Organisation - September 21, 2018

Why is Sterksel closing?

Albert Sikkema

WUR’s Swine Innovation Centre Sterksel is closing in 2020 due to lack of funding. And so the Netherlands’ last experimental farm for the pig sector will bite the dust, just when society most needs research on an animal-friendly farming system. Why is this? And what impact will the closure have?

Text Albert Sikkema illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek

Anything that doesn’t make money immediately gets cut


Han Swinkels

Consultant and former interim manager at Sterksel Swine Innovation Centre (VIC)

‘To keep applied research going you need both public and private funding, otherwise it won’t work. We can learn that from the successful launch of the Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden, for the dairy sector. It means livestock farmers have to be willing to invest jointly in research on new farming systems, and that provinces must be willing to invest in maintaining the centre itself. WUR has done its level best to roll out this concept at Sterksel too, but apparently not enough parties wanted to join in. That’s a great pity, because you need an innovation centre like that so as to put knowledge into practice. Now it will be harder to do risky applied research. Take the study on tail-biting at Sterksel, in which we left tails intact. You could do such research on the farms of innovative pig farmers too. But if they run too many risks, they cancel the research, because the experiment is not their first priority. At Sterksel it is, and it doesn’t matter if something goes wrong. My concern is that if an experiment is disappointing or fails, companies will become wary of innovations.’


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Mart Smolders

Division manager at livestock sector supplier MS Schippers and former manager at VIC Sterksel

‘This closure is a great pity. In the 10 years I was manager at VIC Sterksel from 2003 to 2012, foreign delegations often used to say to me: “if only we had a system of experiment farms like this”. We are going to regret this, because there really is a future for applied research, I think. So what went wrong? There weren’t enough parties who had faith in the centre. WUR concentrates on students and applied research is an ugly duckling, and not WUR’s core business. The pig sector itself was still regrouping after the product boards were scrapped. The suppliers were sorting themselves out in that period. And the province of Brabant sees pig-farming as undesirable and doesn’t dare release funding for an experimental farm. There wasn’t enough team spirit. Whereas there are loads of challenges, and investing in them is particularly crucial at this stage.’


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Ineke Eijck

Freelance specialist in pig health

‘In the past I set up WUR’s Waiboerhoeve experimental pig farm in Lelystad, which has already bitten the dust. The applied research we did there – on how to keep a pig shed disease-free – was transferred to the pig-breeding company Topigs. It still plays a role that this kind of experimental farm is quite expensive and that you stop being a trailblazer soon after starting up. I have more faith in a model in which researchers support innovative companies that see a market for a new concept. One example is pig farmer Hans Verhoeven’s company Hoeve BV, which is continually testing new systems: first on his own farm and then on other farms that produce meat according to the Hoeve approach. I see more in those kinds of market-driven innovations. I think Sterksel has had its day. But it is a pity that there isn’t more funding for research which the market isn’t ready for. Anything that doesn’t make money immediately gets cut.’


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Marion Kluivers

Researcher at Wageningen Livestock Research

‘The scrapping of the product boards had a big impact on the research for the pig sector. That gap has partially been filled by projects for other parties. Many of my projects were implemented at VIC Sterksel, including research on keeping pigs with long tails. That had the advantage that you could set up a good experiment with meticulous supervision and data collection. An alternative is to do research on commercial pig farms. That’s possible – it’s what they do in Denmark – but it does mean intensive project supervision. You need to make very clear arrangements with the pig farmers prior to the study. In this respect, we can learn a lot from poultry research, because that sector hasn’t had its own experimental farm since Spelderholt was closed six years ago. The closure of Sterksel will therefore lead to a new way of setting up and implementing pig research.’


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Bert van den Berg

Programme Manager for Livestock at animal welfare organization Dierenbescherming

‘WUR used to have a lot of experimental farms, like the pig farm in Raalte, where the Dierenbescherming and the Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture built the animal-friendly Comfort Class shed in 2006. I helped oversee a pig shed for a couple of years at that time. But the number of experimental farms has gone down drastically in the past few years. I worry about that. If we have a research question, what I often hear in Wageningen is: “Let’s get a PhD student working on this for four years”. But what you want is often to put knowledge into practice, and VIC Sterksel was the obvious place for that. And I don’t see other options yet. Instead of WUR’s experimental farm for poultry, we now have the Poultry Expertise Centre in Barneveld, which does research on topics such as reducing fine particles. Fine, but it’s got to be cheap, which means not much research is done on animal welfare, and it’s doubtful whether the government accepts the results. And if you want to do the research on commercial pig farms, you run up against other problems. We would very much like to do follow-up research on tail-biting on pig farms, but the farmers are not keen to sign up for it. If a couple of pigs bite each other badly, the meat can be rejected in the abattoir. Who will cover the cost of that? We don’t yet know how to manage the risks in this kind of research.’

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