The hyperprolificacy bubble

During the past six months I’ve talked to breeders – some of them my clients – who invested two to three years ago in new high-performance genes, attracted by the stories of 30 pigs weaned/sow/year.

(Incidentally, rather than the old term pigs weaned/sow/year, I prefer to advocate “Weaning Capacity” – with a target of 500kg weaner weight per sow lifetime – as it incorporates sow longevity and its effect on replacement cost, rather than just weaners/sow obtained over one period of usually 12 months.)

About a third of those I talked to are becoming worried about maintaining reproductive performance after the first two litters. Some sows don’t make it into a third litter and nearly all never reach a fourth, let alone the fruitful fifth parity that these improved sows are quite capable of attaining.

Indeed, some clients’ records show that they’ve only marginally improved the weaning capacity of 279kg they previously secured with the “old” genes. Oh dear! Grumbles and some criticism of the geneticists. This is unfair as those clients who’ve changed their breeding strategies to defend and reinforce the hyperprolific genes have averaged 462kg, lowering the need for replacement capital by 28%.

So what to do about it?
Some of these remedial strategies are new, while some are old, but underused. The new approach involves what I call “Thinking Ahead”, ways of helping the young high-performance sow with her first two monster litters. “Precision Nutrition” which we’ve heard a lot about recently, also comes into it, especially in the increased strain of lactation where each sow can now be monitored and fed individually. Also, there are now five diets for the sow, not the three, or even two(!) of the old days.

Existing strategies for dealing with prolific sows that are well documented, but often not fully implemented, include: fostering (there are seven different techniques to choose from, in the face of disease or not) and piglet-swapping; multisuckling (careful!); liquid creep lines; Rescue Decks (under-exploited so far, I feel); foregoing one pen in the farrowing house for a nurse sow (expensive); and reducing sow numbers by 8% (ditto).

All are the above provide a fruitful series of subjects to outline in my next few blogs.

Mothering ability
But I’ll start with this one, which has been a bee in my bonnet for years, now buzzing loudly with the arrival of hyperprolificacy. To my mind – and I expect some will disagree with me – our excellent breeding companies have rightly concentrated on the feed-efficiency side of their selection, but might have eased up too much on the milkiness and mothering ability of their female lines?

My experience suggests that, especially abroad, there may be some truth in this. I was first alerted to this some 30 years ago on RHM’s Dean’s Grove Farm, where we changed from a placid, milky, rather large sow that wasn’t all that feed efficient due to a high maintenance demand, to a strain whose progeny produced more lean meat with a good FCR.

We preferred the easier-managed “milky” ones, but the nutritionists wanted the “meaty” ones – quite rightly as we were a feedstuffs experimental farm.

So, perhaps the first action to consider when choosing a hyperprolific is to ask the breeding company for evidence of mothering ability and good milking in their gilts. To explore the inevitable “of course” reply, ask for the names of a couple of their customers who could back this up and give them a bell, or go-see for yourself, as I have done.

Next time I’ll discuss how thinking ahead can build a sow that can better support the large litters she’ll provide.

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About The Author

John Gadd, who has spent 60 years' involvement in pig production, has had more than 2,800 articles about pigs published and has written three best-selling pig textbooks. With hands-on experience that includes managing a grow-out herd at 1,800ft in Banffshire, Scotland, and 20 years in the allied industries with Boots' Farm Department, RHM Agriculture and Taymix, he set up his own international pig management consultancy in the mid 1980s and has now visited more than 3,000 pig units in 33 countries as a pig management adviser. (Photo courtesy Bournemouth Daily Echo)