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Optimising Output Per Sow (OPTIPIG)

28 November 2013


Speaking at the Teagasc Pig Farmers Conference in October 2013, Dr Keelin O'Driscoll and Dr Peadar Lawlor of Moorepark explained how their new research project could help Irish farmers to achieve an additional net profit of around €70 per sow and year.

Increasing output per sow has been identified as a main research area by Teagasc and the Irish Farmers Association (IFA).

If an average Irish pig unit (500 sows) could increase sow output from approximately 24 to 27, the annual net profit would increase by over €35,000.

Recently, Dr Peadar Lawlor was successful in obtaining funding from the Department of Agriculture to commence work on how to increase sow output. Collaborators on the project include Dr Laura Boyle and Dr Donagh Berry from Teagasc and Dr Elizabeth McGowan from AFBI in Northern Ireland. Due to the potential benefits of this project to pig producers, the IFA has agreed that a research officer, funded by the newly launched IFA/Teagasc joint programme, can allocate 75 per cent of their time to working directly on this project. Dr Keelin O’Driscoll was recently hired by Teagasc as one of the research officers funded by this programme, and is fulfilling this role.

The project aims to provide scientific knowledge that could result in significant financial benefits to the pig industry.

Sow Output in Ireland and Internationally

The annual output per sow in Ireland increased from 21.6 to 24.1 pigs sold per sow per year between 2000 and 2011 (PigSys, 2012). However, this is still below output in more efficient European pig-producing countries (Table 1)

Table 1. Comparison between Ireland, Denmark, France and The Netherlands (INTERPIG, 2012)
Pigs born alive per litter 12.33 13.60 14.80 13.20
Pre-weaning mortality (%) 10.7 12.8 13.9 13.6
Pigs weaned per litter 11.01 11.86 12.74 11.40
Rearing mortality (%) 2.5 2.1 2.9 2.2
Finishing mortality (%) 2.7 2.4 3.7 3.4
Litters/sow/year 2.31 2.38 2.26 2.34
Pigs sold per sow/year 24.11 26.97 26.93 25.19

In particular, Ireland lags behind our European neighbours with regard to pigs born alive. The highest number of pigs born alive was in Denmark; however, the Netherlands achieved slightly higher sow output per year than Denmark, even though there were 1.2 fewer pigs born alive per litter.

This is due to both a greater number of litters per sow per year, and to a much lower level of mortality. In fact, extreme selection for large litter size in Denmark has led to animal welfare concerns, primarily because large litters of light, marginally viable pigs are associated with high rates of stillbirths and mortality. This could also lead to negative publicity for the industry. Hence increases in sow output in Ireland should be achieved in a more sustainable manner, by increasing piglet viability at the same time as increasing the numbers born alive.

Overview of the Planned Research

The overall objective of the research plan is to increase the number of pigs produced per sow per year to levels achieved in the most efficient pig-producing countries. This can be achieved by focusing on two sub-objectives:

  1. To increase the number of pigs born alive per litter by 1.3 to increase the average Irish litter size to 13.6.
  2. To improve the survival of live-born piglets, thereby maintaining mortality close to the current Irish industry average of 15.9 per cent (pre-weaning, weaner and finisher combined; Table1).

These objectives will be reached by carrying out several research tasks that fit into two broad themes. The first theme will focus on investigating nutritional strategies for the sow, and how these can increase the number of viable piglets born per litter. The second theme will investigate management strategies that could help to keep weak pigs from large litters alive once born.

Theme 1. Increasing the number of piglets born alive and piglet viability, through nutritional strategies

These studies will focus on nutritional management of the sow. The aim is to increase mean piglet birthweight and to reduce within-litter variation in piglet birth weight (a feature of larger litters). A variety of targeted nutritional strategies during gestation will be investigated to increase the number of pigs born alive and their viability. Some of these studies will be carried out on commercial farms, in order to obtain enough data to ensure statistical confidence in the results generated.

  1. Determining the efficacy of additives (e.g. L-arginine and L-carnitine) in increasing the number of live born piglets per litter (commercial farm)
  2. Examine the effect of increasing feed allowance in late gestation on subsequent farrowing rate and litter size (commercial farm)
  3. Determining the efficacy of additives such as L-arginine, L-carnitine, fermentable substrates (e.g. lactose) DHA, fish oil and vitamin D supplementation in increasing piglet birth weight and vitality, and reducing variation in piglet birth weight (research farm)

Theme 2. Management strategies to keep young pigs alive

Once these viable pigs are born the focus will then be on investigating methods to keep them alive. Again, nutritional strategies will be explored to ensure that colostrum quality is optimised. We will also examine management strategies as methods to reduce pre-weaning mortality in large litters.

  1. Strategic use of nurse sows to reduce piglet mortality
  2. Strategic use of Rescue Decks to reduce piglet mortality
  3. Strategic use of energy supplements to reduce piglet mortality

Practical Management Tool

Information from the experimental work will be used to construct a simple and interactive Excel-based tool, whereby available data from individual units with sow output problems can be entered so that the most appropriate area for attention is identified.

A list of prescriptive actions will be identified in the output. This tool will be of immense practical value in the dissemination of results and will have real practical value at farm and advisory level.

Industry Impact

The Food Harvest 2020 target for the pig sector is 50 per cent growth in output value by 2020, primarily achieved through improved sow productivity and an increased national sow herd.

One of the recommendations is that “Producers, with the assistance of Teagasc, must focus on increasing sow productivity through the adoption of new technologies and best practice”.

This planned research is exactly in line with this recommendation. Using initial research to identify effective feeding and management regimes, the research team intends to develop a practical interactive decision management tool to aid producers. Thus the knowledge generated will have a rapid and direct route to farmer stakeholders. This will have the knock-on effect of stimulating growth and employment in the sector.

The financial benefits to increasing output per sow are significant. Based on feed costs and marginal non-feed costs at the time of making the application, each additional pig produced is worth €24.93 net profit.

The Netherlands and Denmark sold 2.86 and 2.82 pigs per sow per year, respectively, more than Ireland in 2011 (Table 1), which were worth €71.30 and €70.30 net profit per sow per year, respectively. If an average Irish pig unit (500 sows) could achieve the same output as the Netherlands, their annual net profit would increase by €35,650.

November 2013

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