Pig technology improves industry in Northern Ireland

In most industries, whether car manufacturing or meat processing, information is constantly being gathered, yet it is rarely used to its full potential. The pig industry is no exception.

In abattoirs across the UK, information on carcass weight, fat level and condemnations is gathered for every pig on a daily basis, but while farmers receive a basic summary showing averages for these measurements, it is seldom in a format producers can make real use of.

For this reason the College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise, along with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Northern Ireland, set about developing an online software tool providing meaningful pig carcass data to producers and processors.

The PiGIS computer program was developed alongside farmers to allow simple operation and easy interpretation and analysis of data. Now practically all pigs slaughtered in Northern Ireland are registered on it.

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pig adviser Mark Hawe, who was involved in the development, says since its launch in 2007, farmers have taken to it “like ducks to water”.

“The three main slaughterhouses in Northern Ireland now use PiGIS and we have seen big benefits,” says Dr Hawe. “Producers can now make more informed management decisions based on the data, which ultimately means the processor gets improved carcass quality, yielding higher returns and on a national level we have an improved product and increased competitiveness.”

Carcass grading

PiGIS means farmers get real-time data on every carcass sent to the abattoir, allowing producers to assess carcass quality – not only in that batch, but over any period of time.

Information on average probe depth, variation in probe depth and percentage of pigs in each grade can be obtained with similar information available for weights. Producers can also benchmark themselves and see the effect on-farm changes may have on grading and weight.

Within PiGIS there is also the golden box facility, which quantifies the number of carcasses meeting more stringent specifications, commanding a premium. So, by knowing this data, producers can meet the target premium box, which in turn will lead to a substantial increase in returns by improving carcass quality.


Informed decisions

Recent developments in PiGIS means farmers now receive a summary report by text message and email. “Producers are really relying on it to make decisions,” says Dr Hawe.

Pig producer Andrew McCrea says he has used PiGIS to look at the effect sending lighter pigs has had on carcass quality. “It is such a valuable tool to me. If I am looking at selling pigs lighter I can look at how this affects grading over time. And if pigs are grading better, then you will ultimately come into more money,” he says.

One farm example showed that when slaughter weight was reduced from 85.3kg to 80.1kg, the back fat dropped from 11.1% to 9.2% at 80kg. “PiGIS will show producers clearly how many pigs are falling outside of the parameter, allowing them to make a judgement about what weight to sell at,” says Mr McCrea.

“The days of just going into the pig house and selecting pigs to go to slaughter by eye has to end. We need to be switched on as to what grades and weights pigs are sent at,” he adds.

Dr Hawe says he knows producers who have used PiGIS to compare and analyse changes in management, such as the effect of genetics on carcass quality. “We also have producers who have changed feed and seen the effect on carcass quality or have sent pigs at a heavier weight, but realised that actually it meant pigs were grading too fat. It is also a good tool for producers finishing pigs on third-party farms to compare data.”

Dr Hawe says PiGIS isn’t there to tell producers what their ultimate slaughterweight is, but it is one tool in the box. “PiGIS is a tool producers can use as a stepping stone to help get the answer.”

Other tools being developed for Northern Irish pig producers

Carcass Inspection Analysis

  • Looks at health of animals going up the line
  • Shows farmers exactly what meat inspectors write down
  • Same easy layout as PiGIS
  • Farmers can compare health information they want to show – for example, they can look at pneumonia levels over time
  • In first stage of development, but should be rolled out by the end of December 2012. Second stage will include benchmarking.

Ration cost calculator

  • Farmers can add all the ingredients they are using on farm; when ration is inputted it will calculate cost
  • Handy way to work out ration costs quickly
  • Not to be used to formulate rations.

Batch performance calculator

  • Calculating growth rate and food conversion of growing pigs in an all-in/all-out system.

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