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Pigs, Poultry and Productvity

Before anything happens next, what is happening now is interesting in itself. In my Weekly Tribune column, I have mentioned the Human Microbiome Project and its relevance to the pig industry. The legislated removal of antimicrobials is a necessity happening, that will insure the gilded bureaucracy that survives the obsequy of the British premium. The microbiome project will, I believe, make a significant contribution to this challenge in the long term. Political deadlines should heed scientific discovery and development as much as some world ‘leaders’ should have considered the lessons of history over ambition. Improved and sustainable productivity is a far more serious issue than the hurried removal of antimicrobials in UK production. Increased resistance to disease has to be balanced with enough food for everyone. Empty stomachs probably kill more people than veins full of antibiotics correspondingly save. Yet there are some who are putting more emphasis on the issue of anti-microbial use than on productivity.

A recent Pig Progress column by a respected industry consultant suggests that early weaning is about to make a justifiable return. The reasoning is that the historic measure of pigs weaned/sow/year will be replaced by the measure of ‘weaning capacity’. The target for this is based on a ‘lifetime’ performance of 500 to 550 kg of weaned pig at an average weight of 7.25kg and a sow productive lifetime of 5.8 litters. This equates to an average weaned/litter of between 11.89 to 13.08 sustained over those 5.8 litters. This target is supported by the belief in the quality of neonatal pig nutrition and management skill, and the longevity potential of modern genetics.

There isn’t a herd in the UK that is likely to achieve this output. Very few people seem to understand what calculating the ‘average’ productive lifetime of a sow entails. Average longevity, as a statistic is meaningless to the common UK production structure. As a reality it is currently undermined by a management failure to capitalize on genetic potential. The fallout rate of gilts and young sows in UK production is unacceptable.

And then there is the suggestion, from the Netherlands, in the interest of healthy and sustainable livestock farming, that it may be possible through nutritional manipulation to create ‘lactating-gestating sows’ this is sows that are ready to conceive during lactation, shortening the production index; you would think. This of course would reinforce the weaning capacity. However, this includes the practice of intermittent suckling, where sows and their piglets are separated, at day 27, into suckling/rearing pens for 10 hours a day until insemination whereupon the sows and piglets are permanently reunited in suckling/rearing pens, until weaning at 42 days. I have in the past suggested that there is a case for ‘freedom lactation’ as opposed to ‘freedom farrowing’, but not an increase in the average production index of lactating/gestating sows.

How will our gilded bureaucracy deal with a combination of these ‘developments’? There is a dearth of science supporting it and an abundance of science presenting challenges to it. I am reiterating past concerns but the unacceptable loss of young sows in early stage production, the unnecessary and financially unproven management intervention of natural order around litter management, the predicted reduction in weaning age and the continuing compromise consequences inherent if mixed sex feeding herd populations, are all welfare issues. The first and the last of these are current and being left unchecked.

The European Pig & Poultry Fair is a challenging experience. Quite a lot of lip service is paid to the fact that we, in pig production, need to take a leaf out of the ‘poultry’ book in terms of the employment of the IT engineering of process controls and resulting evidence driven operation. They have clearly ‘got their act together’ in recent times.

Let’s define the relevant poultry in question. Chickens. These increasingly successful converters of feed into food are worth relative consideration in comparison to pigs. They emerge from an artificially incubated egg, laid by an absent mother from a flock with high genetic turnover. As a living creature it doesn’t experience dependency on or the trauma of, being weaned off, ‘mother’s milk’. There is virtually no variation in ‘sibling’ size, or competition between them. They are moved once, at a day old, and live for a little over 40 days in a controlled environment. They have two legs and therefore two feet, that conveniently concentrate their total body weight onto a very small area, for a load cell to record and excellent analysis to be reported.

What is it that the production of pigs has in common with chickens; first principles. These include the obvious, limiting mortality and releasing through management, the full, natural expression of the creature. And the operation and infrastructure encapsulating the industry, being environmentally sustainable. The first principle, not so obvious yet totally intrinsic to success as well as the character of farmers, is the welfare and well-being of the people and animals involved.

Post Brexit, should we disintegrate current relationships in pursuit of a ‘Zero-Plus’ negotiation, we have opportunity, in the context of a changing order. Food security is, understandably, top of the political agenda. Agenda item number two should be animal health and welfare, with an emphasis on productivity, not politics, as a matter of long-term protection for the industry. As an industry, we must gather, from production, supply, processing, retailing and assurance a consensus on how to capitalize this opportunity.

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