Science - April 19, 2012

We build barns based on PhD theses

Under manager Mart Smolders, VIC (the pig innovation centre) in Sterksel, Brabant, has evolved over the past ten years to become the leading location for giving form to innovations in farming practices. Smolders is leaving but the views on innovation he takes with him are firmly anchored in Sterksel. ‘Farmers don't want reports, they want practical implementation.'

‘You write reports for your fellow researchers, not for farmers´
Three hairy pigs that have dug up the entire garden are what catch your attention when you arrive at VIC in Sterksel, part of Wageningen Livestock Research. They are ‘half Hungarian', says manager Mart Smolders. The father is a Hungarian curly-haired hog, a pig in sheep's clothing, that VIC employees found in Hungary. ‘They have an excellent meat flavour and an interesting fatty acid composition', says Smolders. ‘The meat is for a niche market that is appealing to a lot of people, such as people wanting to sell pork to customers at home. This has provided some inspiration.' And that means the three curly-haired hogs fit well in the Sterksel philosophy: inspiration through implementation.
The innovation centre develops new business concepts for pig farms such as a new nursery for sows, new feed systems and a pig toilet. Sterksel led the way with the development of group housing and the reduction in antibiotics use, and it has a number of welfare projects. This is appreciated by pig farmers, the government and civil society organizations. Last year, more than ten thousand people visited Sterksel during its innovation days.
The latest innovation is the Starplus barn, currently under construction - a barn with a covered free-range area, manure separation plus manure fermentation and lots of light. The aim is for the new barn to get three welfare stars from the Society for the Protection of Animals (also a frequent visitor). Smolders explains how Starplus was conceived by three companies that jointly developed the know-how. ‘They were on a visit and we brought them together to see if they could integrate their systems for manure separation, mini-fermentation and a new barn design. They invested their own money and got support from the government. We are now going to develop the concept further.' That fits with VIC's strategy, says Smolders. Innovation often leads initially to a loss in effectiveness, which is why business people are reluctant to take the plunge. VIC develops innovations further until they really do deliver the expected increase in efficiency and the concept is ripe for implementation. ‘We solve the teething problems.'
Encounters lead to ideas
Smolders emphasizes that the innovation centre does not produce reports. ‘You write reports for your fellow researchers, not for farmers. They don't want reports, they want practical implementation.' The centre puts the application of science on show, which leads to encounters and discussions between visitors, which in turn lead to new ideas. ‘That is how the Prodromi barn originated. Fourteen sow farmers wanted a better design for the sows' nursery so that they would have more room. Then we brought in barn construction firms to develop a new concept together.'
Wageningen University is also part of Sterksel's network. ‘We work a lot with Bas Kemp's science group, Adaptation Physiology. We are currently developing new concepts on the basis of three PhD theses.' One is already being applied in the Prodromi barn, where a nest has been created for the sow so that she does not lie on the piglets. Sterksel is also implementing a method whereby piglets learn from their mother how to eat solids, and a more gentle weaning process whereby the piglets remain in the nest while the mother is able to walk about. Last year Sterksel received Wageningen UR's Innovation Prize for the application of Wageningen research.
Antibiotics
The high levels of antibiotics use in pig farming have attracted much attention in recent years. This is a problem where Smolders had already made considerable progress four years ago. ‘The key to our approach is preventing disease from spreading through the farm. We keep pig families together after weaning so we don't have diseases spreading from family to family. That reduces the consumption of antibiotics by 80 percent. The solution is not to be found in a jar; pig farmers will have to change their working methods.'
Sterksel is not putting all its eggs in one basket when it comes to the environment either. Instead it is testing several systems. There is a big co-fermentation plant on the premises that produces enough energy to power 1,500 homes. That is fine but Smolders has to mix in maize to achieve those energy production levels and that is not the best option in view of the ‘food, feed or fuel' debate. There is also a mini-fermentation plant that extracts energy from manure without the addition of other materials. This mini-fermentation plant makes the innovation centre energy-neutral.
The centre's third and newest energy producer is a micro-fermentation plant. It comes from a company that supplies such plants to African villages. Smolders came across them and wondered whether they would work in the Netherlands too. The small tank fits in the garage and will heat a pig shed. Visitors can decide for themselves which of the three systems would suit them. Or another system altogether, as Smolders would like more projects for processing the manure and turning its minerals into commercially valuable products. He realizes this diversity is necessary as pig farmers are going to be specializing in a certain segment and will choose the system appropriate for that segment.
Strong growth
‘I am not a pig farmer. I see the pigs as a tool for developing knowledge.' Even so, he has to run a farm with 330 sows and 2,400 pigs bred for meat. This has a turnover of 1 million euros a year. He also earns 0.6 million euros from the production of biogas and 0.1 million from excursions. But that is not the innovation centre's main business. Over the past few years Sterksel has been getting 1.5 million euros in project revenue, compared with 0.6 million ten years ago. That growth has led to an increase in staff from 7 to 17.
Smolders is about to leave the centre. ‘I have been running the place for ten years, I'm ready for a change', is how he sums it up. He will be the manager of the Pigs Division at MS Schippers, a company that supplies equipment and systems to livestock farms. But even his last working day will be spent signing a collaborative agreement with fifty businesses in the pork supply chain that all make use of the experimental farm. ‘SME business people are innovative types. They are rather missing out in all that to-do about the top sectors so we want to increase our visibility.' Of course the signing will be taking place in Sterksel, the linchpin of the pig farming sector.

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