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Indigenous Breeds are Key to Sustainable Pig Farming

12 September 2016

SOUTH AFRICA - The drive towards greater production efficiencies has come at the expensive of many indigenous breeds across the world. Glenneis Kriel talked to Dr Arnold Kanengoni about whether there still is room for these breeds in a world where output has become everything.

There are more than seven-hundred breeds of pigs throughout the world, with two-thirds being found in Europe and China. About 22 per cent of these breeds are currently at risk of extinction and 16 per cent has already been lost over the past century due to indiscriminate crossbreeding, replacement by improved commercial breeds and the nature of the market.

Some might argue that it is the “survival of the fittest” and that these breeds are disappearing because they no longer have any commercial significance. Thinking like this would however be very short-sighted, according to Dr Kanengoni from the Agricultural Research Centre in South Africa, as diversity of species is key to the future sustainability of the world.

“Many generations of selective breeding and natural selection, over a wide range of production environments, have resulted in the great genetic diversity in livestock we find in the world today. This diversity will play an important role in helping the world overcome some of its greatest challenges. Challenges, such as climate change, poverty and antimicrobial resistance,” Dr Kanengoni said.

Climate change

Climate change is going to pose major problems for pig production, ranging from increased ambient temperatures and disease incidences to rising feed costs and water shortages.

“Climate control systems might help to overcome the challenge of rising temperatures, while vaccines and other preventative measures could be used to manage diseases and parasites that may spread into new areas as a result of climate change. The associated higher cost of using these high tech technologies will however have a significant impact on production costs. Veterinary services are also not always available to farmers in very remote and marginal areas,” Dr Kanengoni said.

The use of indigenous breeds that are better adapted to the production environment, would in effect be a better solution for small-scale mixed farming and backyard production systems.

Dr Kanengoni explained that these breeds might produce smaller litters, have slower growth rates and be fattier than commercial breeds, but generations of exposure to climatic extremes, heavy disease and parasite challenges, poor quality feed have resulted in adaptations that enable them to thrive under conditions where other animals struggle to survive.

Dr Kanengoni used South Africa as example: “There is a huge discrepancy in the way pigs are produced in South Africa ranging from big commercial farms where highly improved genetics and management practices comparable to those in developed countries are used; to small-scale production systems where farmers keep only a few indigenous pigs that are mostly fed of kitchen scraps and allowed to roam freely.”

In spite of this, about 26 per cent of the country’s total production comes from rural areas, with most of this meat being sold informally. Dr Kanengoni said that South Africa’s two indigenous breeds, the black and white spotted Kolbroek and primarily black coloured Windsnyer are very suitable to this type of production.

“These breeds are better adapted to tropical environments than their imported commercial cousins, and are likely to survive, grow and continue to reproduce under the high temperatures expected from climate change. Their dark skin colours also render them less susceptible to sunburn than the white commercial breeds,” Dr Kanengoni said.

The Kolbroeks and Windsnyers also have the ability to survive on marginal levels of feed, so that they will perform outperform commercial breeds during times of feed shortages and drought.

“We have found that these pigs have a better ability to use fibrous feed resources than the Large White Crosses and research is underway to unravel the mechanisms by which they are doing this. Once the mechanisms are understood, transferable principles, like for example unique fibre fermenting microbes, could be determined and applied to the commercial production sector,” Dr Kanengoni said.

Disease resistance

Indigenous breeds are in general much hardier and resistant to the vectors and diseases that are associated with the region they come from, implying that they might have a smaller need for disease interventions than the commercial breeds. Much more research is however needed to understand the underlying physiological and genetic mechanisms responsible for indigenous breeds’ greater resistance and tolerance to certain diseases. Once understood, the results could however be used to induce similar results in commercial breeds, according to Dr Kanengoni.

There are for example pig populations in Africa that demonstrate resistance to the pathogenic effects of the African Swine Fever virus. Research so far suggest that resistance is not simply inherited, but might also be linked to epidemiological factors in their area of origin.

Having a bigger diversity of species could also help to influence the dynamics of pathogen transmission, by resulting in a fewer suitable hosts. As such it can reduce the incidence of catastrophic epidemics, according to Dr Kanengoni.

A market approach

Dr Kanengoni said that one of the drawbacks of indigenous pigs is that they realise lower prices than their commercial counterparts: “The problem is that the current meat grading systems is biased towards meat produced from commercial breeds. The leanness of the meat, for example, is calculated by looking at carcass length. Our indigenous breeds are shorter than the commercial breeds and in effect being penalised for this. The eye muscle area of these pigs are also smaller and they lay down fat more easily.”

A possible solution to this would be to have a separate grading system or to market these breeds to a niche market.

“The indigenous breeds certainly have a different taste, the meat is redder and some people also say it is sweeter. This could be due to a combination of the breed and they way in which the pigs are raised. By making consumers more aware and using marketing strategies to emphasize the benefits of these breeds, one might be able to generate better prices for these pigs,” Dr Kanengoni said.

He added that they have recently been approached by a company that was specifically looking for meat from these indigenous breeds to make sausages from. The Slow Food Market’s Arc of Taste has also recently listed Kolbroek pork as an endangered taste. The aim of this listing is to draw attention to agricultural products with unique flavours and tastes that run the risk of becoming extinct and to promote the purchasing and consumption of these species.

For more information email Dr Arnold Kanengoni at


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