Genetics, health and management key to effective pig business

The pig industry has been through turbulent times in recent months, with poor pig prices and a hike in feed costs squeezing the margins of every producer.

And while the squeeze has got too much for some, those committing to stay have been forced to batten down the hatches and assess efficiencies on farm.

For Derek Warke, farm manager of Malcolm Keys pig business, South Tyrone, genetics, feeding and management are key to efficiency. These are areas Mr Warke – who oversees 1,300 sows on the main breeding unit, as well as other breeding and finishing units – has really focussed on to make sure the business is as efficient as possible.


Take the breeding strategy. In 2010 the born alive figure was 12.7 pigs a sow a litter. Now the farm is producing nearly one pig more at 13.4 – that’s a pig more than the average figure for other herds in Northern Ireland using computer recording. “This increase in pigs a litter is partly due to genetics and partly to the feeding of sows,” says Mr Warke.

“In the past year we have made the switch to Danish genetics and the first Danish-origin gilts have been farrowing during the past seven to eight months. The Danish have been ahead in terms of genetics for a long time and this is showing in our improvements in numbers born alive.”

Mr Warke is also looking at switching the breeding strategy in the future from a nucleus Landrace herd cross with Large White damline to a Large White nucleus with Landrace damline. “The Danish Landrace sow is not hardy enough for UK conditions, which is why we are looking at changing to a Large White nucleus herd,” Mr Warke explains.


Mr Warke is also pushing more feed into sows during the lactation period, despite the high cost of feed. “Sows could be peaking at at least 8.5-9kg of wet feed a day, but by doing this we have found the sow milks better – we are producing better pigs and sow condition at weaning is a lot better. We do, however, monitor individual sow appetite regularly to ensure sows are in the correct condition to maximise output,” he says.

And the benefits of feeding correctly is shown in the amount of pigmeat produced at weaning. “We produce at least 90kg of pigmeat a sow a litter at weaning, which is achieved through a combination of large litters and excellent weaning weights. All pigs are weighed so we know exactly where we are.”

Pigs are weaned on to wet feed and then moved offsite at 35kg to out farms for finishing – most of which have wet and dry feeders. The daily gain for finishers weighing between 35-110kg stands at 850g on average, with good food conversion rates. “The food conversion rate is the big figure that I look at. Daily liveweight gain is not the holy grail,” he says.

Mr Warke not only weighs pigs at different stages, but he uses the Pig Champ Recording computer system. “Having accurate data is a must. There is no point trying to work blind and it’s the only way we can look at getting more efficient.”


Having a high health status is also critical to the efficiency of any farm and following a depopulation/repopulation eight years ago, the unit has kept its high health status. Pigs remain pneumonia-negative and are not vaccinated for anything other than wasting disease.

“Keeping a closed herd is critical for the high health status. No live pigs are brought on to the farm and we don’t allow general visitors on.”

The unit also has the loading ramp situated at one end of the unit, so no lorry has to go on to the unit, reducing the risk of any disease being introduced to the farm.

Mr Warke also puts much of the success down to the high quality of the work force, with the unit employing four-and-a-half staff members. “Good dedicated staff are essential to the success of the unit,” he says,

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