Continuous improvement of sustainability standards has led to better yields and meat quality for one of Chile’s largest pig producers.
Processing more than 250,000 pigs a year and exporting to more than 50 countries, Chilean pig firm MaxAgro learned to focus on sustainability long before it became a policy statement for many businesses. According to chief executive Cristián Kühlenthal, this deep-rooted commitment has driven the company’s growth from a family business in 1970, to one of the largest pork producers in Chile today.
“Our priority has always been to seek sustainable, environmental solutions to our production processes,” he says. “Whether it’s looking at animal welfare, our environmental footprint or working closely with local communities and employees and recognizing their role in our growth, sustainability is key.”
A major part of this approach has been significant investment in environmental programs, including the development of a waste-water treatment and two biogas plants — the first of their kind to be constructed by a Chilean business.
The plants generate 6400 mwh (6.4 million kwh) of electricity a year — enough to supply up to half of the energy needed by neighboring communities, while eliminating odors from the firm’s livestock operations.
In addition, the thermal energy recovered from the plants’ engine coolant and the exhaust is used to heat the pig pens in the winter.
Having earned a national award for environmental leadership, the company is currently developing similar biogas and water-treatment projects alongside two of its other agricultural units.
Another key element of MaxAgro’s sustainability efforts is animal welfare. In a bid to reduce stress for male pigs and meet evolving customer expectations, the company stopped physically castrating male piglets years ago in favor of a vaccine that reduces boar taint, an unpleasant odor associated with meat from intact males.
By working through male pigs’ immune systems to temporarily delay puberty, the vaccine reduces the accumulation of the natural compounds responsible for boar taint, thereby eliminating the need to castrate male piglets.
The vaccine is administered in two doses — first at about 9 weeks of age to prime the immune system, and again about 6 weeks prior to slaughter. The puberty-delaying effect of the vaccine only manifests after the second dose, allowing pigs to spend most of their lives as intact males and realize their inherent potential for leaner, efficient growth.
In 2006, MaxAgro began trials of the vaccine at its major production facility in Santa Lucia. Within a few months, MaxAgro began to see significant production benefits.
“In addition to seeing improvements in the well-being of non-castrated male piglets, we also quickly saw significant improvements in feed conversion ratio (FCR),” Kühlenthal says.
“We did some studies comparing vaccinated males with physically castrated males and consistently achieved a five to seven percent improvement in FCR. We also found that vaccinated pigs had better average daily weight gain at finishing — typically 40 to 50 g/day better than physical castrates.”
Improved meat quality, environmental impact
Based on the results of these studies, MaxAgro now uses the boar taint vaccine across all operations, vaccinating some 280,000 males annually.
“The vaccine has not only allowed us to achieve better production parameters in our animals, but it has also helped us improve our meat quality and improve our farm welfare standards,” Kühlenthal says.
“It’s become a key tool for us as we push for higher welfare standards and work to reduce the environmental impact of pork production,” he adds, noting that improved feed conversion translates to more efficient use of feed, water and energy, as well as reduced waste.
For MaxAgro, all these aspects of sustainability are becoming increasingly important, particularly as it looks to increase exports and work with countries and customers that have different requirements.
“The key to our international growth has been the quality of our meat, ensuring it meets the standards of demanding markets,” Kühlenthal says.
“To make sure we meet those demands, we constantly review the conditions of those markets to make sure we meet all of their food and industry regulations.”
As part of that process, the company has worked with meat scientists to study the impact of boar taint vaccination in its own production systems. According to Kühlenthal, use of the vaccine has resulted in higher and more consistent quality.
“In the past, the main metric at the slaughterhouse was the quantity of meat produced, as measured by hot carcass dressing. But today’s customers are increasingly demanding, and it’s now about the amount of high-quality, lean meat we can produce — from both male and female pigs,” he says.
“Vaccination has made it easier to achieve the right ratio of lean to fat in males, while enabling greater uniformity of meat cuts.”
“Because of the way our system functions now, we feel very confident that we are doing the right thing for everyone — from the pigs, right through to the final consumer.”