the introduction of wall-to-wall slatted flooring is the absence of straw in the grower zone. Finally, wall-to-wall slatted flooring eases the level of pressure on digestive infection in piglets and urogential infection in sows. Concrete slatted flooring is compliant with European animal welfare legislation and does not visibly affect the psychological well-being of the animals at any stage in the production timeline.

Dynamic ventilation: pork sheds originally worked to natural ventilation. This technical set-up was quickly exposed as poorly adapted to optimal on-farm livestock conditions. At the winter end of the scale, temperature control proved tough, creating major heat escape that led to excessively cold in-shed conditions. This ultimately eroded feed efficiency and sparked numerous outbreaks of respiratory disease. At the summer end of the scale, there was insufficient fresh air turnover which proved a major driver of heat stress. The heat stress translated directly into animal losses through hyperthermia, declining fertility, and lower carcass weights. Simple solutions such as cross-shed ventilation were abandoned as the in-shed air conditions suffered in winter, forcing huge jumps in heating bills. Dynamic ventilation made it possible to keep in-shed atmospheric conditions under year-around control, keeping heat escape under control in winter and preventing heatstrokes in summer.

Top-notch indoor facilities

Feeders and troughs: as performance levels progressively climbed, needs became focused on controlling feed distribution to make savings on this cost input. As trough materials became increasingly resistant to acid corrosion, liquid feeders progressively became the norm. Polyester concrete or stainless steel ousted cement concrete as the material of choice. Feeders introduced for dry-feed diets followed a similar pattern of progression. They could also be equipped with efficient stainless-steel controller systems that would radically eliminate wastage.

Gestation crates: for a long period of time, the industry was plagued by piglet death losses to crushing. Various technical solutions were tested involving air blowers and raisable under-sow flooring. The results were either too inconclusive or too expensive to be viably implementable. In the 1990s, the gestation crate came through as the most cost-efficient solution. The farrowing crate cage design forces the sow down onto her legs and feet before lying down, thus giving piglets time to evacuate the lay-down zone. Using a split-level system differentiating the sow lying-down zone, faecal waste collection zone, and piglet movement space also helped improve weaner survival rates.

Watering and water purification: watering was long thought to have no impact on livestock performances, but numerous studies demonstrated that managing and controlling watering brought significant advantages.
The automatic watering systems currently in use offer all the necessary guarantees that water use is optimized with zero wastage and — in compliance with European directives on livestock welfare — zero restrictions for the pigs. Wall-mounted or swing drinkers, although less expensive, were abandoned as they generated up to 70% water wastage and piglets took longer to learn how to use them. Water quality had also initially been ignored as an important factor. However, it quickly became clear that the physical and bacteriological water quality had repercussions on pig health and ultimately on production performances. As a rule, pig farms have adopted (chlorination-based) water purification systems to handle bacteriological quality and sometimes even to correct physical-chemical parameters such as water pH or water content of iron or other elements.

Heating and cooling: heating newborn piglets was swiftly adopted as core practice, especially where there was no litter around. Heating was later extended into post-weaning, as it proved undeniably cost-effective once factors ranging from feed conversion efficiency to piglet mortality and medical costs had been integrated. The trend today is that heating is even being incorporated into the grower phase via heat recovery systems. Here again, the advantages operate on both fronts: lower feed input and higher pig health standards. For sows, some farms are investigating the possibility of installing heat exchangers as a lower-cost heating solution. While this application is not yet widespread, cooling systems for breeding stock are becoming standard practice, as sow stalls are increasingly being fitted with either regular or spray cooling systems. The two techniques are equally as efficient, and the option selected will depend on air input type. Introducing these cooling measures has benefits on both late-gestation sow mortality and on fertility by heavily reducing the rate of return to heat triggered by hot-season conditions.

Loading pen and on-farm carcass disposal

Advantages of the loading pen-> a loading pen brings a series of advantages:
- halves in-transport mortality
- a better pre-slaughter fasting interval, which leads to better-quality meat (pH and colour) while minimizing slaughterhouse health risks (fewer salmonella contaminations).
- using the loading pen to hold slaughter porkers at a given weight makes it possible to give an extra meal to other porkers still in the finishing stalls.
- the transporter can load-on around 100 pigs per half-hour.
- provides a barrier measure for protective health (as the driver never has to go into a pig stall)

On-site pig carcass composting (an alternative to rendering, currently in the validation process): this technique looks extremely promising from both the health—hygiene perspective and the economics perspective. The average French-reared sow generates 100 kg of dead animal a year. Routine pig mortality carcasses are covered under a carbon source material (sawdust, corn cobs…) to build up a 'recipe' with a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio close to 30 and with 50% moisture content. Within the space of a week, the temperature jumps to over 50°C, rapidly destroying pathogens. The compost produced can be upgraded as fertilizer for spreading on cropland or as a biofuel with a combustive energy of 3,000 to 3,500 kW/ton of raw compost.

On-farm anaerobic digestion

Anaerobic digestion produces biogases from a mixture of pig slurry with cheap and available fermentative organic matter such as straw, corn stover or cotton stalk, fruit and vegetable waste or general organic plant residues. The fluidified and odour-free digestate has huge value as a nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium source for fertilizer. Following phase separation with a screw compactor, the solid fraction can be spread onto the plots furthest away or even sold to market. The liquid fraction, once rid of its main particulate matter, can be channelled through the irrigation network for spreading onto cropland. Renewable energy can be generated as heat via a boiler or as heat and electricity via a co-generator. Yield in terms of electricity production equates to 36%-40% of the primary source electricity. A 1,500-sow nursery is big enough to keep its own on-farm anaerobic digestion unit running. Farmers running feeder-finisher units will find it more cost-effective to pool slurry production on the same shared site in order to run a centralized anaerobic digestion unit. Site selection and slurry transport options (overland or pipeline transport) will depend on how far these feeder-finisher units are distanced apart. Anaerobic digestion helps cut greenhouse gas emissions, as the energy produced is looped back in to replace (and save) the primary energy that would otherwise have been consumed.

Compliance on European livestock welfare standards

Breeding stock: in compliance with the European directive (dated November 2001), gestating sows are batch-reared in pens within 4 weeks after service or insemination. Each animal shall have access to at least 2.25 m² of space to move. Concrete slatted flooring is compliant with standard max. inter-slat width of 20 mm and min. slat width of 80 mm. Gilts are to have access to at least 1.64 m² of space in which to move. Concrete slatted flooring meets the same standards as for sows. Boar pens feature a floor area of at least 6 m² per animal, and concrete slatted flooring meets the same standards as for sows.

Piglets and growers: in compliance with the European directive (dated November 2001), weaner and grower sheds meet all the minimum surface area requirements.


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