Following a number of years with disease and welfare issues in its national pig herd, Iceland is now following the Norwegian model to increase herd health and productivity.

Iceland is a small Nordic island with a population of about 335,000 people, recognized for its dramatic landscape of volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields. Of the land in Iceland, just 22 percent can be used for agriculture. But only 1 percent of it is actually used for cultivation, the majority used to grow hay and other fodder crops.

It’s difficult to state the actual number of farmers active in one particular sector in Iceland because the majority have mixed farms with a little bit of everything. Dairy, pig and sheep farms are the most popular in the country because the Icelandic people enjoy eating meat. Icelanders each consume on average 20-23 kilograms per capita of pork – 44 to 51 pounds; poultry and lamb are also popular.

Sales of pork in Iceland in 2015 totaled 6,364 tonnes, which was an 11.8 percent increase from the previous year when pork was on the cusp of overtaking lamb on the Icelandic market. There were 6,462 tonnes of lamb sold in Iceland in 2015, which was a 1.9 percent decrease as compared to 2014 and second only to poultry at 8,201 tonnes. Since then pork has become even more favorable because tourists more accustomed to pig meat order it in preference to lamb or chicken.

Ingvi Stefansson, a pig farmer and chairman for pig farmers in Iceland, said the industry in Iceland is following Norwegian practices.

“There are about 3,500 sows and 40,000 pigs in Iceland,” he said. “Due to our current high health standards we can only import genetics from Norway as deep-frozen semen.

“This includes breeds such as Yorkshire, Norwegian Landrace and Duroc. It is our goal to produce a slaughter pig from a TN 70 sow and the Duroc boar in the future.”

Stefansson said rearing pigs in Iceland is relatively conventional.

“All sows are loose except around farrowing and insemination,” he said. “The minimum size of the farrowing pen is 5.76 metres squared (about 19 feet squared). Tail docking is forbidden here in Iceland. Farmers are also not allowed to castrate pigs as the vet has to do it, and farmers are not allowed to use Improvac.

“Around two-thirds of the floor space for finisher pigs has to be closed floor or animal-welfare floor. These rules are new so farmers can have permission to do some of the things mentioned above while they are renovating their farms.”

There are a number of companies on the island that process pigs. But most of the feed ingredients are imported and normally mixed directly on the farms.

“We import most of the feed for the pigs and mix it on the farms but there have been increased production of barley more recently in Iceland,” Stefansson said. “We aim to produce more feed domestically in the future.”

The Icelandic pig industry in 2015 suffered bad publicity when concerns were raised about the conditions some pigs were kept in – and also regarding widespread tail docking on farms even though it’s illegal in Iceland.

But new steps to improve pig health and welfare have been implemented. Stefansson said pig farms are closed in Iceland to increase biosecurity.

“The farms are closed, and farmers and farm workers have to change all clothes entering the farm,” he said. “Nobody is allowed to enter the farm for the first 48 hours after coming from abroad. All farms have recently been tested for MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), and we are clean.

“Lung diseases are the most common in pigs here I guess. But some farmers here are going through eradication programs.”

Looking into the future Stefansson said while the future of pig farming in Iceland presents some challenges, there are also a number of positives.

“We have just legislated very ambitious animal-welfare rules, equal to Norway, that include loose sows in farrowing among other things,” he said. “At the same time imports are increasing from the European Union because of new agreements between Iceland and EU taking place. So it will be challenging times ahead but consumers are also positive regarding domestic production.

“Also we have a big country with few inhabitants and the fields are in need of energy so pig manure is not a problem for us.”

With 16 years experience behind him, award-winning agricultural journalist Chris McCullough is always on the hunt for his next story. He grew up on the family dairy farm in the heart of Northern Ireland and is based on the country’s east coast. He travels around the world to bring readers international news.