Do your new girls have history and come quality-assured?

Investment in replacement breeding stock is a significant cost and, according to Stephen Hall of Stephen Hall Management, the future of your business is wrapped up in the genetic capabilities of these high-value animals

Many farms are naive when purchasing replacement gilts, and very few have a shopping list of specific criteria that they expect to be supplied with as part of the deal. In fact, a combination of the replacement gilt and the current cull sow price commonly dictates purchase decisions.

It’s worth noting that between 30 and 40% of the UK’s cull sows are from parities one and two, and comprise repeating or anoestrus gilts, farrowing disasters and poor condition weaned animals all of which will be at the wrong end of the price/kg return. A fair percentage of on-farm aneostrus decisions are wrong, with perfectly productive animals culled without return. The purchase of replacement gilts shouldn’t be balanced against the value of culls because these animals conceal hidden cost and management failure. Replacement should be seen as an investment that needs greater management focus.

Beyond price, few other discussions or investigations take place. Most farms accept that replacement females delivered to their units will breed successfully and go on to become productive and efficient members of the herd. But is this always the case and should producers be asking more from their suppliers?

I’d have to say the answer to this is yes. When you consider how much pressure is placed on pig producers to supply the right quality product to its customers, it’s amazing that most don’t apply the same logic to their principle genetics suppliers. They might do when buying feed and equipment, but where gilts are concerned most producers seem to trust the judgement of their breeding stock supplier without question.

We believe all the marketing copy telling us what the genetics will deliver, but do we engage with our suppliers on the subject of what the genetics are delivering – are we recording, analysing and reporting this information.

I have identified three distinct categories that producers fall into when purchasing replacement gilts:

  • The “Casual producer” who’s only concerned that females arrive with 14 teats and a vulva. A quick count satisfies them and as long as the confirmation and legs are sound, no more attention is really paid the animal.
  • The “Observant producer” will demand all of the above and will check for an even underline and blind teats, physically sound vulva and expect a delivery sheet with the date of the week of birth of each animal.
  • The “Serious producer”, where output and cost management are the two pillars of profitability, will require more comprehensive criteria be met. The expectations of the observant producer are a non-negotiable basic. What these businesses want is a breeding profile, a genetic lineage that includes records demonstrating no breeding failure in the gilt’s GP or GGP dam for the first three litters before the selection of the females they are purchasing. Taking responsibility, they expect females selected from high-index lines and they require clear knowledge of the nutrition these animals have received during their development. They demand assurance that these slaughter generation and/or seed-stock dams have the genetic potential to breed successfully from the start; this gives the producer greater control of their risk management and a sound basis that they can then manage with ambition through five parities on a strategy unique to their business, realising the genetic potential for output and the controlling of cost. Producers managing within herd genetic programmes will apply the same selection pressures.

These are stringent demands but producers who are serious about their businesses must pursue this level of detail from their genetic suppliers. Risk management and understanding likely outcomes is very important. We need all the information we can get from suppliers and on-farm production records. As customers we want assurance that what we buy is fit for purpose and capable of meeting our needs.

Breeding companies are proud of their work and will cooperate with producers to optimise performance from their genotypes. But they need to understand, not dictate, individual producer’s aspirations. Regularly meeting to develop a collaborative breeding management strategy offers advantages to producers and their suppliers, and more pig businesses need to be thinking along these lines if they want sow performance to shift up through the gears.

Another area of concern is low productivity in gilt litters being repeated in subsequent litters. In the case of the unit currently being examined in Pig World’s Monitor Farm series, records show that more than 15% of farrowing’s produce just seven pigs or less born alive per litter, while the average stands at 12.46.

If you consider that the cost of a single breeding cycle – from weaning to the subsequent farrowing – is in the region of £350, then for gilts producing 12.46 pigs born alive per litter, each piglet at birth has cost the business about £28 to produce. So, if productivity per litter is just seven pigs born alive, the price tag per piglet almost doubles to £50, which is a significant cost to try and recover during the lactation period.

The key question here is whether to cull underperformers or take a chance that they might come good second time around. But here lies a dilemma. On paper the gilt is a valuable animal, both genetically and financially, but she carries risk. She will cost the business another £350 before she produces a second litter, her current performance has already pulled down herd productivity and increased cost, and she may fail again.

The aim of pig business management is to minimise risk within herd function and taking out underperformers no matter their age is a sensible consideration. If an unproductive gilt can rear a balance of fostered pigs, then she has served some purpose, but it’s better to remove this potential loss maker at the earliest opportunity.

The cost management implications of breeding failure must be considered when planning breeding strategies. Producers must be careful to correctly interpret their production records, not just focusing on output, they must assess the financial cost effects of any change in strategy.

Cost includes investment that aims to reduce the overall business cost. Investment in better buildings, higher-spec nutrition and top-quality genetics can inflate short-term costs, but positively impact long-term profitability by strengthening the business foundation and capitalising genetic potential.

Any targeted improvements to productivity and performance must be able to balance potential increases to inputs. But as the pressure to reduce risk and optimise productivity is primarily driven by a need to reduce costs and improve efficiency, then evidence -based decisions should pay dividends.

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