Figures are fact, so act

Herd recording and data analysis are important, and what the figures reveal about management and profit potential is certainly worth knowing. Jane Jordan has been speaking to practical, pig-focused statistician Stephen Hall to find out why producers should be prioritising this undervalued resource

Some 300,000 breeding sows in the UK are recorded and current census figures suggest that most herds do carry out regular record keeping. But how this data is used varies considerably, and many pig businesses overlook key areas of loss and/or where herd productivity could be improved.

To the knowledgeable eye, figures reveal certain trends – some of which are consistent year-on-year. It’s an indication that, in spite of good record keeping, many businesses aren’t grasping what their statistics are telling them, so are often unaware of how they could improve productivity – sometimes by considerable margins.

“If producers learned more about what their herd statistics are telling them by analysing their performance figures, they would be able to make more effective management decisions and raise their profit potential,” Stephen Hall, of pig production consultancy Stephen Hall Management, says. “And, if more pig businesses did this, and consistently monitored outcomes, then our industry could aspire to incredible performance.”

Mr Hall has been analysing pig herd performance statistics for more than 25 years. In 1999 he launched WinPig, AgroSoft’s pig recording system, in the UK and it has become the leading pig recording program here. The information collected is used to gauge national herd performance trends, and it’s a valued tool, but this system, and others like it, still remain under-utilised by individual businesses.

“Many producers don’t fully understand how their figures can help them improve productivity,” he says. “Evidence-based decisions are the only way to take a business forward and using real figures from their own herds is the most effective means of pinpointing areas that need attention. It can make a very positive difference.”

Mr Hall says the UK pig industry is exceptional at quality assurance throughout the production chain, but it lacks quality control. The actual process of producing pigs and what influences it are rarely evaluated, yet the more effective use of records could change this dramatically. It would give producers greater control of what is, by nature, a very variable business and could potentially raise UK pig performance in line with Denmark’s illusive production ideal.

Statistically challenged
There is an increasing demand for more in-depth data analysis and reporting. However analysing data and extrapolating results can be daunting as many managers and stockmen aren’t statistically confident. This is where Stephen Hall, and others like him, can help.

He offers pig businesses bespoke statistical analysis that dovetails into practical management advice and evidence suggests that this kind of service is money well spent. Herds taking this approach are seeing consistent improvements to performance and productivity.

“It’s about understanding the detail; the tipping points at which efficient production becomes inefficient,” Mr Hall says. “By analysing their own herd data, the stockmen and managers get a clear picture of what’s happening on their units. We look at the evidence, establish what they must do to gain greater control and improve the situation, then monitor the effects.”

An independent eye, with a flare for figures, is often more objective, and he has found that once producers get switched on to data analysis, they begin to see trends and patterns that they can benchmark against. Such information eventually enables predictive analysis, so a business can then position itself to achieve higher targets in the long term and initiate management changes to ensure it reaches them.

Generally speaking, Mr Hall says a blueprint already exists that could raise UK herd productivity by more than BPEX’s Breed+3 target, and he believes that three key elements warrant attention: culling policies; herd parity profiles; and gilt management. Results from herds that have already adopted this strategy demonstrate that 30 pigs weaned per sow per year is achievable.

“If you look at national breeding herd statistics, the evidence suggests that the UK’s herd parity profile is too wide,” Mr Hall explains. “We have too many old sows in the system, and this is where the bulk of our breeding herd inefficiency lies.”

Proactive culling with planned gilt integration would rectify this problem – with positive results likely within one to two complete herd production cycles.

Currently, most culling takes place across all parities with decisions dictated by reproductive failure and poor physical health/condition. Few farms use a planned routine that removes sows at parity five, and this is why there are so many older sows in the system – a situation that’s slowing down genetic progress and stilting breeding productivity.

“If you look at figures from herds that have started a targeted culling programme, the improvements in terms of sow performance are significant,” Mr Hall says. “Numbers born alive begin to rise steadily and, providing the correct management is in place, then numbers weaned reciprocate. Coupled with a reduction in non-productive days, this also lifts output in terms of the number of litters produced per sow per year.

“The focus must be on optimising production from young animals by locking in lifetime vigour in the first production cycle, giving the herd the potential to perform well and reduce potential loss. Older sows are higher risk, the statistics prove it, so why keep them?”

As far as gilt management is concerned, he believes producers must learn to “take ownership” of these young females as early as possible. Their successful development and integration into the herd builds the foundation for future productivity.

Herds that breed their own replacements using bespoke genetic programmes tend to do better here because they can increase selection pressure. But again, they must work to specific criteria such as selecting from proven dams at parity three where there has been no previous breeding failure, and by taking decisions founded on in-built sow breeding values (SBV).

“Again, look at performance records; make evidence-based decisions, apply consistent quality control and work closely with your genetics supplier and vet,” Mr Hall advises.

Stick to a plan
A pig business must know how many pigs it needs to market per batch/week and match the resources it needs to achieve this. By continually monitoring productivity at key stages and benchmarking, producers can establish if they’re reaching targets.

If numbers fall, producers will often serve more sows, but this isn’t a sustainable solution as herds become larger and incur more costs. A radical change in management to remove inefficient animals is more likely to increase long-term productivity, improve consistency of performance and increase business efficiency.

“Maintaining genetic progression by culling out older females and poor performers, and retaining a younger parity profile, while minimising empty days, will have a greater influence on overall herd performance than serving more and more sows,” Mr Hall explains.

When decisions are based on physical evidence, and actions are taken to optimise productivity, breeding herd numbers tend to remain fairly static, and in some cases can be reduced. And, once productivity is on track, significant savings are likely (less feed required, more pigmeat produced per sow, and so on).

UK pig producers can and do know how to produce quality pigmeat under a range of challenging conditions, and the potential exists to raise our herd efficiency in line with, and possibly beyond, the Danish model.

But, pig businesses must get savvy with their stats if they are going to raise productivity and improve their competitive edge. The technology to collect and process performance data is already available, and there are professionals out there that can make practical sense of the figures and turn aspirations into reality.

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