Improving animal welfare in pig farms – Interview with Dr. Kees Scheepens

Improving animal welfare in pig farms – Interview with Dr. Kees Scheepens


The Dutch Dr. Kees Scheepens is a veterinarian and specialist in the natural behavior of pigs. For 33 years, he has been advising conventional and organic pig farms in Germany and the Netherlands for the optimization of their stables. His recommendations are mainly based on careful observation of pigs and their behavior. Nicknamed the “pig whisperer”, he has advised over 15,000 breeders with this approach. In the Dutch province Brabant, Scheepens himself raises around 50 pigs ecologically outdoors. : Mr. Scheepens, what are the main differences between pigs and other domestic species such as cattle or chickens?

Scheepens : Pigs have very pronounced exploratory behavior. This means that during their active phases they are often looking for new objects and the like. However, their hygienic behavior is even more pronounced than other livestock species. Pigs are by nature very hygienic and clean animals. For example, they try to expel and urinate as far as possible from their nest. : Are these natural behaviors sufficiently taken into account in modern stables?

Scheepens: Almost not at all. My pigs raised outdoors are all very clean, because they can urinate and expel feces away from their resting areas, they do it in different areas inside the enclosure. In particular, due to the fully slatted floors still allowed in Germany, the feces and urine of the animals are joined together and this creates problems. In this way, animals despite their innate hygiene are often very dirty. Even more serious are the often high percentages of ammonia in the barn air, harmful to animals, people and the environment. Ammonia is produced only when the feces and urine of animals come into contact, which occurs automatically on slatted floors. : Is there a solution for this problem?

Scheepens : I developed a sort of toilet for the barn with two separate areas, one for the urine and the other for the stool. Through a reward system, the animals learned in a few days what to do in each box. The advantage: no ammonia formation, clean animals and the possibility to collect urine and feces separately and to scatter them separately as manure. : During your 30 years of activity you have seen and optimized countless stables, what is the most recurring problem?

Scheepens : Definitely the water supply. There are always problems, even in the best companies. There are almost always too few drinking troughs and the flow rate of the existing ones is too low. The animals have to strain incredibly and mostly get too little water anyway. This often results in tail bites as the animals vent their frustration on the other animals.

ACCORDING TO KEES SCHEEPENS, STRAW IS AN IDEAL SUBSTRATE FOR IMPROVING ANIMAL WELFARE. PHOTO: JÜRGEN BECKHOFF : How do you see the requirements of organic agriculture? Can animals behave more naturally in organic stables?

Scheepens : Absolutely yes. Thanks to the external area provided, pigs can remain in different areas and become more distracted because outside they can, for example, explore and dig much more. Straw as a litter box is very good for animals. In straw, pigs can intensively devote themselves to their exploratory behavior.
It is also an ideal substrate for the resting area. Straw is an excellent product, which, in my experience, is still underestimated and often too criticized because of the much discussed exposure to mycotoxins. : How do you see the most space available?

Scheepens : If the animals are doing well overall, the additional space available in the organic farm is not as decisive for the welfare of the pigs. However, the greater space offers advantages in stressful situations, such as during the summer heat when the animals want to keep the maximum distance possible from each other. : Where do you still see room for improvement in organic farming?

Scheepens : The separation of excrements from urine is not taken into consideration even in organic breeding. In addition, lactating sows and their offspring should have access to grazing, so the offspring could take on additional iron through the sand and prevent potential deficiencies thereby decreasing the problems with streptococci. : Which of the different pig castration systems currently discussed would you recommend?

Scheepens : Nobody, in general it is not good to castrate. Castration destroys the integrity of animals, just like the amputation of tails. It would be desirable to give up both practices totally, I myself renounce them completely with my pigs. This works because I slaughter animals at 70 kilograms, at an age when pigs still don’t develop boar smell. Tail amputation is also superfluous, when feeding and water are correct and also the method of breeding. The curly tail is an important organ for pigs to express their well-being. : Straw, outdoor areas, not the slatted floor, all this makes pig breeding more expensive. Is investing in greater animal welfare also economically worthwhile for farms?

Scheepens : Investing in animal welfare brings above all more health. In an optimal environment, pigs are less difficult and require less treatment. A recent study by the University of Wageningen has confirmed that the improved health of pigs reared in conditions appropriate to the species also increases their daily weight gain. Therefore investments in animal welfare are not only positive for pigs, but also for the profitability of farms. : What do you recommend to farms before planning a new barn?

Scheepens : Building a stable is always a very individual matter for a company. Therefore, in general terms, I would just like to say that we should make use of a lot of advice and think absolutely more about the future than the present. What is normal today can become obsolete in five years. This philosophy should be put into practice by creating a solid construction on the outside but leaving the inside as flexible as possible. The goal must be to be able to adapt later with the least effort and money possible to improve animal welfare or react in the short term to new political needs. : What do you think is the perfect breeding system?

Scheepens : Outdoor breeding, no system is better for animal welfare and health. If done correctly, there are no problems with salmonella, toxoplasmosis and other unwanted germs. Also in my breeding I don’t find problems of this type. In England there are farms that fatten up to 30,000 pigs in the open with economic success, therefore it seems to work well even on a large scale.