Improving the number of pigs reared for every sow kept is one area identified by many in the British pig industry as key for future survival and profitability.
On average UK sows rear 18.1 pigs a year, some 5.3 fewer than the average Dutch sow, but one Beds unit is producing 24.8 pigs a sow a year on the back of simple, effective management.
Mike Sheldon says the productivity of his sows at Great Horwood is down to nothing but good management and high health status.
“We do nothing different from many producers, but we are lucky in being able to maintain exceptional health status, as we are four miles from the nearest pigs.”
And being so distant from other pigs isn’t a chance happening – it is something Mr Sheldon has set out to achieve.
He has even purchased covenants on neighbouring land to ensure no pigs are kept within half a mile of his unit.
“Some covenants were already in place when I took on the unit, as it had been a multiplication site for a breeding company.
It was simple enough to fill in the gaps and ensure all neighbouring land was pig free.”
Along with maintaining closed-herd status and preventing vehicles entering or leaving the pig unit compound, Mr Sheldon ensures all staff shower in and out of the unit and provides all clothing worn on the unit.
But despite such measures the 520 sow unit has still fallen foul of wasting diseases.
“These caused us a problem, but it wasn’t as severe as other units have suffered.
“Our weaning to sale mortality rose from 3% to 8%.
We still see some classic wasting disease symptoms in pigs of about 70kg, but our overall mortality has fallen back to about 3%, so these deaths are rarely investigated.”
Mr Sheldon also believes choice of genetics plays a part in maintaining production targets.
“You must have a productive female line as your starting point.
Without good quality genetics achieving high productivity is next to impossible.”
A strict replacement policy is paramount, he adds.
“We replace about 55% of the herd every year to maintain the parities and avoid an aging herd structure.
Sows are culled strictly according to age, with no sow staying on the unit past her sixth litter.”
In terms of replacements, Greenway Farm has an easier choice to make than many units, as they are all homebred – another way of keeping disease levels low.
“We either keep gilts as replacements or we send them as finished pigs, so we can replace as many sows as we want to each year.”
In recent years the herd has moved to batch farrowing and weaning and finisher accommodation has been managed on an all-in, all-out basis to avoid mixing groups and introducing disease that way.
“Farrowing and nursery accommodation had always run that way and we wanted to take the benefits right the way through the unit.
“The response was instant, with weaning to finishing mortality falling by 4% almost immediately.”
But Mr Sheldon admits his unit still has weaknesses which mean productivity isn’t as high as it could be.
“Our biggest problem is our policy of avoiding cross fostering between farrowing rooms and more than 24 hours after birth.
“We pay for this policy with higher farrowing house mortality than we would like – currently running at 10-11%.
But it’s cheaper to lose a piglet at farrowing than later in life when we’ve invested more time and resources in it.”
Thanks to the all-in, all-out nature of all pig accommodation the unit’s staff can now fully clean houses after every batch of pigs, something Mr Sheldon recognises as an important tool in health management.
“Washing out the straw-based buildings between batches is hard work and an unpopular job, but it is one which has to be done.
It also means unit maintenance is more of a priority as staff prefer working in buildings where all the infrastructure works.”
And while finding and retaining reliable staff may be difficult for many units, he believes good working conditions soon pay for themselves when staff are happy in their work.
“All of our staff have been here for eight years or more and appreciate the conditions we provide, such as good equipment to work with and giving them their own areas of responsibility.”