Farmer helps pigs find love with ‘sow dating agency’

Internet dating has become the norm among humans looking for their ideal partner, so why not pigs?

According to Devon pig producer and Livestock Farmer Focus writer Andrew Freemantle, the system used to select the best matings to produce his female replacements at his farm near Exeter is “a bit like for pigs”.

In January 2010, Mr Freemantle decided to move towards breeding his own replacement gilts, but wanted to try and maintain good genetic gain within his herd of 340 sows at Kenniford Farm.

“We had been experiencing problems when buying in gilts, because pigs did not have long enough to familiarise themselves with the bugs on our farm. There was also the added disease risks associated with buying in animals. As a result we decided to rear our own, however the genetic turnover is potentially reduced by doing so.”

Breeding options

The farm had two options; set up a nucleus herd of 30 pigs or adopt a criss-cross system.

“The ‘herd within a herd’ option could potentially mean we may not be able to rear enough replacements if a sow returned to oestrus for example,” says Mr Freemantle.

Consequently, they decided to adopt a criss-cross system where the Large White Landrace cross herd is crossed to a Large White and then back to a Landrace.

Initially, sows were selected to breed replacements by looking at born-alive figures, however, because heritability of this trait is low, Mr Freemantle decided to introduce the Hermitage Best Linear Unbiased Predictions (BLUP) programme in 2011, which looks at the full history of individual pigs.

All individual sow production figures such as numbers born alive, numbers weaned and stillborn, and weaning-to-service interval are recorded using a herd management system. This data is then used to select sows within the herd with the greatest genetic potential, by using the BLUP programme.

How the system works

  • Each animal is individually identified and registered with the BLUP system
  • The programme examines every record on the BLUP database, analysing the performance of the individual animal and all relatives of this animal across the Hermitage herds worldwide
  • Economically weighted values for each measured trait are then calculated and a single breeding value – maternal line index – for each animal is created
  • An individual farm list is produced, which ranks the sows in the herd according to their breeding value
  • A sow is eligible to become a grandparent when she has had at least three litters
  • GP1 sows have the highest genetic potential and GP2 the second
  • A mate selection index is also produced to show the best AI boar to cross with the best sows in the herd to maximise the rate of genetic progress for every generation.

Hermitage Seaborough’s sales manager Barrie Hicks says many farms may select pigs by performance, but the BLUP system is far more statistically accurate.

“Many producers may breed from an animal that has had a large litter, however, statistically this may be due to the fact she was served at the right time – genetically she may not be the best animal.

“By using the BLUP system we can analyse a pig’s performance in comparison to her relatives, to give a more accurate reading.”

Through BLUP, every two months the whole herd at Kenniford Farm is evaluated and this selects out three sows a week to be crossed to Large White. This means enough replacements can be bred to meet the farm’s replacement rate of 45-47%, which is needed to maintain an equal-parity herd.

Pigs born alive

Consequently the farm has increased numbers born alive and decreased pre-weaning mortality – two factors that rarely go together, explains unit manager Grant Morrow.

Since implementing this breeding programme, the number of pigs born a sow a year has significantly improved – from 23 in 2010 to the current 26.6 pigs a sow a year.

“This equates to 1,000 extra pigs a year, or £100,000 more income from the same piggery and the same number of staff,” Mr Morrow says.

“You could also argue our carbon footprint benefits, because we are feeding the same but producing more pigs. We’re now knocking on the door of 9,000 pigs sold a year from 340 sows.”

Good staff and the introduction of containerised pig buildings in 2008, where pigs farrow in crates, has also helped keep the numbers of pigs born alive up. Piglets are in these for the first week to prevent crushing and then move over to free-access pens.

A fire at the start of this year has meant a temporary move back to free-access pens for farrowing, which has firmly cemented the benefits of using the containerised set-up to reduce piglet losses.

Finisher space

However, this aside, the overall increased pig numbers has resulted in a good problem for Mr Freemantle: “We are limited on finisher space, so we are having to finish at lower weights as we don’t have the accommodation to keep the extra pigs longer.”

Now, pigs are finished at 65kg, compared with 71kg traditionally, with 125 pigs a week sent to Vion and 45 a week through the Freemantles’ Kenniford farm shop business. The aim now is to increase the number of finisher places from 1,200 to 1,800.

“The cost of feed for every pig produced has also dropped,” explains Mr Freemantle.

“Sows receive 1.2t of feed a year, but by improving the number of pigs reared a sow a year from 23 to 26, we are getting four more pigs for the same feed – by breeding our own gilts we are using feed more efficiently.”

And improved performance means the farm is not far off achieving the Two Tonne Sow target of producing two tonnes of pig meat a sow a year.

“All we have to do to achieve this target is keep pigs to a slightly higher weight. If we do maintain 26 pigs a sow a year and get the new finisher unit set up, we are confident we will achieve the two tonne target,” says Mr Freemantle.

Mr Hicks explains that by selecting sows with the highest genetic potential for improving numbers born alive, it is possible to improve performance to the industry target of 30 pigs a sow a year.

“Some of our clients who have been using the system for slightly longer than Mr Freemantle are producing more than 30 pigs a sow a year,” he says.

However, Mr Hicks believes one of the main benefits of rearing your own replacements is the improvement in biosecurity by having gilts on farm. “In light of diseases such as swine dysentery, rearing your own replacements in such a way is the best way to get high performance without compromising biosecurity.”

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