Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The pig whisperer: the Dutch farmer who wants to end intensive farming | farming

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“Grandma, hoi! Here! Hallooo ”, Dr. Kees Scheepens, a Dutch farmer known as the“ pig whisperer ”, is calling his two older pigs for apricot sandwiches.

Granny or “granny”, a seven-year-old sow, lives with a nine-year-old Berkshire boar named Borough on a quiet street in the southern Netherlands town of Oirschot on a farm called Hemelrijken. the kingdoms of heaven.

Scheepens, 61, says he is the 19th generation of farmers in his family and that, after years of practicing as a veterinarian, he is driven by an unusual set of ambitions: to “emancipate” farm animals, to put animal welfare in first place and eat much less. , much happier meat.

Kees Scheepens feeds the pigs with leftovers from the local organic supermarket. Photographer: Judith Jockel / The Guardian

“Borough and Oma are here to stay,” he says, heading to his farthest field, where the two 400-plus-pound animals squeeze into his shed. “I have given them a name and when you give a name to a pig, I can no longer kill it. He had three wild boars, David, Att and Borough. David and Att are already in heaven, but ‘Bro’ is still here. “

As she walks around feeding and speaking a little French with her 28 sows (according to Scheepens, “neuf“Is his confirmation growl, and”huit, huit“Are you asking for more? The place seems idyllic. The pigs are fed with products thrown away by the Ekoplaza organic supermarket: boxes of white cabbages, slightly wilted beans, vegetable dumplings, 500 kg of Canadian lentils, overripe mangoes from Burkina Faso, hundreds of containers of soy and peach yogurt and boxes. apricots. A couple of cats and dogs roam. Meanwhile, in a wooded nature reserve area, 45 Angus cows have just calved.

Scheepens primarily breeds a breed that he calls the “Duke of Berkshire”, a cross of the Berkshire shaggy pig and the white sow, named with a nod to his working years in England. Although he raises them for meat, he is passionate about animal welfare. Am I rich in money? No, but what motivates me the most is to emancipate farm animals. “

He started his pig project almost a decade ago, with the aim of helping bring outdoor farming to the muddy Netherlands and pioneering a new type of stable farming.

“Pigs are the most hygienic animals we have on the farm,” says Scheepens, seen here explaining his system for encouraging pigs to separate urine and poop to reduce ammonia production. Photographer: Judith Jockel / The Guardian

“Industrial pig farming in the Netherlands is a dead end,” he says. “Now we know that a pig is not a thing: it is a sensitive being with a high level of intelligence, comparable to the intelligence of a child. What I see around the world is that many pig farmers no longer know what pigs are. They just don’t have the skills to know what’s right and what’s wrong. “

What’s wrong, he believes, is intensive rearing in which cannibalistic “vices” such as tail biting replace normal pig behavior, such as foraging for food. This leads to a wide “Docking tail“In many parts of Europe to prevent animals from eating each other’s tails, even though the practice is prohibited.

Instead, Scheepens argues, pigs need a more natural environment, to be able to rummage through beds of straw or wood chips and have access to the outdoors, with a special toilet that replaces the slatted floors (where urine and feces fall and they mix).

“I would say that pigs are the most hygienic animals we have on the farm,” he says. “They are not going to poop or urinate in their nest. Pooping is always good – their noses are so sensitive they recognize the smell. “

To encourage them to urinate separately, he has created a reward system: a machine that delivers bitter lemon candies when your urine passes through a special membrane on the floor in an outside “toilet” area.

Why is urination important for sustainable agriculture? “When I reward them for urinating correctly, there will be no contact between a nitrogen compound found in urine and the enzyme urea in manure: that creates ammonia, and that is one of the main factors of the [excess] Nitrogen discussions [taking place] in the Netherlands. “

Pigs eat the treats they receive after using the toilet.  Pigs are encouraged to urinate on the dark spot in the left corner of the pen, where one of them is standing.
A pig eats a treat after urinating in the right place. Pigs are encouraged to urinate on the dark spot in the corner of the pen. Photographer: Judith Jockel / The Guardian

Scheepens believes that cruelty to animals in slaughterhouses and intensive farms cannot last; his own turning point came after the 1997-98 swine flu epidemic, when he was forced to euthanize about 10,000 newborn piglets.

“At that time I just did my job. But later, I developed very serious epileptic seizures. I said to myself: ‘You have slaughtered healthy pigs. As a veterinarian, you are trained to treat sick animals or to keep them healthy, not to kill piglets. ‘

Returning from a period of work in England, during which he was diagnosed with epilepsy, he decided that he wanted to be a farmer like his ancestors. “I think when you want to work with animals and have them play a role in agriculture, it has to be sustainable,” he says.

A poster explains how the
A poster explaining how the “pig toilet” works by preventing contact between the nitrogen compound found in urine and the enzyme urea in manure. Photographer: Judith Jockel / The Guardian

“Meat has become a throwaway product, where the true value is no longer seen. Wouldn’t it be nice if farmers were offered an income from the same farm and half the animals? Sustainability can only be there in my perception when you first care about animal welfare. “

The Netherlands is a densely populated country and the land is often poorly drained. So, in addition to outdoor farming, Scheepens wants to revolutionize animal stables so that odors and emissions are reduced, and pigs can laze, eat, rummage and wallow as nature intended.

Pigs on the Kees Scheepens farm.  'Now we know that a pig is not a thing.  He is a sensitive being with intelligence ”, he says.
Happy pigs on the Kees Scheepens farm. “Now we know that a pig is not a thing, but a sentient being with a high level of intelligence,” he says. Photographer: Judith Jockel / The Guardian

“The last three or four generations have started using fertilizers, pesticides and they have gone from big, bigger to bigger,” he says. “That was the social trend in agriculture, but I think we have to get smarter. I don’t want a grandson to tell me: ‘You broke that tradition of agriculture because you destroyed the Earth.’

He thinks there is no need for pig farming to suck: “I always tell farmers, they can just ignore what we learned about animal welfare because their barn needs to be paid for. But the mental and emotional reasons for changing are huge “. In every farmer, there is also a heart. “

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