Sick of Disease? Genetics Can Help

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f you think a sick child is a handful, how about a 300 kg sow with a fever? From lost production to treatment expenses, pig health problems can be hazardous to your financial health. Fortunately, when a problem persists in the pork industry these days, the solution might be found in your favorite pair of genes.

Though some work has been done targeting specific pathogens, a more well-rounded focus for genetic research is how to make pigs more resilient to disease in general.

A prime example is the recent project led by PigGen Canada, with participation from Hypor, aimed at devising tools to select for more resilient pigs. Animals were taken from high health herds and placed in disease-challenged environments to distinguish pigs that reacted well to the challenge from those that became sick or died. Researchers looked at which genetic markers differed between those two classes of pigs to determine how best to select for resilience in the next generation.

Ready for anything

This approach represents the present and future of genetic breeding for pig health. If companies select for resistance to a certain disease because it’s currently a threat, what happens with other pathogens or the next “big disease” that’s on the horizon? Instead, the quest is for immunocompetent animals who are better equipped to react to anything; this is the concept of disease resilience. Pigs may be bred in one environment, but they are shipped around the world and need the best chance to withstand the challenges that await them.

Of course, genetics are never simple. One complexity that arises with breeding for health and other traits is that while pigs are purebred on the nucleus farm, the final product at a commercial farm is a crossbred. Consequently, the genetic potential of an individual (boar) producing purebred progeny in a nucleus environment is not necessarily comparable to the result when that same boar is used to produce crossbred progeny.

In response to this challenge, Hypor uses the concept of Combined Crossbred and Purebred Selection (CCPS). The intent is to collect data on both purebred and crossbred progeny of a sire and use that information to estimate his genetic potential. From a disease standpoint, this also provides information on how crossbred progeny are dealing with challenging situations on commercial farms, such as health issues.

Less is more

Just as disease has become a major concern for the pork industry, the impact of antibiotics used to treat disease is also receiving attention. Regulations are already in place which do not allow antibiotic residues in meat, through the use of withdrawal times before slaughter. Global efforts are also underway to minimize the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance in humans and animals.

In keeping with that effort, companies like Hypor have adopted “minimal use” protocols at their nucleus farms. Facilities are not antibiotic-free, but antibiotics are used as little as possible, treating pigs only when necessary for their health or comfort and never including antibiotics in feed. The underlying goal is to raise animals that possess a natural ability to fight disease rather than relying on assistance from antibiotics.

Hypor is also talking with clients who employ antibiotic-free production to identify which boars and families do well in such a system.

As with many aspects of livestock and crop production, genetics is the ultimate game changer, altering what we do, how quickly we do it and how far we can go. If “winning the game” means healthier animals, happier consumers and an industry that’s built to last, it’s best to have genetics on your team.

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