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Genetic Gains - FCR Should Be The Focus

16 January 2008

By Jane Jordan, ThePigSite Editor. As feed costs continue to rise pig producers are trying to squeeze every scrap of growth and performance from their herds - which is not easy given the many variables involved in producing a quality carcases.

Genetic progress is vitally important, but it's often compromised when the going gets tough. What should producers be considering for their breeding programmes to maximise efficiency?

Ed Sutcliffe, Technical Director at Yorkshire-based breeding company ACMC, says feed efficiency (FCR) should be the priority for any pig business.

"Producers should be considering the same criteria whether they have a high-health herd or disease challenged stock. When selecting genetics for use in the current climate it's vital that the breeds used have a history of being selected for feed efficiency," he explains.

He says producers should be asking two key questions:

  • Does the genetics supplier consider feed efficiency important enough to actually measure feed intake and efficiency at nucleus level and on an individual basis?
  • Can the breeding company demonstrate ongoing improvements in feed efficiency and growth rate?

However, with a move to finishing pigs at heavier weights, many producers are also asking about linear growth - especially at the latter end of production.

Linear thoughts

Many breeding companies use 'FIRE' feeders to assess individual feed intake, growth and so FCR of potential sires.

Given the way feed prices are, this is a critical factor. Producers do not want to be pumping in feed that is not going to delivers a return - the pigs need to keep growing. Getting good growth is essential to improve FCR and even more so now due to the massive feed 'overhead'," says Mr Sutcliffe. 

"Pigs should demonstrate good linear growth throughout their rearing and finishing phase - right up to slaughter," he says. "Some breeds, like the pure Piétrain do not always demonstrate this as they reach maturity," he adds.

It may be in producers' interests to finish pigs at lighter weights, providing the contract allows. Mr Sutcliffe discusses this further in a recent ACMC newsletter.

Sue Corning, who heads up PIC UK, says that the number of finishing places is the most limiting factor for a production enterprise. So, to optimise output per finishing place, a sire line that will deliver high growth efficiently is the best option.

"If you are getting high growth and low P2 with good lean meat yield then the pigs will be converting efficiently – that’s what a sire line needs to deliver especially when feed prices are high, as is currently the case," she says.

What boar, what weight?

Whatever terminal sire is going to give you the best margin, although this may not be the lowest COP or the highest processing value, says Dr Grant Walling Director of Genetics at JSR Genetics.

"With feed prices at current levels questions has are being raised about dropping slaughter weights and some work we are doing at Bishop Burton gives us some clues here. Certainly if the last kg of gain is achieved with an FCR of four and finisher feed is at £200 per tonne, then 80p of that final kg of weight was spent of food. That doesn't leave a lot on fixed costs if you are to stay profitable," he explains.

Dam line deciders

And dam line selection should not be forgotten. The parent female constitutes 50 per cent of the slaughter generation, and while it may take more time to make changes here, it is still important that producers select genetic suppliers that have efficient dam line genetics capable of good growth and low FCR. These may not be key mothering ability or longevity traits, but they must be part of the female genetic equation, says Mr Sutcliffe.

A good tip is to check the weighting placed on different dam line traits within a breeder's genetic programme. For example, in some continental breeding programmes litter size has been the main focus and that could overshadow other beneficial genetic characteristics, says Sue Coring.

"If the selection for one trait is heavily weighted it may make more progress in that trait compared to a more balanced breeding programme. It's worth checking that other characteristics of economic value are also improving, for example, piglet survival," she explains.

If these traits are not improving as quickly, then producers should opt for a sire line that can balance the equation and so deliver the goods. And, retaining F1 slaughter gilts to cut herd replacement costs is false economy. It starts a spiral of genetic descent - what happens when the herd is tally F1, select F2s?

Breeding companies invest huge sums running dam line improvement programmes to ensure the prolificacy of the gilts that they sell. The idea that a farm can match that by pulling a few from the bacon house is quite frankly ludicrous, says Dr Walling.

"This gilt isn't 'free' - the cost of production (COP) has been ploughed into the animal, which if we took the generous COP of £1.10 per kg the 130kg gilt has cost £143 plus the management selection time," he adds.

There is a significant difference in performance as well - sire lines are not selected for litter size so breeding productivity of F1 gilts is compromised. Also, the standard of animals brought into the herd is often less than those supplied by the breeding company.

Survival tactics

Piglet vigour may be important on PMWS challenged units. Some genotypes offer better resistance

Piglet survival has become a critical factor for breeding farms in the UK. Most units have to cope with wasting disease and those that have introduced new genetics lines - including Piétrain and Hampshire-based genotypes - have reported better survival rates and more robust progeny.

Throughout Europe the Piétrain is the dominant terminal sire. However, apart from its high conformation and meat yields, this breed appears to have some resistance to PMWS. Trials consistently show that piglet viability at birth is better, weaning weights are higher and sows also tend to wean more pigs per litter. Also, wasting disease is not an issue in Belgium, from where the breed originates and continues to dominate the market.

And in the UK on-farm observations are consistently showing that Piétrain genotypes are more vigorous in the face of PMWS. "There are certainly fewer losses and mortality rates are lower in herds using this type of boar," says Professor Nadine Buys, Geneticist with Belgium based Gentec, Rattlerow Farms' molecular research partner.

Two decades of production proof

Dr Walling agrees that for the past couple of years producers have quite rightly focused on lines that would minimise levels of mortality. However, now that farms have a better control of PMWS producers are beginning to look at other aspects, especially given the situation with feed prices.

"Many with Hampshire lines will have seen an increase in appetite without an FCR benefit, but that is now starting to hurt financially, so they are now looking elsewhere," he adds.

He says that it is worthwhile remembering that most pig breeding companies offer Large White (LW) lines backed by 20 years of selection for growth and efficiency. A lot of the new lines do not have the same level of historic selection so are not as advanced. And, now that PMWS vaccines are available, producers can afford to move back to the more efficient LW-based sire lines they used before caused them to change.

But producers also need to consider processor requirements.

"Processors want to ensure they have the best pigs to suit there system and retail customers. It surprises me that producers change there genetics without consulting their customer - the processor," says Dr Walling.

JSR has spoken to a number of processors on this issue and has found that of the three major UK processors they only knew of three producers that had contacted them prior to changing the boar lines.

"Can you imagine a company like Heinz deciding to change the type of beans in their cans without any customer research? Those keeping pigs should keep one eye on their customers' requirements," he advises.

Health aspects

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"Processors want to ensure they have the best pigs to suit there system and retail customers. It surprises me that producers change there genetics without consulting their customer - the processor," says Dr Walling."

Dr Grant Walling, JSR Genetics

Health is also a vital consideration - although the interaction between genetics and health is very complex and the science not very well understood.

"The whole idea that there is a magic cure all "breed" is not valid," says Dr Walling. However, the genetics of immunity is something that researchers are keen to explore. The cost of such investigations is what is currently holding back progress.

The costs of a health breakdown and subsequent management post breakdown are crippling. Therefore source of stock to match individual health requirement is essential.

"As a rule producers should aim for the highest possible health status that they can maintain and vaccinate where necessary. Those with poor levels of health should have notice a useful window for de-stock/restock and while feed prices have been high we have seen a lot of interest in restocks for next spring. Producers are aiming to get pigs hitting the ground for next season's wheat harvest," explains Dr Walling.

And, healthy pigs that are appropriately fed and managed will grow closest to their potential. However, few units achieve this.

"Growth rate and feed intake are typically two traits that the industry as a whole do not measure accurately, producers can only know what they are achieving if they are prepared to measure it and act on their findings," says Dr Walling.

Traits like days to slaughter, feed intake and FCR are now more economically important than ever - , an industry needs to know the usage of its most expensive raw material.

Producers should also know what levels of performance they expect from their breeding stock. If it is not being achieved then they should consult their genetics supplier and try and establish the reasons why. "Not everyone will choose to run their business achieving 100 per cent of potential but they should at least be aware of what 100 per cent," says Dr Walling.

Genetics - a priority all the time

Although there are many facets to choosing genetics, the priority when selecting them should be to push for improved growth. This policy should be the focus for any pig business, all of the time not only in periods of economic crisis.

However, changing genetics should not be viewed in isolation as different genotypes perform differently and are likely to need specific diet formulations and/or management regimes.

Options should be carefully evaluated using an accurate growth model. Any proposed change should always be assessed in relation to other factors - including health status and the physical constraints of the production system. Because altering one input will have an impact on other areas of the business.

Consider if it can be managed effectively, will it compromise welfare or labour resources, above all, will the investment pay off, will it reduce costs or is there a danger of increasing inputs or pressure points elsewhere?

A change may be as good as a rest, but will it upset what you do best? Times are difficult at the moment, but world pork consumption is rising and the long term prospects for demand are very good. It will be those that position themselves sensibly during these challenging times that will benefit in future.

Further Reading

       - To read Sue Corning's article on choosing sire lines click here.

January 2008

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