On my travels, I meet many farmers. One thing they are all getting increasingly sick and tiered of is dead pigs and cannibalism, more now than ever due to staff shortages almost everywhere.
The vast majority of people working on pig farms care about the pigs they look after (most people don’t go to work to do a bad job). These people take it as a personal failure when pigs die or eat each other.
Today 14% to 15% of sows dying (or being destroyed on-farm) is becoming the norm. 15% to 20% of piglets dying is also very common as is another 5% to 15% of pigs dying from weaning to slaughter.
Not only is this demoralising for the staff at a time we are struggling to recruit, but it is also very costly for the business with a dead sow costing on average $1,000 and a finisher pig costing well over $100.
Where is the problem?
Its 2022. Our knowledge of microclimate, nutrition, health is significantly better than it was 20 years ago when mortality levels in all stages of production were much lower than today. Yes, there are new disease challenges, there always have been and always will be. This is however I believe not the route cause. In my experience, excellent bio-security is the best mitigation for disease.
Chasing lowest cost
I believe the biggest issue is always chasing lowest cost of production, mostly on the back of pressure from major retailers. We no longer care about the quality of product or mortality – so long as we have the lowest cost of production.
A quick aside here, on the back of Covid and recent global events it is very very clear that food and energy self-sufficiency is very important for us all. As pig producers, we need to avoid the criticism that has forced more and more legislation that makes production more difficult and expensive (and is also one of the reasons for higher mortality and levels of cannibalism). What we can’t do as an industry is say we have very high standards of care and welfare when 15% of sows die on our farms and 1/3 of pigs that are born alive die before slaughter. We have no defense to those who say our farms are cruel places. On this one, it is 100% our fault!
As part of the forever drive for lower and lower costs, genetic companies have focused on lower FCR and leaner and leaner pigs. This has resulted in lower feed intakes and poorer and poorer meat-eating quality (we don’t care so long as we have the lowest cost).
Nature is an incredible thing. Animals have evolved over 1,000’s years to lay down body reserves (fat) to deal with periods of adversity. Logic says removing this ability by selectively breeding for ultra-lean animals with lower feed intake would create animals that are unable to deal well with adversity, be it a disease or environmental challenge. The logical result is higher levels of mortality and cannibalism.
Focus on profit, not cost
Genesus core value is to maximise profit by producing tasty pork that people want to buy and eat. Selling more product and selling better quality with higher value is what drives profit.
The flavour in pork comes from intramuscular fat (marbling). Tenderness comes from this as well as water retention. There is about a 50% positive genetic correlation between intramuscular fat and backfat (more intra-muscular fat means more backfat). Traditional selection meant that keeping higher levels of marbling meant more backfat. Today with genomic selection we are able to maintain marbling and reduce backfat.
There is another positive genetic link between fatter pigs and higher feed intake so historically genetic companies selecting for leaner and leaner pigs meant reduced feed intake. Genesus has a population that has high feed intake, which we will maintain. Today this is at least 10% higher than any other major competitor. When this journey started well over 20 years ago, mortality and cannibalism were not serious issues. There was no real thought at that time that the result of selecting for tasty pork would result in a pig with higher feed intake that today shows significantly lower levels of mortality, often 50% lower than major competitors. It also results in a pig that displays very low levels of cannibalism.
Selection for profit = low cost of production
It has for a long time been considered that producing tasty pork is more expensive. I have actually been in meetings where a representative of a major breeding company actually said “nobody can afford to produce tasty pork”. Can you imagine BMW saying nobody can afford to produce a reliable comfortable car!
The reason for the assumption of higher cost I that fat requires more energy than lean, so FCR is worse (higher) for fatter pigs. I have worked with and for companies that only look at FCR as the one number related to cost of production!
We do see that because of Genesus higher feed intake, pigs indeed do eat more feed that our competitors. What we have also seen is that because of higher feed intake we can feed diets with lower levels of lysine (independently verified by Kansas State University) which have lower cost per tonne. This lower-cost feed offsets the cost of higher feed intake.
Add to this the reduced cost as a result of lower mortality and cannibalism and you end up with a very competitive cost of production that some customers are telling us is even lower than our competitors.
Last but not least, reducing the level of dead and cannibalised pigs may help us get and retain staff.
A few years ago I would always say about managing pigs’ farms “the pigs are easy to manage, the problem is managing the people” today a more correct phrase would be “pigs are now very difficult to manage and as a result, there are no people”