Meticulous management and the introduction of PCV2 vaccination has moved the health status and performance of a Suffolk-based herd up a gear
There are few UK herds that have successfully managed wasting disease through stringent management and tough hygiene protocols. Most have relied on a PCV2 vaccination programme since vaccines were licensed in the UK during 2009.
The decision has proved both economically and clinically successful, and routine vaccination is now an integral part of UK herd health strategies. However, one Suffolk breeding and finishing herd bucks this trend. In spite of being one of the first farms in the country to contract wasting disease, the 410-sow unit on the Broxtead Estate, near Woodbridge, has managed to fend off the devastating effects of PCV2 through its stringent health management routines, tough biosecurity and strategic hygiene protocols.
By working closely with vet John Mackinnon, this practical approach has enabled its four-man team, managed by Alan Berry, to improve herd health and maintain a sustainable level of productivity on a farm that has run continuously for almost 60 years.
Initially they altered the pig flow so that each week’s production could be kept separately. This meant replacing some old buildings with new accommodation, but it also eliminated one move and made sure that pigs always went into clean housing.
Unit management continues to follow a strict all-in/all-out policy in each building or section; pigs are rarely mixed, movements are minimised and different aged animals are managed separately with young stock handled first and older pigs dealt with later on in the day. The unit also closed its breeding herd about 15 months ago and now produces its own replacements using damline genetics supplied by Rattlerow Farms through AI. This has helped to reduce disease challenge and stabilise breeding herd health. Routine vaccination is used to control enzootic pneumonia, but closing the herd has reduced the PRRS problem and vaccination has now ceased as part of the herd health stabilisation procedure.
It’s the farm’s disciplined approach to health and hygiene, its attention to detail and its very high standard of stockmanship that enables this business to achieve such exceptional results.
Good stockmanship is a priority and evident throughout the unit. Alan is very proud of his team and says they rely on each other to make this business work.
“Each one of us understands and appreciates the integral role that we all have here and how what we do influences each other’s individual responsibilities,” he says. “Any management decisions are made as a team; we all have input and we all have a bearing on the outcome.”
Herd health definitely benefits from this approach and has improved significantly in recent years. Pre-weaning performance is good and sows rear more than 12 piglets/litter, with an average weaning weight around 8.3kg and mortality of 6.3%. Piglets are vigorous and continue to thrive post-weaning with good growth and low mortality. Rearing herd performance has also improved, although during 2012 the team began to notice some gradual deterioration in the later stages.
Performance faltered, with greater variation occurring in growth rates and finished weights. Mortality also increased within certain batches of pigs.
“PDNS has always been an issue with our rearing herd, with frequent flare-ups between 18 and 40kg, although it was manageable,” Alan explains. “But we started to see more cases in older pigs and felt overall herd health was falling back.”
Although the closed-herd policy and stringent health and hygiene protocols has stabilised health status and reduced the need for routine medications across the whole unit, John Mackinnon felt PCV2 was still an issue.
“Having arrived at a point where the background disease burden was considered to be under control, it became clear that PCV2 infection remained an underlying and on-going problem,” he explains. “The viral challenge was more noticeable in the absence of other clinical signs.”
Implementing a PCV2 vaccination programme with weaned pigs seemed to be the most logical next step, but the team was not entirely convinced. As Alan says, another vaccination programme meant considerable investment, yet performance elsewhere was on target and his team’s savvy management had already proved robust enough to counter previous disease challenges.
Alan and unit owner Andrew Paul decided to take a closer look at production statistics and analyse the economic value of PCV2 vaccination. The cost of vaccinating weaned pigs would be about £1.10/pig, plus some additional labour. However, the advantages in terms of improved growth, better FCR and a reduction in mortality were attractive.
“At the time it was a difficult decision because rising production costs and low pig prices were already putting immense pressure on the business,” Alan adds. “However, with hindsight, we should have started vaccinating sooner as the results have been so good.”
A Porcilis PCV2 vaccination programme was introduced during February this year. This vaccine, from MSD Animal Health, offers a long duration of immunity – up to 22 weeks post vaccination – and can protect pigs against PCV2 during the finishing period when given at 28 days of age.
Mr Mackinnon felt a single 2ml dose, given to piglets at weaning, would provide adequate cover for the Broxtead finishing herd through to slaughter at between 90 and 100kg liveweight. He also recommended that piglets were grouped according to size at weaning, rather than kept as entire litters within each nursery group. This would allow pigs to be fed more accurately, according to weight, and help to optimise feed efficiency and growth potential during this critical first stage.
Previously, whole litters were grouped together to fill the nursery pens to reduce stress and lessen the effects of PMWS. The policy worked well, with marked benefits seen in piglet health post weaning.
Farrowing house performance has improved steadily during the past year, says Wayne Chapman, who manages this section. He’s now weaning a higher number of heavier piglets per batch. Consequently, the team noticed that the smaller pigs were finding it quite difficult to compete against their larger pen mates. However, now that key disease challenges are under control and a vaccination programme is in place to protect against PCV2 post-weaning, they felt that the piglets were more robust and could cope with being mixed at weaning.
Gaining and saving
Eight months on and the strategy has paid off. The results are impressive; herd health has moved up a gear and pigs are achieving phenomenal performance, says Alan.
Recent figures (Sept 2013) show average growth rates for finishers (42kg to slaughter) are topping 1,000g/day with feed conversion at around 1.99. This compares with previous performance of 756g/day growth and 2.74 FCR for pigs at the same stage.
Overall, from weaning to slaughter, the rearing herd is achieving 757g/day growth with an average FCR of 1.92. Mortality is 2% and pigs are currently finishing 28 days earlier than they were before the PCV2 vaccination programme was implemented.
Also of interest is feed consumption, which remains virtually unchanged at around 2kg/pig/day. Before the PCV2 vaccination programme was introduced it appears that pigs were diverting some of the energy provided in the diet to fight off disease. Now they’re vaccinated, finishers are healthier, with a more robust immune system, so more energy is being used to fuel growth – FCR is better and more meat is being produced per tonne of feed consumed. As Alan says, the finishing herd is performing the way it should be.
The team has also noted an improvement in the number of pigs weaned per litter since the PCV2 vaccination strategy was implemented. Numbers born alive have remained the same, but pre-weaning mortality is lower at around 6%. This could be because piglet health is better in the farrowing house as a consequence of less PCV2 virus circulating on the farm.
“There must be less viral challenge on the unit now and I think that is why we are seeing better performance pre-weaning and throughout the rearing herd,” Alan adds. “Our pigs are healthier and are really growing well. We are very pleased.”
And the economics stack up too. The improvements seen in finishing herd performance are estimated to be worth an extra £6.30/ pig, which is an excellent return on investment given the cost of PCV2 vaccination.
Obviously, some additional labour is needed to administer the vaccine, but that’s offset by the time saved from not having to treat and take care of sick pigs during the growing and finishing stages.
With key disease problems stabilised, the team is seeking further improvements to growth and performance. They have just embarked on a new terminal sire line, which hopes to improve piglet viability at birth, and they will continue to keep a close eye on health status at all levels.
“We do have a healthier herd now and we know what our pigs are capable of, given the right environment,” Alan says. “It’s a case of fine tuning our management skills to tap that potential; there’s always more to be gained.”
MSD Animal Health’s pig team technical manager, Ricardo Neto, says Broxtead’s experience demonstrates how important good stockmanship and a stringent health and hygiene protocol are within disease control strategies.
“Both of these elements are integral in how wasting disease and the PCV2 challenge are managed on this unit,” he adds. “The PCV2 vaccination programme supports what Alan and his team were already doing to reduce disease risks and the improvements to performance are quite remarkable. But it just proves what can actually be achieved at commercial level.”