Todd Thurman, Swine Insights International
September 14, 2023
Having spent over a decade working extensively in Asia, I’ve observed a strong preference among Asian producers for managing their genetics programs. In contrast, in the US, I have a client with 10,000 sows who sources replacement gilts from a genetic supplier, believing his system lacks the scale to operate its own nucleus or multiplication program. This blog post aims to shed light on the reasons behind this difference and how I envision its evolution over time.
The Basics of Genetic Progress
Genetics is a complex science, yet its fundamentals are relatively straightforward. Genetic progress hinges on two key factors: population size and the ability to accurately select optimal breeding animals. Population size’s role may seem apparent but often goes underappreciated. Larger populations foster greater genetic diversity and enhance the chances of identifying animals with desirable traits.
Consider a scenario: Imagine we’re in a room in Des Moines with 25 people, deciding to pick the best 5 basketball players. We then pit these 5 against the top 5 players in Des Moines. Which team is likely to win? Unless the meeting happens to include NBA players, the team drawn from Des Moines’ population is likely to outperform the 5 best players from our meeting.
Genetics operates on a similar principle. When seeking sows with superior maternal traits, a larger pool of potential sows increases the likelihood of selecting a group with exceptional characteristics. Thus, genetics companies with thousands of sows in their nucleus possess a substantial, nearly insurmountable advantage over small producers who may only have a few dozen or a few hundred sows to choose from. Quality matters, but assuming comparable quality, in this context, bigger is indeed better.
The second primary driver is the ability to precisely select the best animals. This involves two crucial processes. First, you must determine which traits or characteristics are most desirable and lead to business success. Second, you need to accurately identify which animals possess these characteristics and to what degree. In the past, farmers relied on experience and visual observations for these decisions. Later, data on an animal’s performance and that of its close relatives significantly informed farmers’ decisions. Recently, we’ve incorporated genomics (direct evaluation of genetic markers) into our toolkit, enhancing the accuracy of our selections.
Running a Genetics System versus a Commercial System
Effectively managing both a genetics system and a commercial production system is exceptionally challenging, with some arguing it’s impossible. The goals differ substantially and demand distinct mindsets. While the farms may appear similar, the products they generate are entirely different. Genetics systems thrive when the objective is driving genetic progress, often resulting in decisions that seem unconventional or even perplexing to commercial producers focused on efficient pork production.
For example, many genetics farms maintain higher replacement rates than commercial farms because efficiency takes a back seat to genetic progress. When the goal is advancing genetics, each succeeding generation must surpass the previous one, justifying a faster turnover. This principle can be taken to unproductive extremes, but it remains a core tenet.
Another distinction lies in the level of data collection required. Genetics farms need more individual pig performance data, as opposed to group performance, placing an even greater emphasis on attention to detail compared to commercial farms. Nucleus-level farms also demand precise breeding of specific males to specific females, resulting in a slower and more detail-oriented breeding process than when breeding all sows with pooled semen.
What Does this Mean for Producers?
The issues discussed above underscore the significance of scale and investment in research and development (R&D). To compete on scale, you must possess a system large enough to be competitive. To excel in accurate animal selection, you need access to the best tools, resources, people, and technology, necessitating increasing R&D investments.
Large producers have the necessary scale and resources to manage their genetics processes internally. In such scenarios, maintaining an ongoing relationship with genetic suppliers is advisable to tap into their resources and identify potential areas of improvement.
Smaller and medium-sized producers face a more complex decision. They can pursue expansion, which is not always feasible or in the best interest of their business for various reasons. Alternatively, they can develop relationships with suppliers, whether genetics companies directly or through distributors or cooperative systems, to access superior genetics externally.
However, this choice introduces health risks, particularly in regions like Asia, grappling with diseases like African Swine Fever (ASF). While these risks can be mitigated through enhanced biosecurity and other management strategies, they cannot be entirely eliminated. Consequently, producers must strike a balance between genetic progress and disease risk. While a closed herd represents the gold standard for biosecurity, its advantages become moot if the farm cannot remain competitive.
The realm of genetics in swine production is a complex one, with decisions carrying far-reaching implications for farms. As explored, two fundamental drivers of genetic progress—population size and accurate animal selection—underscore the importance of genetics companies due to their vast populations, enhancing the propagation of desirable traits.
Simultaneously managing genetics and commercial production systems is a formidable challenge, with differing goals, methodologies, and data requirements. Genetic systems prioritize progress over efficiency, occasionally confounding commercial producers. However, this divergence is vital for long-term genetic advancement.
For producers, the key takeaway is the significance of scale and investment in R&D. Large-scale producers can internalize genetics processes while maintaining relationships with genetic suppliers. Smaller and medium-sized producers face complex choices—expansion or external partnerships—with the latter option carrying health risks, particularly in ASF-affected regions. The evolving landscape of swine genetics will demand unique strategies from each producer, emphasizing the importance of informed choices for continued success and sustainability in this dynamic industry.
About the Author: Todd Thurman is an International Swine Management Consultant and Founder of Swine Insights International, LLC. Swine Insights is a US-Based provider of consulting and training services to the global pork industry. To learn more about the company, send an email to email@example.com or visit the website at www.swineinsights.com. To learn more about Mr. Thurman’s speaking and writing, visit www.toddthurman.me