Pig World editor Graeme Kirk reports from Hermitage Genetics’ base in Kilkenny, Ireland, and finds a breeding company that’s targeting growth both here in Europe and a lot further afield
Less than six months after a costly repopulation of Hermitage Genetics’ Callan boar stud, just a few miles out of Kilkenny, the unit is now back to strength and producing top-quality semen for customers worldwide.
According to Ned Nolan, whose father John Joe Nolan established the business back in 1958, the recent destock and restock of the Callan boar stud was a blow to the company’s Irish business, but with a network of high-health studs around the world – including in England – the global operation wasn’t affected.
“We still don’t know what happened, but six months down the road Callan is back in production,” he said. “And while we had a very good biosecurity programme there before, it’s now been upgraded to a new standard.”
Steps taken include a major investment in a new air-filtration system for the unit that means all air entering the boar stud has to pass through filters fine enough to capture the PRRS virus. And all stock and staff entering and leaving the unit now have to pass through an airlock.
Hermitage has also bought dedicated feed trailers for the Callan boar stud and its nucleus farms, and now collects rations from the local feed mill rather than allowing delivery trucks on to the sites.
“It’s vitally important for our business that we maintain the highest health standards” Mr Nolan said.
Thankfully the company didn’t lose any genetics during the repopulation, in fact it could be argued that the influx of younger boars earlier than planned has accelerated genetic improvement in the stud as a whole.
“For example, we were able to divert 200 boars that were already in quarantine for export to our international AI Stations and bring them into the stud,” Mr Nolan said.
The Callan site is an impressive facility that opened in 2010. Built on a greenfield site with an initial 220 boar places, it was almost immediately doubled in size to today’s capacity of 515 head. Designed to meet or exceed EU standards, every boar has its own pen, which is 2m x 3m in size and has a floor that’s one-third solid and two-thirds slatted. Every boar can see, hear and touch his neighbour.
Following their compulsory quarantine period, the boars come into the stud at approximately 11-months old and have a productive life of about 11 months. Semen is collected from each boar about three times a fortnight via an automatic semen collection system that has 12 collection stations dealing with 40 boars each hour.
It’s a fast and efficient process, that’s managed in line with the ISO9001 quality standard, that sees semen collection start at about 08:30 on a Sunday morning and the packaging of the 90ml doses completed by 14:00 the same day. Each dose includes 2.7 billion sperm cells, and about 11,000 doses of high-health semen are produced every week.
Most of Hermitage’s semen doses are supplied fresh and are treated with a six-day life extender as well as being chilled to 17C for optimised storage. Semen delivery in Ireland is handled by a fleet of seven vans. These operate from the company’s Kilkenny head office, rather than the boar stud’s AI packing facility, as part of the company’s biosecurity procedures.
The vans leave on their routes late on Sunday night to make deliveries across the whole island of Ireland before 09:00 the next morning. And rather than having to actually enter any of the pig units on the route, the drivers leave the doses in special insulated collection boxes at the customer’s farm gate.
Not all the semen is for the home market, however. Hermitage has a growing overseas market that’s also served both by the Callan site, helped by excellent airfreight routes from Dublin airport, and by Hermitage’s international AI stations in England, Germany and Italy. Customers in the main pig-keeping areas of the United States, for example, receive their doses on the Tuesday morning. The long-distance journey certainly doesn’t do any harm as there are US customers regularly achieving 97% conception rates using the company’s genetic material.
Hermitage Genetics operates four high-health nucleus units with more than 2,200 pure-bred sows in the Kilkenny region. The Callan boar stud is populated mainly with boars that come from Hermitage Genetics’ Freneystown Nucleus Unit. The subject of a significant investment programme, this site, which is located on the opposite side of Kilkenny from the boar stud, is home to 1,100 sows and a progeny testing station that would be the envy of any research facility.
Freneystown now has 55 electronic feed testing stations that mean 4,000 pigs can have their individual growth rates and feed conversion efficiency measured every year. Growth, back-fat and lean meat percentage is also measured on a further 40,000 pigs at the unit.
This test process is central to the company’s boar breeding programme that uses Hermitage BLUP (best linear unbiased prediction) to help choose the best sires to add to the stud. The data collected at Freneystown and the Hermitage nucleus units, as well as by producers using Hermitage genetics worldwide, allows accurate EBVs (estimated breeding values) to be calculated for young boars in the programme.
Using BLUP, different weightings can be given to different traits to help identify the best boars. For terminal sires, Hermitage’s Terminal Line Index used to calculate EBV is based on feed conversion ratio, percentage lean meat and days to 110kg, but the significance of each is different depending on the breed.
The Hylean Maxgro, for example, has all three in balance at about 33% each, while the Hylean Duroc puts more emphasis on days to 110kg at 50%, and splits FCR and percentage lean meat with 25% each. The Hygro Pietrain, meanwhile, is split 45% lean meat percentage, 30% FCR and 25% days to 110kg.
A similar process is used for the firm’s Maternal Line Index pure-bred Large White and Landrace boars, although here the emphasis is on maternal traits. Numbers born alive weighing more than 1kg get a weighting of 50%, while days to 110kg is judged next most important at 20% and FCR is not far behind at 14%. Total litter weight and litters/sow/year both get a 6% weighting and percentage lean meat gets the remaining 4%.
While the number crunching is very important to the choice of sires going into the Hermitage stud, the firm has retained a strong element of human involvement too. In fact, every boar going into semen production has to get past Ned Nolan, who has retained responsibility for scoring the boars on conformation. This ensures that the stud at Callan doesn’t just look good on paper, but the boars have the feet, legs, teats and body shape to do the job that’s asked of them.
Hermitage is the leading genetic company in Ireland, supplying 60% of the country’s AI doses. It also has a 30%-plus share of the market in Northern Ireland – which is also supplied from the Callan stud – and is still developing its presence there.
Great Britain is another growth area for the company at the moment. The firm’s joint venture with UK breeder Seaborough Pigs (Jeremy Barber), is currently enjoying growing market share under UK general manager Simon Cook.
“The short term goal is to be the leading genetic supplier in the British Isles as well as Ireland,” Hermitage’s business manager, Ronan Murphy, said.
Growth in Britain is being driven by Hermitage Seaborough’s new 240-place boar stud at Willingham, in Cambridgeshire. Opened earlier this year, it has opened up the market here thanks to its better access to the main pig producing areas in the East.
Of course Hermitage doesn’t just specialise in AI and boar sales, it has a thriving international market in gilts that began back in 1991 with sales to Thailand and Korea.
Owned and contracted multiplication farms in Ireland now have the capacity to produce 6,000 pure-bred Landrace and Large White selects and 22,000 parent gilts each year, while a similar operation in England can also produce up to 6,000 selected-parent gilts annually.
Hermitage is currently looking to increase market share in Continental Europe, where it feels there’s potential to increase sale of semen from its Maternal pure-breds and its Maxgro terminal sire line. With a looming ban on castration, the pig processing industry has concerns about boar taint that Hermitage feels it can address.
Androstenone, a derivative of testosterone, is one of the primary contributing factors to boar taint in pigmeat. As part of Hermitage’s R&D programmes, trials were carried out that compared Androstenone levels in Duroc, Pietrain and Maxgro boars fed the same diet to approximately 112kg liveweight. The Hermitage Maxgro registered by far the lowest level of Androstenone in its belly fat at slaughter, and therefore the least risk of boar taint.
Meanwhile, a German trial comparing Maxgro boars with castrates found that the entire animals produced a leaner carcase, had a better killing out percentage and graded better as they were able to convert feed and gain weight more efficiently.
Further afield, Hermitage is already firmly established in the United States, Russian and Ukraine markets, but it also has its sights set on breaking into the vast Chinese market, which it sees as a key territory for the supply of pig genetics.